A white lady is what is known in the trade as a sour. The term dates back to the mid 19th century and appears in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book, Bartenders Guide – How to Mix Drinks. Sour cocktails follow a similar pattern of a spirit, citrus and a sweetener and are traditionally served in a chilled cocktail glass.
For the history of this cocktail, we find ourselves back with the great Harry McElhone (see Part 2: The Bloody Mary). Before his days at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, Harry was working at the Ciro Club in London in 1919, when he created a drink he called a White Lady combining white crème de menthe, triple sec and lemon juice. When he got to Paris he adapted it by swapping the crème de menthe with gin.
The recipe we generally use today was published by Harry Craddock of the Savoy Hotel in London in the Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930. Craddock, although English born, was working in New York’s Hoffman House when Prohibition began (1919 – 1930) and like many other great American barmen, moved to Europe.
When the Savoy reopened in 2010 after an extensive three year renovation, the first cocktail they served in the American Bar was a white lady in honour of Harry Craddock. The Savoy uses egg white to make the cocktail creamier. My daughter recently visited the Savoy American Bar where they advertise a “vintage” white lady for a mere £120 ($230 AUD). Thankfully, a “non-vintage” version came in a £16.50 ($32 AUD) – still a bit pricey but definitely worth it.
There is a very tenuous Australian connection to the white lady name. According to Philip Greene, it was named after the White Lady Banks Rose which in turn was named after the wife of botanist Joseph Banks of Captain Cook fame – how is that for tenuous. I love a bit of trivia.
The Hemingway connection comes in the novel, Islands in the Stream. When the house boy, Joseph, offers Hudson a gin and tonic, Hudson instead suggests going down to the local bar, Bobby’s. However, Joseph says, “drink one here. It is cheaper. Mr. Bobby was in an evil mood when I went by. Too many mixed drinks he says. Somebody off a yacht asked him for a White Lady.”
Mr. Bobby may be out of his depth with cocktails and gives the customer a bottle of mineral water with a picture of a lady dressed in white.
45mL London Dry Gin
25mL fresh lemon juice
Shake well with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Optionally, add an egg white for a frothier, creamier texture.
My mental arithmetic let me down when first mixing a batch of this cocktail. I was using an American recipe with the measurements in ounces. I got confused with the ratios. Trying to add ounces, three quarters and half ounces in my head proved too much for my addled brain. Perhaps the Americans would do this better but for those of us used to working in decimal, stick to millilitres and don’t be afraid to keep a pen and paper handy for those tricky workings.
For many cocktails my advice is often to adjust the ratios to taste but despite there being a few variations out there, with this one, I suggest you stick to this recipe to get the best out of it.
Tip: if you fancy yourself as one day being one of the world’s great barmen, having the name Harry would be a good start.
Feature image: White Lady cocktail. Photographed by Maksym Fesenko. Image via Shutterstock