here’s not much that’s actually ‘American’ about the American Bar, The Savoy hotel’s world-famous watering hole along the Strand in London. In fact, it’s about as English as can be. It’s the oldest surviving cocktail bar in the country, for one, having kept Londoners well-oiled through world wars, bombings and pandemics since 1893. It’s also deeply, gloriously old-fashioned, cladded in wood panelling and thick carpets.
Now Shannon Tebay, the first American ever to become Head Bartender, is bringing a new era to the institution. “The American Bar is named as such because, at the time of its creation, the bar was serving what were then known as ‘American Style’ drinks. This refers to what we now simply call ‘cocktails’, which are largely seen as an American invention,” Tebay explains. “This is a very myopic and potentially problematic stance,” she’s keen to point out, but it’s simply a name that has stuck.
Having joined this autumn, Tebay is already busy getting stuck into a tricky first season of omicron-marred festivities. Asked about what she plans to bring to the bar from her old life in New York, she is tactful yet full of excitement. “My goal here is to show our guests that five-star luxury and good old-fashioned fun do not have to be mutually exclusive. No one should ever feel unwelcome or uncomfortable at a bar, regardless of the context. Whether our guests are popping in for a quick pre-theatre drink or celebrating a golden anniversary, they should be made to feel special and at home. This is the mission.
“A bar as iconic and long-lasting as the American Bar is bound to attract a legacy audience. I consider it both a privilege and great responsibility to host guests who had their first cocktail experience at the American Bar and now are bringing their children and grandchildren to continue the tradition. That being said, we also hope to attract members of the contemporary cocktail community by pushing the envelope of traditional bar offerings and testing our own capacity for innovation. Through a combination of reverence for the past and ambition for the future, I think we can attract a broad audience, offer something for everyone, while staying true to our identity.”
Before coming to London to join The American Bar, Tebay ran Death & Co., a small underground bar on East Sixth Street in New York. Moving to the silver platters and white jackets of the Savoy is an experience she’s taking in her stride. “The five-star luxury hotel bar culture in the UK is very different to that of the smaller, independent bars I’ve worked with in New York, and I’m learning a lot.”
The cocktail trends also differ somewhat, even among the rarified heights of institutions on the World’s 50 Best bars list. “The European trajectory is one of technical innovation and thematic menus,” Tebay explains. “The American cocktail pendulum is swinging back towards simplicity and drink styles that are less technique-driven. Both are exciting and interesting to me. I’ve enjoyed learning what gets cocktail creators and enthusiasts excited on both continents.”
Of course, as well as being the first American, Tebay is only the second woman in the bar’s history to hold this title. The first was Ada ‘Coley’ Coleman around 100 years ago. “I’m impressed by Ada Coleman not only for her innovation and contributions to the classic cocktail compendium,” Tebay explains. “But also because I can’t imagine how she must have struggled to gain respect from her community as a woman in a leadership role in the early 20th century.”
Tebay has been open throughout the process about her desire to hire more women within her team at the American Bar. As she reasons, it should never be a shock to see an all-female bar team, just as it isn’t a shock to see one that’s all-male. “Just this week someone at the bar asked me if ‘Shannon, the new head bartender’ was present, because he wanted to meet him. I was in uniform and wearing a name badge. When I let him know who I was, the gentleman was shocked. He said, “I’m not sure why, but I was expecting Shannon to be a man.” Despite a tremendous amount of press and visibility surrounding my role, many people still can’t believe that a woman would be in charge in this environment. This is what we need to change.”
Her personal style of cocktail making is best described as ‘dynamic minimalism’, which means combining a few key ingredients to harmonise in new and unexpected ways. “I’ve seen cocktail trends ping back and forth across many arcs. Experimentation and innovation are extremely important in order to move the industry forward. Doing things a certain way simply because that’s how it’s always been done is a dangerous mindset in any industry.”
Beyond the faces behind the bar, Tebay’s mission for diversity and positive change spills into everything she’s got planned for the place. When asked about hot new trends in the cocktail world, Shannon deftly reframes the conversation to be about “process and human rights”. Rather than a focus on a new novelty spirit or exotic ingredient, what she hopes to see instead, is “a prioritisation of products and brands that focus on environmentally sustainable practices, and ensure decent living wages and working environments for their employees and producers.”
The thirteenth person to run The American Bar, Tebay is keen to honour its long history while making the bar feel friendly and approachable to today’s guests. “While my personal style is more about using as few ingredients as possible, partly in order to be able to recreate drinks indefinitely and in any venue, I love seeing what my peers and colleagues can make happen with new techniques,” she ventures. “What I plan to contribute isn’t something that I see as distinctly American — it’s just distinctly Shannon.”