On July 20, 1969, the world watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps on the moon. Upon their return, the two embarked, along with crewmate Michael Collins and their wives, on a “world tour” that had them bouncing from Buenos Aires to Bangkok to Buckingham Palace. But first, they had a drink. London’s Savoy Hotel had sent Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins a gift soon after they landed: Champagne, glassware and a cocktail called the Moonwalk.
A simple mix of Grand Marnier, grapefruit juice and a touch of rosewater, topped with Champagne, the Moonwalk was the brainchild of Joe Gilmore, who was head bartender at the Savoy’s American Bar from 1955 to 1976. The drink wasn’t the only commemorative cocktail Gilmore created during his tenure; indeed, he seems to have specialized in such drinks. Among them were several for Winston Churchill’s birthday parties, a slew of drinks honoring royal births, coronations and weddings, one marking the United Kingdom’s entry into the European Economic Community and more. He also created another space-themed cocktail six years after the Moonwalk, in 1975, called the Link Up (Russian vodka, Southern Comfort, lime juice), in celebration of the first international space mission, completed jointly by astronauts from the United States and Soviet Union.
When Shannon Tebay, a Death & Co. New York alum, began a stint as head bartender at the Savoy’s American Bar last year, she launched a new menu focused on interpretations of classics created by former head bartenders. “There was a variation on a Hanky Panky, a variation on a Corpse Reviver—all the hits that we know and love and associate with the hotel,” she says.
An avowed devotee of Champagne cocktails, Tebay knew she wanted to put her own spin on the Moonwalk. She describes Gilmore’s original spec as a cross between an “amped-up Mimosa” and a Champagne Cocktail. It’s an exceedingly pleasant drink—floral, juicy, fizzy and altogether approachable. For Tebay, it was the simplicity of Gilmore’s original that attracted her to it in the first place, noting that it reflects the pre-centrifuge era in which it was born. “It’s a simple approach that I think is honestly more along the lines with what I personally do when I’m writing menus—I tend to go with ‘less is more.’” She saw an opportunity to honor Gilmore’s spec by adding a touch more complexity and fortifying it with a full-proof spirit.
To achieve this, Tebay pushed her tribute to the Moonwalk into French 75 territory and called it the Moonraker (no relation to the Cognac, quinquina and peach brandy drink of the same name that appears in The Savoy Cocktail Book from the ’30s). Her version adds Irish whiskey to the mix—Tebay wanted to recognize Gilmore’s Irish heritage—while preserving the original’s core flavors. The spirit joins Grand Marnier, lemon and chamomile syrup and retains the effervescent Champagne topper. Tebay says the Irish whiskey and chamomile are naturally suited to one another. “Those two flavors, in my opinion, harmonize very, very well.” The original Moonwalk doesn’t call for a garnish, but Tebay adds a chamomile-sugar garnish to the flute presentation, which reinforces the floral quality of the drink and nods at other 20th-century classics, like the Sidecar.
Though her Moonraker departs from Gilmore’s version in its construction, it channels the celebratory nature of the original and the elegance of the Savoy’s iconic American Bar. After all, says Tebay, “you can’t help but feel elegant and fancy when you’re drinking out of a flute.”