Despite its adolescent-sounding name, which is adorably tame by today’s standards, the Hanky Panky is one grown-up cocktail. A classic from the 1920s, it's constructed a lot like a Martinez, but with the key addition of fernet, which imparts an intriguing bitter note. The original recipe only calls for 2 dashes but I think that’s a tease. Using a full ¼ oz allows it to play a more prominent and satisfying role. You can read more about fernet here.
I often like to employ the same portion augmentation tactic with the base spirit in classic stirred cocktails like these - see my Manhattan, Negroni and Vieux Carré recipes - but here I like the traditionally called for equal parts of gin and vermouth. It gives the cocktail a nice viscosity which counterbalances the potent fernet. Though if you prefer to have the gin more out in front - which is fine, some do - increase it to 2 ounces, and leave everything else the same.
Side note, if you like this cocktail, you should also try the Toronto!
1½ oz gin
1½ oz sweet vermouth
¼ oz Fernet Branca
orange peel for garnish
Combine all ingredients in a chilled mixing glass. Fill with ice, stir for 15-25 seconds and strain into a chilled coupe of stemmed cocktail glass. Express the oils from the orange peel and garnish.
Gin and vermouth recommendations:
I particularly like Tanqueray and Cinzano in this, though any combination should perform admirably.
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History of the Hanky Panky and Ada Coleman
The most notable aspect of the Hanky Panky’s history is its creator: Ada “Coley” Coleman, who served as the head bartender of the iconic bar at London’s Savoy Hotel from 1903-1926. In doing so, she is pretty much the only woman to gain fame as a bartender during the cocktail's golden age. And it was well deserved. As Ted Haigh puts it in his Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, “it was she who made the [Savoy] bar famous”.
Coley created the Hanky Panky for comedic actor Charles Hawtrey - she was accustomed to serving celebrities - who had asked for “something with a bit of punch in it.” Apparently, she had already been working on something, and when she gave it to him he drained the glass and exclaimed, “By Jove! This is the real hanky-panky!” Somewhat disappointingly, “hanky panky" didn’t mean the same thing in London as it did in the U.S. Instead of a promiscuous act, it meant magic or witchcraft. Oh well.
Women Behind the Bar
Ada Colemen wasn't exactly an outlier. Women behind the bar weren’t all that scare during her time, they were known as “barmaids” and accounted for a little under than half of London bartenders. Over time, of course, it evolved into a male-dominated profession. Some have suggested that this was largely due to America’s distaste for having women mix their drinks (insert eye roll emoji here), the country was in the midst of prohibition and substantial customer base in England.
This shift has called into question the circumstances surrounding Coleman’s retirement. In 1925 the Savoy bar closed down for renovations, and when it reopened in 1926, it was announced that Harry Craddock, who had been working there for 4 years, would be taking over Coleman’s head bartending duties. Craddock would, of course, go on to write one of the most influential cocktail books of all time in 1930 with the Savoy Cocktail Book, which I reference frequently and does contain the first printed appearance of the Hanky Panky recipe, though, curiously, no other Coleman recipes. This has led to speculation that male chauvinism may have forced her out.
Regardless, Ada Coleman is a standard bearer who sits atop the disturbingly, but unfortunately not surprisingly, short list of famous female bartenders. I say this not to be politically correct, but because in my experience, women are generally better at making cocktails than men. Many of my biggest cocktail influences have been women, particularly Julie Reiner who hired me at Clover Club and is now my partner there, also Katie Stipe whom I barbacked for and who later trained me as a bartender. And that's just the beginning, there's Franky Marshall, Ivy Mix, Shannon Ponche, Lacy Hawkins, Leanne Favre, I could go on, all of whom have created some of the best drinks I've ever had.
Due to their efforts, thankfully the list of recognized women in the bar industry has grown and has led to the decline of the ridiculous qualifying term “female bartender”, in lieu of the correct one: bartender.