The smart, softly spoken Gilmore came to London in 1938. Gilmore initially found work at Sanderson’s wallpaper factory on London’s Oxford Street; however the tales he heard about restaurant work soon changed his career. But then war broke out and business was suddenly unhealthy. The Theatre Royal closed and chefs and waiters were sent to fight – but they were in need of staff at the renowned Savoy and so in 1940, with some basic bar skills under his belt, the18-year-old Joe became the Savoy’s new trainee barman.
The night that he invented one of his first cocktails was a momentous one. He had been transferred from the Savoy to the Perroquet bar in the old Berkeley Hotel. “It was the night that the Café de Paris was bombed and customers came in, in a shocking state,” he recalls. Tragically, 84 people were killed and many of the dusty, distressed survivors walked, of all the bars in all the world, into his place. “They said ‘Joe, give us something with a sting in it will you?’,” he recalls, “so there and then I invented the Berkeley stinger. That was one night I shall never forget.”
The war completely altered city life and places such as the Berkeley and the Savoy offered a sense of safety and community to its customers. In 1945 Gilmore returned to the Savoy and 10 years later became their head barman. There were many top political figures that frequented the Savoy from General de Gaulle (whom Gilmore served on Bastille Day) to Eisenhower and Churchill.
There Churchill had his own entrance – and his own, separate bottle of whisky too. “In those days, due to the war, whisky couldn’t be made so we only had three stock whiskys. Churchill came in with a good bottle of Black and White whisky and said, ‘Joe, that’s for me.’ So I kept it to one side and I served it to him whenever he came in.”
It wasn’t simply political figures that came to the Savoy. Gilmore served a host of actors, writers, comedians and Hollywood stars and soon learnt their favourite tipple. “Joan Crawford liked a whisky sour and George Bernard Shaw, he was such a character but he never drank any alcohol,” he says. Ernest Hemmingway was also a customer, as were Laurel and Hardy, who owned a copy of the celebrated Savoy cocktail book which they would bring to the bar with them, often selecting a White Lady or a Side Car to drink. Charlie Chaplin would come to the Savoy with his wife – as women weren’t allowed in the American bar in its early days he would leave her at the door whilst he supped a martini or two.
In his role as head barman Gilmore also created cocktails to mark many historical events. The Moon Walk cocktail was one of these invented to celebrate the first moon landing. “The cocktail was a mix of grapefruit juice, Grand Marnier, champagne and rose water,” he explains. “The Savoy sent it off in a flask and I received a letter back from Neil Armstrong thanking us and saying it was the first drink they had when they came out of quarantine.” Gilmore also shook up some new tipples to mark significant events in the Royal family, including one for Prince Charles’ 21st birthday, “which he told me he liked very much and re-created at home”, and the Savoy Royal, dedicated to the Queen mother, “although she actually liked to drink gin martinis,” he reveals.
“I never missed the Savoy after leaving as all my customers kept in touch,” Gilmore says, “and I always returned at least once a month for a drink myself.” It is now the children or grandchildren of his original customers who call on his cocktail expertise. “It is important to use the finest ingredients,” he advises, still passionate about his craft (indeed, still going strong, he is an ambassador for Smirnoff vodka). “Fine ingredients makes all the difference.” Mr. Joe Gilmore – we raise a glass to you.
Words: Lydia Fulton
Photography: Aitken Jolly
This article first appeared in Wonderland #12, Feb/March 2008