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My White Lady - Dan Warner

April 20, 2010 by John Collingwood

My White Lady

The White Lady has always been a very important drink for me, both during my bartending career and during my time as Global Brand Ambassador for Beefeater Gin.

It is the first gin cocktail I really liked and was a real “go-to” drink when it came to introducing hesitant punters to the delights of Madame Genever. It’s such a clean, crisp drink that I’d challenge even the biggest gin sceptic to not enjoy it. And it was the drink that I often declared “if you don’t like it you don’t have to pay for it and I’ll drink it instead”

It’s a cocktail that seemed like it featured on every drinks menu at every half decent cocktail bar in London back in the 90’s and was quite often the only gin cocktail you’d see on a list. Until the Bramble appeared, of course, but that’s another story.

And this is a real London drink. Which spirit base could be more London than gin? And although where exactly it was invented is open to discussion (more on which later) it was definitely popularised by featuring on the menu of The American Bar at The Savoy Hotel and, of course, in The Savoy Cocktail Book. And as I already touched on, this is a drink you can get made well by any London bartender worth their salt.

Interestingly it’s not such a well know drink once you head over the other side of the pond. You’ll get one in any of the top tier of bars but it has nowhere near the exposure that it has here.

In early 2009 I was invited to talk at Tales of the Cocktail, in New Orleans, on the panel of a seminar entitled “The Cocktails that made Gin Famous”. This was, I thought, the perfect opportunity to find out more about this classic as well as introduce it to some of our less knowledgeable cousins.

A show of hands on the question “who here has had a White Lady before” showed that only about a quarter of the, roughly 200, people in the room had and many of those I recognised as being industry types. That was easy enough to solve as we passed samples around the audience. When I ask “who’d order a White Lady in the future” I couldn’t see any hands that didn’t go up. See what I mean it really is a great converter.

Now the history bit:

Greg Boehm of Mud Puddle Books in New York very kindly allowed me to make use of his impressive library of vintage cocktail books and whilst trawling through this amazing collection of information I found four distinct White Lady recipes. All of which are below along with the sources that we dug them out of.

You’ll see that the earliest recipe we could find doesn’t even contain gin and is actually a brandy and crème de menthe drink. And it’s not white! We think that Harry McElhone may have created this drink during the time he spent working in Paris and seeing as all three ingredients are very French and, therefore, very readily available in 1920’s Paris, this would make sense. The naming part doesn’t make sense though, but these things often don’t.

But Harry eventually worked his way over to the sensible side of The Channel, where gin was the drink du jour and that is when the second recipe pops up. Pretty much what most people would recognise as a White Lady. Then the Americans get hold of it, leave out the Cointreau and add powdered sugar, egg, sweet cream! I tried this once. It’s not great. Finally we have the legendary Mr Embury’s take on the drink. Not sure I agree with his measurements (as is often the case with his recipes) but all the ingredients I like in my Lady are in there.

As I write this piece I am currently on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and only a stones-throw away from a handful of bars where I can get a more than decent White Lady. So that’s what I’m going to do right now. Hmmmn! PDT, Death & Company, Pegu or Milk & Honey?

Decisions, decisions



White Lady #1

1/6 Brandy
1/6 Crème de Menthe
2/3 Cointreau

Shake well & Strain

1922— ABC of Mixing Drinks- Harry McElhone

1930— Cocktails by Jimmy- late of Ciro’s

White Lady #2

½ Gin
¼ Lemon juice
¼ Cointreau

Shake well & serve

1930— The Savoy Cocktail Book

1935— Old Mr Boston Bartender Guide

White Lady #3

White of 1 egg
1 teaspoon powdered sugar
1 teaspoon sweet cream
1 ½ oz Dry Gin

1940 -Old Mr Boston Bartender Guide

White Lady #4

1 part Cointreau
2 parts lemon juice
8 parts Gin
1 egg white to each 2 drinks

1944— Standard Cocktail Guide- Crosby Gaige

1948— The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks- Embury