You can find Lou Saban behind Oak Long Bar at the Copley Plaza Hotel. Lucky for all of us recently he found himself abroad, and penned the following piece.
By Lou Saban:
Bartending is a real mixed bag.
When all is said and done, it’s pretty nice holding the keys to the stuff that most adults use to make themselves feel better about their spot on the planet. Unfortunately, for every generous tip or compliment on a well-balanced cocktail, sometimes you also have to answer the question, “So, what’s your real job?” In my head I respond, "when I am not doing this, I’m the CEO of a non-profit organization that provides neurosurgery for puppies."
Still, it’s a gig with a lot of cool benefits. In my mind, the greatest perk is the sense of community with your fellow barkeeps. If you do this job long enough, you start to recognize the people who also make their living pouring things into glasses. You always love to see these people sitting at your barstool because they tip well, are low maintenance, and can always relate to the condescending sneers that you may have received that day. Camaraderie is a beautiful thing.
What’s even better is that this bond doesn’t just stop at the nation’s borders. I am lucky enough to work for a hotel chain that has many locations around the world. When I noticed that there was one in London, I was interested. When I noticed that it was
The Savoy, I was elated.
Most bars worth their salt will have an old copy of the Savoy Cocktail Book somewhere on their shelf. It was written in 1930 by an American named Harry Craddock. Craddock flew the coop from the prohibition-afflicted United States in 1920, and became the head bartender at the American Bar at The Savoy in London. He spread the joys of the American cocktail to Europe and used his cocktail book to preserve recipes that may have otherwise been lost to antiquity. Despite a few renovations, the American Bar is still there, and it is really something.
When you first walk in, you notice the beautiful black and white sign that looks like it could have been there in 1920 as Craddock walked in for the first time. Immediately to your left, there is a small museum (you heard me right, this bar is so cool it has its own museum) full of old placards and menus from its many decades of existence. There are also telegraphs for Charlie Chaplin and Georges Clemenceau, bills for Sir Lawrence Olivier, and countless pictures of Vivien Leigh, John Wayne, Winston Churchill, and essentially anyone who was anyone in the last century.
All of that is well and good, but the real stunner is the case of vintage booze. Inside this treasure chest contains Gordon’s Gin, Pernod, Luxardo, and Carpano Antica from the 1950s; Van der Hum from the 1940’s; and a Jourd Cordial-Medoc from 1933. The crown jewel of the whole collection is this: a bottle of Sazerac de Forge Cognac from 1858. I wasn’t even aware that something like this existed, but there it was right before my very eyes. This bottle is pre-Civil War. Its nine years older than Canada! More notably, it’s a time capsule of what French grapes tasted like before they were nearly destroyed by the Phylloxera parasite in the late 19th century. It’s so beautiful that it even makes even its neighboring bottle of Moet Chandon from 1884 pale in comparison.
Once your head stops spinning, you proceed into the bar for a dozen or so of London’s finest cocktails. The bar consists mostly of a large lounge with a piano player to your immediate right. The bar itself is very small; only four seats with no standing room allowed. There is one man on service bar, and the friendly and knowledgeable Tom Walker for the rail. The small setting ensures that the drinks are made at a deliberate pace to ensure that nary a step is missed in both the creation of the drink and the presentation. The result is a simply wonderful libation.
The menu is a mixture of Savoy originals from the White Lady, to contemporaries such as the Green Park, to the totally outrageous. Remember that cognac that I mentioned earlier? They use it to make an original Sazerac cocktail along with the Pernod from the 1950s and Peychaud’s Bitters from the early 1900s. Its 5,000 GBP. Depending on the exchange rate, that’s about $8000 USD. For one cocktail. Once I picked myself up off the floor, I decided this cocktail was only for people who have absolutely no idea what to do with their money. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “It takes all kinds of people to fill up a world.”
All in all, it was a privilege to sit at this piece of living history and share a few drinks with Tom Walker and his more than capable colleagues. The international brotherhood of bartenders may not be out there splitting atoms or making contributions to string theory (or puppy neurosurgery), but we know how to take care of the people who do. More importantly, we know how to take care of each other, which makes it all worth it. And yes, this is my only job. Cut me a break, will ya?
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