Lives Remembered

Cocktail king Joe Gilmore, Belfast's barman to the stars

16 January, 2016 01:00

HE was Belfast's barman to the stars.

As head bartender at The Savoy's famous American Bar, Joe Gilmore mixed drinks for movie stars and royalty, prime ministers and presidents, becoming a friend and confidant to many along the way.

He was the cocktail king, the man who re-wrote the mixing menu and whose name is still revered in the world's best bars.

Joe shook spirits for five generations of British royalty, as well as Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn and Ernest Hemingway, to name but a few.

He recalled how Frank Sinatra would stop by before his London shows to order a Dry Martini.

"'Set 'em up Joe,' he'd say to me, just like in his song."

He invented numerous drinks for special occasions - his 'Moonwalk', for the first moon landing in 1969, was flown across the Atlantic and was the first drink Neil Armstrong and his crew had back on Earth.

Joe's quiet charm and absolute discretion also meant he was frequently engaged by the rich and famous for private functions: Princess Margaret often flew him to Mustique for her renowned parties on the Caribbean island.

It was a long way from Castleton Gardens in north Belfast where Joseph Patrick Gilmore was born in 1922, one of a family of 10.

The Gilmores owned a popular tobacconist shop at the top of the Limestone Road, which remained in business through the Troubles until the mid-1990s.

But Joe had a dream to go places. Aged only 16, he set out with a friend to London.

His first job was packing rolls of wallpaper at a Sanderson's factory, before moving to a Lyons Corner House washing dishes, with the prospect of getting some decent dinners.

He began training as a barman at London’s La Coquille and the Olde Bell at Hurley, where a chance encounter serving a stylish couple set the scene for the remarkable life that would follow.

The customers politely showed Joe the correct way to make a Dry Martini. The gentleman, millionaire steel baron Kenneth Davies, was to become a lifelong friend; his lady friend was the famous aviator Amy Johnston.

At 18 Joe started as trainee barman at The Savoy, earning £3.10s a week as apprentice to the legendary Harry Craddock.

Harry had learned the new art of 'American' drinks, or cocktails, in the US, leaving during Prohibition in 1920, and wrote the mixologists' bible, The Savoy Cocktail Book.

Around this time Joe also fell in love with Londoner Marie, and they married. During the Blitz, he would 'do his bit' as a fire warden on the roof of The Savoy.

He took over as head bartender in 1954 - then an event of national news - and over the next two decades honoured a tradition of creating cocktails for special occasions and important guests.

Convenient for both the City and Westminster, near to Fleet Street and the West End, the American Bar was London’s exclusive meeting place for the rich and powerful.

Joe served Winston Churchill on many occasions - he had his own entrance and during the war kept his own large bottle of Black & White whisky behind the bar.

When Joe created a cocktail in his honour, Churchill gave him one of his famous cigars.

“It didn’t last long,” he said. “I didn’t smoke it. But I kept on showing it to guests, and it soon turned to sawdust.”

There were countless movie stars - whisky sours for Joan Crawford, and White Ladies for Laurel and Hardy - as well as writers like George Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams.

There was also Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Dwight D Eisenhower, Laurence Olivier... the list goes on.

But Joe was much more than a barman. He became a goodwill ambassador for The Savoy, travelling to Europe, the US and Canada and appearing on TV chat shows.

In 1975 he created the 'Link-Up' to celebrate a joint US/Soviet space flight. When the astronauts were told it was being flown out to enjoy on their return, they said, "Tell Joe we want it up here".

When the breathalyser was introduced in Britain, he was asked by NBC in New York if it affected business. “Not here,” he said, ”all our customers are chauffeur-driven”.

Away from the bar Joe loved horse racing.

Every Saturday morning he would ring his sister Elizabeth in north Belfast and they would choose the horses for the day. But he was awful at picking winners.

Sir David Davies, son of Kenneth and author of the 2003 tribute Joe Gilmore and his Cocktails, said: "You wanted to go long on his drinks, but short on his racing tips."

The Duke of Marlborough also did the lottery every week with Joe (and previously the football pools) but with little success.

Joe never forgot his Irish roots or family, and never lost his soft Belfast accent.

A few years ago he was delighted to learn that the Merchant Hotel had dedicated the first edition of its cocktail book to him.

He was a devout Catholic and with Marie attended the Church of St Anselm and St Cecelia in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

His funeral was arranged by A France & Son, undertakers to Admiral Nelson and near-neighbours in Lamb Conduit Street for more than 50 years. The Savoy sent their senior management and bar staff in their smart white uniforms.

Joe had three sons, Joseph, Brian and Anthony, and was the proud grandfather of Bonnie, Dominic, Danika and Francesca. He has one surviving sister, Rosaleen, who lives in Dublin.

Son Anthony told mourners: "Not only was he a legendary barman but a true gentleman of humility and grace."

Francesca also summed up his remarkable life.

"I’ll never forget walking into Poppa Joe’s living room one December afternoon to see him reading some letters," she said.

"He handed one to me and I read through it. It was from Princess Diana.

"He then handed me the other letter, I didn’t even read this one, instead my eyes instantly dropped to its sender. It was from Neil Armstrong.

"It was then that I realised how incredible his life really was."

Joe Gilmore died aged 93 on December 18.

Mike McCann


The secret to a great cocktail, according to Joe Gilmore, is to use the finest ingredients. Here are some of his creations:

The Moonwalk

1 fresh Grapefruit juice

1 Grand Marnier

2 dashes Rose Water

Shake well, strain into wine glass and fill with champagne


Breathalyser No 2 (non-alcoholic)

1/3 Orange juice

1/3 Passion Fruit Juice

1/3 Lime Juice

Dash of Sirop of Grenadine

1 Egg Yolk

Shake and strain into cocktail glass


Corpse Reviver (hangover cure)

1 part Brandy

1 part Fernet Branca

1 part White Crème de menthe

16 January, 2016 01:00 Lives Remembered