Pegu Books: The Savoy Cocktail Book

Pegu Books: The Savoy Cocktail Book

I love to collect cocktail books. I especially love the ones lavishly illustrated with beautifully composed and/or photoshopped pictures, and replete with pithy quotes from drunks and drinkers of yore. The Savoy cocktail book has none of this, yet I think it is a must have for any serious collector of bar books. Of course, as I go looking for the link on the right, I see it is out of print again. Sigh. It’s still worth finding for the serious aficionado. The book was written by Harry Craddock, the genuinely legendary Head Barman of the American Bar at the Savoy in London during the height of Prohibition in the US, and well after. I have heard that this book is, if not the first cocktail reference book, then at least the one that made the genre mainstream. There were cars before the Model T, and small computers before the Apple II, but this book can arguably hold the same status in its industry.

My edition, from 1999, consists almost entirely of that appears to be the original typesetting from the 1930 edition, with a forward and supplemental recipes from Peter Dorelli in more modern type. There are crude but sometimes attractive pen and ink illustrations, the text is dense, erratic, and archaic, and like all good bibles, it has one of those nice integrated ribbon bookmarks to mark what page has the Pegu recipe.

I love it for an historical look back at what cocktails used to look like. For instance, the recipes for a Dry Martini and a Dry Manhattan use so much Vermouth that if you duplicated them today, angry Belgians would appear within hours and drag you off to the Hague to answer from Crimes Against Humanity. Whenever I peruse this book, I am inspired to try something new, but seldom something directly from this book!

Aside from its unhealthy love for Vermouth, Martin Doudoroff of CocktailDB pointed out another problem with the recipes when put to practical use. In some places, Craddock uses ratios; sometimes he uses exact measures. Sometimes he uses units of measure such as a “wine glass”! To me, it is like trying to make biscuits from someone else’s grandmother’s recipe. It probably has lines like, “add flour until the consistency is good”, or “Bake in a hot oven until done.” Alton Brown, of The Food Network’s Good Eats, has an episode about a deceased ancestor’s secret yellow cake recipe which discusses how to deal with this sort of issue. Me, I just look around in my modern day books for drinks with the same name and use whichever looks best to me.
A few of the illustrations are pretty funny, and just when your brain starts to fog over from a long list of ingredient-only drink recipes, you hit a nugget like this one:

Mr. Eric Sutton’s Gin Blind Cocktail*:
6 Parts Gin.
3 Parts Curaçao.
2 Parts Brandy.
1 Dash Orange Bitters.
* Invented by THE Mr. Sutton. Chelsea Papers please copy. This is a very troublesome form of refreshment.

I can imagine 20 stories to explain this little collection of verbiage, but which, if any, is correct eludes me. At some point, I’ll make one of these and drunken inspiration may give me the answer.

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