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Belfast barman Joe's famed Savoy cocktails an intoxicating mix for world's rich and famous

By Allan Preston

He was the mixologist to the rich and famous. Tributes have been paid to legendary Belfast barman Joe Gilmore, who has died aged 93, who spent a lifetime making cocktails for some of the world's most recognisible faces.

Royalty, Prime Ministers and movie stars were all among Joe's clientele over the years, with his regulars including Princess Diana, Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin.

As head barman of the world-famous Savoy hotel in London, he became a celebrity in his own right and was celebrated for mixing cocktails to mark history. His Moonwalk cocktail was the first thing astronaut Neil Armstrong had to drink after coming back to Earth in 1969. Joe's creation was flown specially by Pan Am Airways and arrived in Houston one hour before the astronauts left quarantine.

Frank Sinatra was a frequent visitor to The Savoy and would order his dry Martini with the phrase: "Set 'em up, Joe", after the song. Often he'd play the classic tune on the hotel piano, starting a legend that the song was actually written about Joe.

Remembered for his soft Belfast accent, which he never lost, friends and family at his funeral in London last week praised him for his professionalism, his absolute discretion, unsurpassed cocktail-mixing skills and his warmth as a host.

Joe, born in north Belfast in 1922, was one of a family of 10.

The Gilmores had owned a popular tobacconist shop at the top of the Limestone Road, which stayed in business throughout the Troubles right up until the mid-1990s.

He had a dream to go places and moved to London at the age of 16, taking odd jobs. As the Second World War came to an end he had "done his bit" as a fire warden on the roof of The Savoy, witnessing first-hand the devastating London Blitz.

At 18 he found his calling as a trainee barman at The Savoy, earning £3.10 a week as apprentice to legendary barman Harry Craddock. Harry had learned the art of "American drinks", or cocktails, in the USA, but left during prohibition to join The Savoy in 1920.

By 1954 Joe became head barman himself, and holding the position for 21 years, he would go on to match and exceed his mentor's creations.

Joe's friend Sir David Davies observed: "Back in the 1950s the appointment of a head barman at The Savoy was an event of national and even international importance.

"Members of the British Establishment would meet at the American Bar, handy for both the City and Westminster, near to Fleet Street and the West End.

"It was London's exclusive meeting place for the rich and powerful."

Churchill had been dining at The Savoy when he learned he would become Prime Minister. There were wartime restrictions on alcohol but Joe remembered Churchill passing him a large bottle of Black And White Whisky and saying: "That's for me."

Joe kept it behind the bar and served it to him when he came in. Later, when he created a cocktail in his honour, Churchill rewarded him with one of his famous cigars.

"It didn't last long," Joe recalled. "I didn't smoke it. But I kept showing it to the guests and eventually it turned to sawdust!"

Sir David said: "To listen to Joe reminiscing, always so discreetly, on the names and tastes of his famous customers and the habits of the day, was to eavesdrop on a different age."

When new drink-driving laws came in Joe responded with an alcohol-free cocktail, Breathalyser Cocktail No.1.

On request, he would add two shots of vodka, but would change the name of the drink to Taxi, Please.

Joe was much more than a barman, becoming a broadcaster and a frequent guest on US chat shows in the Sixties and Seventies.

When asked by the NBC network if he was concerned the introduction of the Breathalyser would be bad for business, he replied: "Not here, all our customers are chauffeur-driven."

In later years he created a new cocktail for Princess Diana because she did not drink. The mix included lemon, lime and orange, and guests would often request it, with some Champagne.

Over the years he would produce many other cocktails for members of the royal family including the Queen and Queen Mother.

Today his legacy lives on. Around 20 Moonwalk cocktails are ordered every day at The Savoy, and four years ago Germany's Mixology magazine gave him a lifetime achievement award.

With his wife Marie, Joe had three sons, and four grandchildren. His granddaughter Francesca recalled: "I'll never forget walking into Poppa Joe's living room on December afternoon to see him reading some letters.

"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 I realised how incredible his life really was."

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