Pardon Me, Bartender...What's Wrong With This White Lady?
There's two reasons this cocktail fell off the menu.
Photos by John Kiely
Classic cocktails go in and out of fashion, sometimes for obvious reasons and sometimes for mysterious ones. Don Draper of TV's Mad Men helped create a wave of Manhattans and Old-Fashioned cocktails. Moscow Mules are resurgent, probably because they use vodka and are easy to make, and 2014 looks to be the Year of the Daiquiri -- not the cheap-rum sickly-sweet slushes one finds on the fun streets of New Orleans, but rather slightly tart ones made with deluxe rum.
One classic cocktail that was once common is the White Lady: a mix of gin, Cointreau orange liqueur, lemon juice and egg white. It was invented by Harry MacElhone, who ran Harry's New York Bar in Paris, a spot that is reputed to be the birthplace of the Sidecar and the Bloody Mary, and the cocktail was very popular with the High Society and movie stars in the 1920s. The early comedy team of Laurel and Hardy seemed to have made the White Lady their exclusive drink of choice.
"Of course they're not popular," said my coworker Simone. "Who wants to walk in and ask the bartender for a White Lady?" Funny, perhaps, but several drinks are more awkward to ask for. I thought I found a better answer when I mixed the cocktail with Bombay Sapphire, and it was bad. It was bad enough to know something was wrong with the recipe, rather than the drink, because this version could never have been popular.
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Unlike vodka, different brands of gin are not interchangeable in a cocktail.
I tried other gins, and the White Lady got better, but she didn't shine. Then I discovered that another celebrity bartender of the era, Harry Craddock, had created a different White Lady than Harry MacElhone's -- a drink with egg white. The egg white makes the cocktail silky smooth to drink but dulls the taste of every gin but Beefeater. Two recipes got mixed together with poor results.
Without the egg white, it becomes a good cocktail, depending on the spirit. Juniper-strong gins like Beefeater or Tanqueray fail, but lighter and citrusy gins like Citadelle and Plymouth let you know why the White Lady used to be a star. She's probably not going to be a celebrity again, but she belongs back in the club.
The White Lady
- 1 ¾ ounces Citadelle gin
- ¾ ounce Cointreau
- ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon simple syrup
Add gin, Cointreau, lemon juice and simple syrup to a mixing glass with ice. Shake well and strain into a chilled cocktail or coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.
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