Grape & Grain

How Clark Gable gave The Peninsula Hong Kong’s Johnny Chung a lesson in cocktail making

Hotel’s longest serving member of staff played a role in the evolution of cocktail the Screwdriver

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2016, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2016, 5:54pm

The Peninsula hotel’s Johnny Chung Kam-hung is not only its longest serving member of staff but also its longest standing resident. He signed on in 1957, and is one of only two personnel members still living in the staff quarters there. At one point there were 200.

Chung started as a messenger, eventually becoming the hotel’s senior bartender, but is perhaps best known for an incident that occurred in his first year of service.

In 1957, The Peninsula had a popular bar in its lobby, and sitting there one day was Clark Gable.

“He asked me to fetch him ‘a screwdriver’, and I gave him the tool,” Chung recalls. “He said ‘No, a screwdriver is a cocktail’ and I said I’d never heard of it. He asked for paper and pen, and wrote the recipe down. Vodka and fresh orange juice. I went and got the drink for him and he said ‘Perfect. Wonderful.’ I didn’t know who he was. Afterwards a waiter came up to me and said ‘Johnny, that’s an American movie star’.”

Even if unknown to the young Chung, Gable, probably most famous for his leading role in Gone With the Wind, was hugely popular in Hong Kong. Another of his films, Soldier of Fortune, which came out in 1955, was partly set here, and Chung’s brief encounter with the star generated a lot of interest.

People wanted to know what Clark Gable drank, and bartenders from all over town approached him for the recipe.

“At that time it was all simple cocktails – scotch and water, gin and tonic, brandy and dry ginger. Before, nobody knew about the screwdriver. After half a year everybody knew about it. It was simple to make at home. Just vodka and orange juice.”

As is often the case with cocktails, nobody knows for sure who first mixed that particular combination of spirit and fruit juice, or who gave it its name.

The credit for popularising screwdrivers has been attributed to various branches of the US military, and also to oil industry workers in the Middle East, who probably started drinking them sometime in the 1920s or ’30s.

Its initial appeal was probably that in countries where the consumption of alcohol was restricted or prohibited, the orange juice could be used to camouflage the booze. The name is likely to have come from pressing into alternative service as a stirrer the type of tool Chung fetched for Gable.

The screwdriver is mentioned in a 1949 edition of Time magazine as being a newly fashionable drink at New York’s Park Hotel, but there is a printed reference to a “Smirnoff screwdriver” dating back to 1938, in Journalism Quarterly. The formula was clearly established before the second world war, and the US military may well have spread it around the world.

The version of the screwdriver Chung eventually produced for Gable, he thinks, was almost certainly made with Smirnoff, because few if any other brands of vodka were available in Hong Kong at that time.

The version served in the hotel since the opening of its relocated first floor bar in 2012 – when the drink was renamed Johnny’s Screwdriver to honour his particular contribution to Peninsula history – has gone rather upmarket.

Chung and The Peninsula have embraced the new generation of premium vodkas, and unless the customer specifies Ketel One, Grey Goose or Belvedere, all of which are available, Johnny’s Screwdriver is now made with U’Luvka, a small-batch Polish vodka, which he says is “smooth and not too assertive”.

Prior to the switch to U’Luvka, the default vodka choice was Absolut Elyx – a Swedish super premium spirit.

The quality of the orange juice is important too. Back in 1957 The Peninsula squeezed its own every day.

“In 1957 we squeezed two cases of oranges every morning, and about half a box of grapefruit. We also squeezed lemons. No cans or bottles,” Chung says.

Today, the fruit squeezing is outsourced, but a fresh supply still comes in each morning for The Peninsula’s bars and restaurants.

Sadly, Chung didn’t keep the piece of paper on which Gable wrote down his screwdriver formula, probably because it was simple and easy to remember – one measure of vodka – a precise 40ml these days, but probably an approximate free-pour at the time, and ice (Gable asked for just a couple of cubes), topped up with orange juice.

“It must be not too strong and not too weak,” says Chung, meaning that you should be aware of the vodka but that it should not overpower the citrus flavours.

Gable might not recognise the orange slice garnish that now adorns the drink, or the large ice sphere – made with a Japanese Taisin Ice Mold – that cools it, but the cocktail he introduced to The Pen is still served in the tumbler glass he requested rather than the highball glass specified by the International Bartenders Association (IBA).

That organisation, incidentally, recommends a balance of one part vodka to two parts orange juice.

The Bar at The Peninsula, of course, is not the only watering hole in Hong Kong to have taken what was probably originally a simple means of concealing the consumption of a bracing shot of ethanol – unhygienically stirred – into rather more upmarket territory.

Ask for one in Armani/Aqua and you will get a goblet – does nobody pay any attention to the IBA? – full of blood orange juice and Ketel One vodka, the latter infused with cinnamon. It is stirred not with a screwdriver but a cinnamon stick.

DiVino mixes its screwdrivers with Iordanov, a premium German made though Russian sounding vodka recently launched in Hong Kong, garnished with mint.

Thanks to its essential simplicity you can get a well made screwdriver in almost any decent Hong Kong bar, although because it is so straightforward it often doesn’t feature on cocktail lists.

A number of other popular cocktails are directly descended from it – or at least have borrowed the idea of mixing spirit and orange juice.

Some have names that acknowledge the debt, among them the slow screw (sloe gin) the comfortable screw (Southern Comfort) and an amalgam of the two called the slow comfortable screw.

The reason the names have stuck is largely to do with the obvious double entendres. That is particularly the case with another hybrid, the slow comfortable screw against the wall, which contains Galliano, the extra ingredient that distinguishes a Harvey Wallbanger from a screwdriver.

None of those drinks, though, to my mind, is an improvement on the original formula. And it is impossible to imagine Clark Gable ordering any of them.

Do try this at home. All you need is good (fresh!) juice, good ice and good vodka.

The Bar, 1/F The Peninsula Hong Kong, 19-21 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2696 6773

Armani/Aqua, 2/F, Landmark Chater, 8 Connaught Road Central, tel: 3583 2828

DiVino, 73 Wyndham Street, Central, tel: 2167 8883