Add all ingredients to a mixing glass
Shake with ice and strain into a coupe
* * *
As cocktails go, the White Lady has a seductive mythology, both in drink history and supernatural lore. The cocktail is part of the Sour family, sharing happy company with the Margarita, the Whiskey Sour, and other justifiably popular concoctions. In his book “Imbibe!”, David Wondrich notes that the Sour – essentially a core liquor like bourbon or whiskey and a jolt of citrus — was one of America’s most popular cocktails from the 1860s to the 1890s because “it was simple and it was flexible.” In the pre-Prohibition era, died-in-the-wool Sour drinkers liked lots of pucker, but Jerry Thomas and many bartenders who came after balanced the sour with sweet. Thomas added a dash of Curaçao in the 1887 edition of his “Bartender’s Guide”. The Sour can also be tweaked with egg white, cream, or sugar – again that flexibility Wondrich touts.
In construction, the White Lady is, in essence, a Sidecar with the gin replacing the usual brandy. Back in the day, the gin would have been Genever (aka a Holland Sour), but by the twentieth century Dry Gin was all the rage, creating an entirely new, cleaner drink profile. As to the lady’s lineage, it is a bit questionable, but there’s certainly a Harry in her history. Both Harry MacElhone and Harry Craddock lay claim to its invention. In 1919, MacElhone created a version at Ciro’s Club in London using Crème de Menthe instead of Gin; he switched to Gin in 1929 when he reigned at Harry’s American Bar in Paris. Meanwhile, Harry Craddock of the redoubtable Savoy also seems to “own” the White Lady with the recipe being published in the Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930. Frankly, it doesn’t matter which Harry invented it, it’s a beautiful drink, perfectly balanced and clean on the palate. A note on preparation: Because of the drink’s clarity, it is advisable to double strain the lemon juice, i.e., squeeze the juice and then put it through a mesh strainer to catch the larger bits of pulp. Also, this is one drink where there is no wiggle room on the Orange Liqueur – if you want to achieve the optimal pale color, Cointreau is de rigueur.
While the White Lady cocktail was particular to Americans and Brits during Prohibition, the term itself is almost timeless, with cultural roots in pagan times. In the United States and Great Britain, the Lady is a ghostly figure – completely white from her milky eyes and skin to her chalky garb – who usually haunts more bucolic areas. As far back as medieval times, these apparitions were tied to individual families, their appearance presaging death; in Celtic lore, the wail of the “bean sidhe”, or Banshee, heralds passage to the other side.
Other ladies are often linked to a personal betrayal by a husband or lover (gentlemen, take note please). In one version of the story, the White Lady of Scotland’s Castle Huntly was the daughter of the manor whose affair with a servant was discovered and punished by imprisonment in the castle’s tower. In her tortured state, the girl committed suicide, leaping to her death. The ghost town of Bodie, California, once a flourishing Gold Rush community, is haunted by a White Lady whose fiancé was murdered; she hung herself, and her ghost is said to still haunt the local Bridgeport Inn.
These bleached blonde banshees show up in almost every other culture both Western and Eastern. In rural Northern France, the Dames Blanches lure travelers to dance with them and punish those who don’t comply by throwing them into a ravine or letting the forest creatures torture them. Germany has the Weisse Frauen, linked to Norse legends about light elves. Close friends C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both mined this mythology – Lewis’s White Witch and Tolkien’s elf queens are white ladies all. Further variations on the White Lady can be found in the folkloric traditions of Portugal, Brazil, Serbia, and the Philippines among others. In each of the tales, these doomed spirits died tragically and often brutally.
As our luck would have it, there is nothing either tragic or brutal about the spectral White Lady cocktail. In an era when so many drinks cobble together every liquor in the closet – a choice both mixologically tragic and brutal on the palate – this is one libation that revels in its straightforward minimalism.
- The New Esquire Cocktail (esquire.com)