The White Lady cocktail is a smooth and elegant pre-prohibition cocktail that blends a botanical gin base with tart citrus and silky egg whites. It’s equally fitting served as a pre-dinner cocktail as it is served alongside brunch thanks to its sweet-tart flavor and easy drinkability.
The History of the White Lady Cocktail
The White Lady cocktail’s first iteration was created by Harry MacElhone at London’s Ciro’s Club in 1919 and was a far cry from the drink we know today. It consisted of equal parts creme de menthe, triple sec, and lemon juice. Bar patrons a hundred years ago must have liked their drinks sweet, as this recipe would make your teeth sing.
When MacElhone moved on to open Harry’s New York Bar in Paris in the 1920s, the recipe was reworked into something more familiar, with equal amounts of gin, Cointreau, and lemon juice.
The recipe was introduced in print form with Harry Craddock’s 1930 “The Savoy Cocktail Book” from the American Bar at London’s Savoy Hotel. It used the same ingredients but with arguably better proportions. At some point an egg white was also introduced, giving the drink smoothness, body, and a better mouthfeel.
The end result of these evolutions is the white lady cocktail we know today. A recipe that, while carrying 100 years of history, is well-adjusted for today’s tastes.
As for the name? With a cocktail this old and with multiple Harrys claiming authorship, you have to expect some areas of contention. It’s been suggested that it was named after Zelda Fitzgerald and her blonde hair, but it’s also possible that it’s nothing but a fancy-sounding name.
Choosing the Right Ingredients
I recommend using a London dry gin to avoid populating your cocktail with too many clashing botanicals. However, if there is a citrusy gin you favor, that could work well here, too.
The orange liqueur can be Cointreau, triple sec, or a dry orange curaçao like Pierre Ferrand. They are all slightly different but all provide a sweet citrusy flavor, so you needn’t be too picky with what you choose.
As for the lemon, you need a bracing acidity to balance the sweetness of the liqueur, so go with a sour variety like a Eureka, not a sweet lemon like a Meyer.
Don’t Skip the Egg White (or Aquafaba)
To make this drink smooth and silky, the egg white should not be considered optional. If you balk at the idea of a raw egg white in cocktails, you can use a pasteurized egg white. If you do not eat animal products, aquafaba will stand in quite nicely.
If you’d rather not crack open a whole can of chickpeas for just an ounce of bean liquid, know that the liquid freezes quite well (try portioning out 1 ounce amounts in a silicone ice cube tray). The chickpeas themselves can be frozen in a single layer on a sheet pan and then stored in a freezer-safe container for up to 6 months.
A Tip for No-Mess Dry Shaking
Because of the egg white or aquafaba, you’ll need to do a dry shake here, shaking the ingredients without ice first. This will really get the egg white foaming before you add the ice cubes.
One thing to watch out for with dry shaking is opening the cocktail shaker afterward, which can result in foamy egg whites spilling out onto you and your counter.
To avoid this completely, my trick is to use a handheld frother to “shake” up the ingredients in the shaker, add ice, close the lid, and actually shake it before pouring into my coupe. This will work for both egg whites and aquafaba.
It does require an extra tool, so if you have one, great. If you don’t feel like running out to the store to purchase another gadget, your drink will not suffer for it; just proceed with a normal dry shake and use caution opening the shaker.