When bartender Harrison Ginsberg was creating the cocktail list for Saga, a fine dining restaurant perched on the upper floors of a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan, he knew he wanted to draw from the canon of classics. After all, Saga’s home, a 67-story tower built in 1930, is one of the best examples of Art Deco architecture, a period that coincides with the bartender Harry Craddock’s storied tenure at the Savoy Hotel.
Craddock’s masterwork, The Savoy Cocktail Book, both codified and advanced the art of mixology. As an enshriner of cocktails known as well as an inventor of cocktails hitherto unmade, Craddock’s shadow fell across the entirety of the thirsty universe. Among the cocktails most closely associated with the man was a pale, translucent drink named the White Lady. According to Craddock’s recipe, the White Lady consists of just three ingredients: a dry gin, Cointreau and lemon juice. (Egg white, an optional addition, wasn’t included until some 50 years later by a Savoy barman named Peter Dorelli.) The result is a shimmering ghostly drink, tartly citric and highly alcoholic.
At Saga, according to Ginsberg, the White Lady immediately made sense. “The American Bar at the Savoy is a kind of Art Deco hotel and the building we’re in is one of the true Art Deco masterpieces in New York City. We wanted to pay homage to that.”
Still, search for the White Lady at Saga and you won’t find it. That’s because, like so many cocktails, the White Lady goes by many aliases; that one, according to Ginsberg, smacked a little too much of “Karen.” “When we were opening the restaurant … the name didn’t feel fitting, so we called it the Chelsea Sidecar,” explains Ginsberg, “It’s the same cocktail, different name.” The Chelsea Sidecar is catchy, apt and less confusing. The drink earns its Sidecar wings; it is, basically, a Sidecar with gin swapped for the Cognac. The Chelsea bit of the moniker is a reference to the style of gin: juniper-forward London dry.
But it’s not as if Ginsberg didn’t have other options. Among the other, lesser-known monikers for the drink are Delilah, Janikedvence and Kiernander. However, the first bears a distasteful temptress connotation while the latter two just sound like nonsense, and they might just be that. The closest to sense I could make of either of them is that Jani kedvence means “Jani’s favorite” in Hungarian; perhaps there was a mysterious Hungarian patron who enjoyed the erstwhile White Lady at the Savoy Hotel? As for Kiernander, who knows? The most famous of the Kiernander clan was John Zachariah Kiernander, an 18th-century Swedish Lutheran missionary in Bangladesh.
As is the case with so many cocktails, the history of this one is in dispute as well. Although Craddock is widely credited with creating the drink, an earlier version appeared in 1919 at the Ciro’s Club in London, thanks to another Harry, Harry MacElhone, whose original version used crème de menthe instead of gin. This version was extant for four years until, while running Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, MacElhone finally replaced the ill-advised crème de menthe with gin.
Despite its sterling pedigree, the White Lady—or the Chelsea Sidecar or the Delilah—is rarely, and perhaps unfairly, absent on most menus in the United States. “It sort of falls in the middle,” says Ginsberg. “It’s too simple to appeal to most cocktail enthusiasts and, at the same time, most gin lovers will opt for a Martini or a Gimlet.”
To remedy this, Ginsberg has made some key adjustments. It starts with perhaps the most important element: the gin itself. “Though the original calls for a traditional London dry, we opted for Roku, a Japanese gin with bright citrus notes of coriander, sansho peppercorn, green tea and yuzu,” he explains. To buttress the lemon juice and the orange-flavored Cointreau, the team at Saga also makes a mandarin oleo saccharum by soaking orange peels in sugar, then adding water and sugar to create a syrup. “The original recipe can be too lean and too taut—the syrup rounds out the drink.”
And as for the optional egg white, Ginsberg opts in. The drink, served in a vertiginous coupe, comes with a blanket of foam dotted with three pastel drops, comprised of lemon, lime and mandarin orange oils. The drink itself, no matter what it’s named, is semiopaque and pearlescent, a little mysterious, very fetching and a clarion expression of the underlying spirit.