Hanky-Panky + Fernet Branca.
The Hanky-Panky is a seriously old school cocktail created by Ada Coleman of the American Bar of the London Savoy Hotel sometime before 1923. Ada or “Coley” as she was affectionately known was very probably the first female celebrity mixologist (at a time when the profession was almost totally male dominated) and because of this we know the creation story of the Hanky-Panky from her own words as printed in a 1925 edition of The People newspaper:
The late Charles Hawtrey… was one of the best judges of cocktails that I knew. Some years ago, when he was overworking, he used to come into the bar and say, “Coley, I am tired. Give me something with a bit of punch in it.” It was for him that I spent hours experimenting until I had invented a new cocktail. The next time he came in, I told him I had a new drink for him. He sipped it, and, draining the glass, he said, “By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!” And Hanky-Panky it has been called ever since.
Sir Charles Hawtrey (not to be confused with the post-WWII comedian of the same name) was a prominent comic actor and theatre producer of the day and a regular of Ada’s – along with Mark Twain, Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin and the Prince of Wales. While “hanky-panky” later came to have a sexual connotation at the time it meant something more like “trickery”. It’s hard to see just what Sir Charles was getting at but the name has been a source of amusement ever since. Anyway, what Ada had done was add a teaspoon of Fernet Branca to an already popular drink of the time, the Gin and It. Now that might not sound like much but Fernet Branca is an intensely powerful ingredient that punches well above its weight. Let’s take a time-out to look at it:
Fernets are a sub-type of Italian Amari, or bitters, and Fernet Branca (Branca is the brand and Fernet is the description; kind of like Coca-Cola, but in reverse) is by far the best known. More intense and medicinal than their cousins they have a fearsome reputation yet hold a special place in the peculiar world of cocktail bartenders. For Fernet Branca is known in such circles as “the bartenders handshake” – a little shot of bravado that shows you are part of some special elite. If, after an evening sitting at their stick admiring their work and comparing notes, the bartender places a shot of this dark elixir before you, rest assured you have been paid the highest of compliments; “brother/sister you are one of us” being the implied message. That aside, there is also a kind of secret bartender game (especially in the USA) that involves special Fernet Branca “coins”. Should a visiting bartender produce such a coin the resident bartender is morally obliged to furnish the former with a free shot of Branca. However if the latter produces his own coin the visitor must pay for a shot each for them both. Basically, a kind of Branca “chicken”. If that wasn’t already bonkers enough, Fernet Branca and Coke (Fernet con Coca) is the unofficial national drink of Argentina. Yes, that’s right; it’s Italian. At 39%ABV and at room temperature Fernet Branca tastes like a potent dose of old school cough mixture, sweetened by about twenty dashes of Angostura bitters. It goes down better ice cold but is still somewhat “bracing” to put it mildly. I happen to know for a fact that Satan pours it over his Cornflakes in the morning. But, on the other hand, used sparingly, Fernet Branca adds layers of complexity to a cocktail like no other ingredient can. Which brings us back to Ada and the Savoy.
Interestingly, the 1930 Savoy Cocktail book, written by Ada’s successor, Harry Craddock, contains (as well as the Hanky-Panky) a drink called the Fernet Branca Cocktail which appears to be a re-proportioned version at two parts gin to a part each of Italian vermouth and Fernet Branca; basically a Hanky-Panky on steroids. Harry rarely added any notes to the recipes but in this case he states;
One of the best “morning after” cocktails ever invented. Fernet Branca, an Italian vegetable extract, is a marvellous headache cure.
That may be but I’m sticking to Ada’s version. Of late some bartenders appear to be adding a little orange juice to their Hanky-Pankies but we’ll be having none of that hanky panky here at Proof. Below is the original “Coley” recipe that has stood the test of time perfectly well thank-you-very-much.
1.5oz / 45ml dry London gin.
1.5oz / 45ml Italian vermouth (aka red/sweet)
1 teaspoon (5ml) Fernet Branca
Stir with ice and strain into chilled champagne coupé.
Garnish with an orange twist, cut or squeezed over the glass.
Toast Ada “Coley” Coleman (1875 – 1966), the first female “startender”.