Cocktail hour at The Savoy
The last cocktail I had at The Savoy, in the hotel’s famed American Bar, was served on a sliding wooden board, which revealed an iPad. A specially made silent film featured two bartenders arguing over whether Savoy regular Frank Sinatra preferred Jack Daniel’s or a dry martini.
The famous Strand retreat arguably does Oscar-worthy theatrics and entertainment like no other hotel in the world. It means that when you call in for a cocktail, you would be advised to try something other than a mojito.
Such is the wealth of stories that have featured in its rich narrative since 1889, the bartenders are not short on inspiration.
Kyle Wilkinson, head bartender of the Beaufort Bar, the slick and sultry sister of the American Bar, has fallen under the hotel’s spell since joining just over a year ago.
“It’s a special place,” he says. “It sounds corny, but when I first got here all the staff said how much of a magical place it is. I thought, ‘What is so magical about this place compared to anywhere else?’ and then when I got here I realised. It’s the mentality of trying to go above and beyond on everything.”
It’s a far cry from his own upbringing on a council estate near Sunderland. After collecting glasses in pubs as a 17-year-old, he harboured ambitions to progress within the industry.
A move to Nottingham followed, cutting his teeth at popular cocktail bar Brass Monkey, before he received a call from a manager at Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social in Mayfair.
At the time, he didn’t realise the magnitude of the invitation. “I didn’t know who Jason was,” he says. “Fine dining was something I never grew up with, as I’m from a tiny mining village.”
It was to prove a baptism of fire and Kyle progressed quickly, opening one of Jason’s cocktail bars – The Blind Pig at Social Eating House – a year later.
“Jason is a very intense human being,” he says. “It was unbelievable to work for someone like that. It changed my attitude to the industry.”
Joining a hotel, he says, was never part of the plan. The Savoy alerted him to their vacancy for a head bartender at the Beaufort Bar and it was too good an opportunity to miss.
“When I was younger I jokingly said that I wanted to work in The Savoy, but I didn’t think it would actually happen,” he says.
“When you speak to people who don’t know the hospitality industry, that’s when it’s surreal. When you go to certain places around the world and they ask you where you work and you say, ‘The Savoy,’ and everybody knows The Savoy.”
Shortly after he had been invited to interview for the job, Kyle experienced the Beaufort Bar for the first time as a guest. “The first time I came was actually Christmas Day with my girlfriend,” he says. “Instead of buying each other presents, we bought a night in The Savoy.”
Weeks later, he was running the bar alongside bar manager Anna Sebastian, who had the idea of making a tunnel book for a new cocktail menu, and immediately they set to work.
Unveiled recently after almost a year of planning, it features 20 cocktails inspired by star-studded guests and significant events that have contributed to the hotel’s iconic status.
“I spoke to Susan [Scott, the hotel’s archivist] and people who have been at the hotel for a while and found out so many things.
“We picked out our favourite stories and I designated each bartender a couple of stories. Then the bartenders worked with the floor staff, so every single person who works here has something to do with the menu.”
Beautifully illustrated by graphic-design company Shotopop, each has a little snippet to explain its significance. Gin-based Gypsy Moth was inspired by pioneering aviator Amy Johnson, who celebrated her inaugural solo flight from Britain to Australia with a party at The Savoy.
“We found out all the stops on her flight path and tried to pick ingredients from each stop,” says Kyle.
Under the Stars is even more creative in its nod to Fred Astaire. “There is a really famous picture that Playboy published of Fred Astaire drinking a glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve and he sent them a letter explaining why he didn’t really drink that much,” says Kyle.
“He said he doesn’t drink champagne, just on New Year’s Eve, and asked them to retract that photo. “He said if he was going to drink he is partial to an Old Fashioned, so we incorporate champagne into an Old Fashioned. Then, because of the picture element, for every single guest we take a picture on a Polaroid camera.”
Kyle’s favourite choice, however, is Read All About It! made with Johnnie Walker Blue and Black label, coffee and syrup. “It’s inspired by Tich’s Bar, which was a speakeasy inside the hotel. During the Second World War, Fleet Street was bombed pretty badly, so we let all the journalists move into The Savoy. They built a bar for them and called it Tich’s Bar [after Arthur ‘Tich’ Massara, who ran it]. Now it’s offices, which is a bit of a shame.”
Kyle is a humble guy – he didn’t want his name on the menu and doesn’t accept accolades easily. But fate has dealt him a nice hand all the same. “I never had any aspirations to work in a hotel,” he says. “This is the only hotel I would have worked for. It’s so iconic.”
The sort of place that Sinatra and others just couldn’t get enough of – the sort of hotel that really gets under your skin.