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The Story of London's Most Famous Bar

125 year old The American Bar was frequented by Ernest Hemmingway, Marilyn Monroe and Neil Armstrong

The Art Deco-style chrome bar at the American Bar, 1976
| Courtesy Fairmont

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Type: “why do writers d—” into Google and two suggestions appear, first and second, the two most common search entries: “why do writers drink?” and “why do writers drink so much?” Both are timeless questions. Ernest Hemingway — whose drinking is about as famous as his writing, and whose thirst for liquor was matched only by his thirst for, let’s say, masculine adventure — said that “modern life … is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief." This is, like alcohol itself, a downer; far more arrogant, ergo more Hemingway, are Papa’s claims he drank to make his friends “more interesting.” Maybe writers, being fantasists, can’t help but drink themselves into new worlds.

One world that Hemingway had visited while chasing his mechanical relief was the Savoy Hotel in London, and its famed and famously dare-I-say-spiffy, maybe not, American Bar, first opened in the 1890s. Its essential cocktail book by Harry Craddock, one of its most celebrated bartenders, records his order: “a Montgomery, a martini with a 15-to-one gin-to-vermouth ratio, reportedly in homage to the odds Field Marshal Montgomery sought before going into battle.” A martini made from near-pure gin would sting, no doubt, like war. A first edition of that cocktail book is now worth about three months’ rent. “Tastes today,” the hotel’s archivist has said, “have changed since the 1920s, when cocktails tended to be potent mixtures of spirits with a minimum amount of mixer. However, recipes from the book can certainly be recreated if requested.”

If the idea that London’s best-known bar should be “American” seems less-than-patriotic, let the place itself explain: “the term ‘American Bar,'” the website helpfully elaborates, “refers to a bar serving mixed or ‘American’ style drinks, more commonly known as cocktails. As transatlantic travel became more popular in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, many American Bars opened throughout London. The American Bar at The Savoy is the longest surviving of these bars and one of the most iconic cocktail bars in the world.” It’s true that some American bars — like some Americans — are more American than others; this one certainly has more shine, more old-fashioned and Old-Fashioneds-fueled elan, than most.

“There’s something about that dumbly straightforward moniker that sounds like Paris in the 20s, Fitzgerald with champagne, or Bette Davis doing that thing with her eyes,” the Evening Standard offered in November of last year, after a revamp. “What the Savoy does is old world glamour, a little glitz that side-steps the tackiness. There are photographs on the walls to remind you just whose ghosts you’re sitting next to… according to the ever intriguing World's 50 Best Bars list, the American Bar is the best bar in Europe, and the second best in the world. Big billing, no?”

The American Bar, 1931
Courtesy Fairmont

And yes, big billing: some of its past clientele have also had the biggest billing possible, in art and modern history. Marilyn Monroe — a fantasy herself, and maybe in some ways the most American dream-girl, even as so many others claimed to be the same thing — “sank Dom Perignon there,” per the Standard piece, “after long press days pretending to get on with Laurence Olivier for The Prince and the Showgirl.” The dry martini, if you can believe it, was invented there. The prairie oyster, so delightfully deployed by Sally Bowles in Cabaret, was too: a raw egg cracked into tomato juice, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce and vinegar, it’s somehow meant to stave off sickness after drinking. Neil Armstrong had his first drink after vacating the moon and coming down to earth at the Savoy’s American Bar in 1969, a made-up-on-the-spot confection called a Moon Walk (“grapefruit juice, Grand Marnier, champagne and rose water.”) In the minds of most civilians, walking on the moon is, like the idea of discovering Monroe drunk in Mayfair, more like fiction, like a writer’s hammered fever-dream, than fact.

F. Scott Fitzgerald — being a man whose head the morning after was, one might surmise, quite often just as tender as the night before — has said that he drank copiously mostly because his wife Zelda talked too much. “Wine was almost a necessity,” he groaned, “for me to be able to stand her long monologues about ballet.” In higher spirits and equipped to offer something sharper than a variation on the classic “take my wife, please,” he would quip: “too much champagne is just enough.” At The American Bar, it’s possible to buy a champagne cocktail that costs more money than most drunk writers make in a month. With his inheritance, it’s safe to say that Francis Scott might not have been as phased. To spend a thousand-upwards on a cocktail is, in two words, “very Gatsby,” which I don’t mean in the sense of “nouveau riche,” but “hedonistic and self-immolating; possibly insane.”

Harry Craddock buries a cocktail shaker containing a White Lady, in a wall of the American Bar, January 1927
Courtesy Fairmont

“Perfection,” says the Evening Standard’s writer of the bar’s drinks, demonstrating the same angst that drives an author to the liquor cabinet or the bar, “is dull to write about.” Perhaps that’s true. A glut of writers tried to capture Marilyn Monroe in life and death, and never quite succeeded; even Norman Mailer stumbled. (His opinion on the writing-drinking issue: alcohol leads men to truth.) True perfection is far easier to swallow than it is to eulogise with any real effectiveness, in short — especially a perfect cocktail. Better to write out Craddock’s dry Martini recipe, for both posterity and future use, in full:

1/2 French Vermouth

1/2 Gin

1 Dash Orange Bitters

American Bar

Strand, , England WC2R 0EZ 020 7836 4343 Visit Website