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A final toast to Ireland’s cocktail king

Joe Gilmore and Princess Margaret.

By Evan Short

Tom Cruise in the movie “Cocktail” had nothing on Joe Gilmore in real life.

Belfast native Joe - whose cocktail making skills were so famous that one of his creations was the first thing Neil Armstrong imbibed after coming out of quarantine following the moon landing - has passed away.

Joe Gilmore was the head of the American Bar in London’s most famous hotel, The Savoy, and in that role he became close friends with some of the most famous people in the world.
Joe’s nephew, Mike McCann, told the Irish Echo that Joe had rubbed shoulders with royalty and was on first name terms with some of the world’s most famous icons.

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He was also a regular on U.S. chat shows where he discussed cocktails and became a minor celebrity in his own right.

“Frank Sinatra was a frequent guest and was only ever served his Dry Martini by Joe. He would always order with the phrase; “Set‘em up Joe.” Often he would then play the classic piece on the hotel piano and the legend formed that the song was actually about Joe Gilmore,” said Mike.

“He would create and name cocktails for queens and princesses, princes and prime ministers and to mark social and historic events of the day. He met and served Prince Charles, Errol Flynn, Charles De Gaulle, Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway and President Eisenhower to name but a few.

“Because of his reputation for professionalism, his quiet Irish charm and absolute discretion, he was frequently engaged by famous individuals to serve bar worldwide at their private functions; Princess Margaret (sister of the Queen of England) often flew him to Mustique for her renowned parties on the Caribbean island.”

A special cocktail for the moon landing was to make his name, according to Mike.

“His space-era cocktails received worldwide attention. Created for the first moon landing in 1969, 'Moonwalk' was sent to the USA via Pan Am and arrived one hour before the astronauts came out of quarantine. It was the first drink which Neil Armstrong and the other astronauts had back on earth.
“Also created by Joe in 1975 to mark a joint mission between the USA and Soviet Union in space, the “Link-Up” cocktail was sent to the USA and U.S.S.R for the astronauts to enjoy when they returned from their mission. When told this by NASA as they linked up in space, they responded, ‘Tell Joe we want it up here.’”

As his fame grew, Joe moved into an ambassadorial role with the Savoy, travelling to Europe, Canada and the U.S., even appearing on TV chat shows.

As an authority on cocktails and hospitality he was also in demand during the 1960s and ‘70s as a broadcaster and pundit.

When the breathalyzer was introduced to Great Britain, Joe was asked by NBC in New York whether the new legislation was affecting business.

“Not here” came Joe’s confident reply, “all our customers are chauffeur-driven.”

Joe never forgot his Irish roots or family and never lost his Belfast accent. Just a few years ago, in his late eighties, he was delighted to learn that Belfast’s Merchant Hotel had dedicated the first edition of their cocktail book to him.

Even Joe’s funeral had echoes of the celebrity he enjoyed during his life.

The Savoy sent their senior management and bar staff in their smart outfits as a mark of respect.
His funeral was arranged by celebrity undertakers A France & Son, who were his near-neighbors in the Bloomsbury area of London where Joe and his wife, Marie, lived for over 50 years.