Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The French 75

A cocktail with a lot of history and just as many conflicting recipes.

Here is the substantially more memorable of the two different drinks named after the French 75-mm field gun, model of 1897 (and companion shell).  This bit of heavy artillery was the mainstay weapon of World War I, and its recoil system made for soft, smooth operation.  It was really the first technical weaponry advance of the twentieth century, and its use continued into World War II…The parallels between the field gun and the sparkling cocktail named for it should be obvious…smooth, yet packs a wallop.

--Ted Haigh, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Deluxe Edition

Battlefield stories are filled with the unlikely, the apocryphal.  They are colored by uncertainty built around a base of moral ambiguity, centered on loyalty fueled by proximity to the macabre, punctuated by bouts of courage in dots of pure hell and held against acres of boredom supported by fear.  As Tim O’Brien writes in his brilliant The Things They Carried, “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical.”

When cocktails meet war, then, the combination of the very real fog of war and the consumption of alcohol begets confusion and seeds doubt about ingredients, methods and serving style.  The French 75, a cocktail with (in name at least) origins in the battlefields of World War I, that over the last ten years or so has become widely available in any bar of reasonable quality, is a prime example.  It is a drink that is rarely made the same way, sometimes even in the same bar, by any two bartenders.  Fortunately, in most of its permutations, the French 75 is, at worst, a refreshing tipple that packs a punch, and at best a sublime cocktail, suitable for both lightning bug bedecked back porch BBQs and fine dining rooms gilded with crystal and silver flatware.

The Canon

The Canon de 75 Modèle 1897, colloquially known as the French 75 or the Soixante-Quinze, was the main artillery weapon used by the French—and some American—forces during World War I.  It employed a hydro-pneumatic recoil mechanism that kept the gun’s base and wheels perfectly still while it was fired, unlike earlier artillery weapons which had to be recalibrated and aimed after each shot.  This innovation allowed a skilled crew to deliver between fifteen and thirty rounds a minute on target, without re-aiming the weapon, at a distance of up to five miles away.

Originally, it was used as devastatingly effective antipersonnel weapon, raining destruction on advancing enemy troops across the battlefield.  In the Battle of the Marne and at Verdun, the French 75 was seen as the weapon that tipped those battles to the French forces.  At Verdun in particular, 1,000 Soixante-Quinze batteries were in constant operation, firing in excess of 16 million 75 mm shells on German forces.

As trench warfare set in, the French 75, which lacked the explosive capacity to penetrate fortified bunkers and deep trench work, was used more to obliterate enemy barbed wire fortifications before troops went over the top, and later to deliver chemical weapons shells, particularly mustard gas and phosgene.

In short, if it was on your side, it was the kind of weapon that would be lionized in legend, and if the opposition was manning it, it was a thing to be feared.  Greatly.

The Cocktail Canon

There are three main creation stories concerning the French 75, all of them most likely false.  Often, the drink is credited to Raoul Lufbery, a fighter pilot born to an American father and French mother who flew sorties under both flags during World War I.  Lufbery was dashing, and aviation had captured the worlds’ imagination at the time, and the story goes that Lufbery felt that Champagne lacked the kick to truly get a pilot of his caliber flying, so he punched it up with a stick of something stronger, and found that it packed the punch of the famed artillery weapon (which had, by the end of the first World War, also been adapted into an anti-aircraft weapon).  This version also holds that French officers knocked Lufbrey’s cocktail back before heading off to battle.  Points in favor of this story: it’s romantic.  Point against: “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical.”

The second common theory is that the drink came to be at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris from the hands of Harry MacElhone.  MacElhone, it is said, wanted to offer something to his celebrity fighter pilot guests just back from the front that packed the punch of the weapons they were using in battle.  Points in favor of this theory: Harry’s New York Bar was a favorite watering hole of the American Field Service Ambulance Corps, and the drink rather quickly thereafter appears in America.  Point against: “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical.”

The third common creation myth is that Arnuad Cazenave, original owner of the still operating Arnuad’s, created the drink in New Orleans.  Points in favor of this theory: Arnuad’s has long been a temple of the French 75 and Cazenave arrived in New Orleans at about the same time that the drink came to be known in America.  Points against: The Arnuad’s version is decidedly different than the canonical French 75, and the whole thing smacks of the same sort of cocktail hucksterism that allows certain New Orleans based types to claim the Sazerac as the original cocktail.

We can be fairly certain that the drink first appeared in print, however, in a 1927 edition credited to one Judge Jr., called Here's How!  Judge Jr. was the pen name of Norman Anthony, editor of Judge, the preeminent humor magazine of the time (and the place where Harold Ross got his fingers ink stained prior to The New Yorker).  Here’s How! is filled with dodgy recipes that reflect the ingredients available during prohibition, but in the case of the French 75 (and several other cocktails), Harry Craddock lifted the recipe for his Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930, where Craddock notes that the cocktail, “Hits with remarkable precision.”  He is right.

In both the Judge Jr. and Craddock versions, the French 75 is a gin based drink, fixed up with lemon, sugar and champagne, and served in a tall glass over ice.  But from there things get a shade complicated.  David Embry’s Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, from 1948, insists that the French 75 does not use gin at all, but rather should be mixed with Cognac.  This is the way the drink is prepared at Arnaud’s French 75 Bar in New Orleans, and the rationale is that no self respecting French officer or fighter pilot would have mixed fine French Champagne with coarse English gin.  Points in favor of this theory: It has some logic behind it, and the Cognac version has a certain heft that is quite nice.  Points against: the probable true story.

What the French 75 Really Is

Mix gin, lemon and sugar and you have a sour.  Lengthen that sour with soda water and you have a Collins.  Substitute Champagne for the soda water and you get a French 75.  Even Judge Jr. grabbed hold of this basic theory in introducing the French 75, writing:

This drink is really what won the War for the Allies: 2 jiggers Gin; 1 part lemon juice; a spoonful of powdered sugar; cracked ice. Fill up the rest of a tall glass with champagne! (If you use club soda instead of champagne, you have a Tom Collins.)

But there is more. Way back in 1867, a certain Charles Dickens visited Boston, taking up residence at the Parker House and serving his guests “Tom Gin and Champagne cups.” A champagne cup is simply a mixture of the good bubbly wine with citrus and sugar. Toss in the gin and, voila, you have what we know as a French 75. Moreover, a mixture of gin, citrus and Champagne was reportedly a favorite of Queen Victoria’s son—the general idea has been around for a while.

It is most probable that the drink known today as a French 75 was consumed for quite a long while before it was given a catchy moniker and took flight.  At some point between the time of Dickens and the height of World War I, a barman, and it very well could have been MacElhone, started pouring a very old drink, but called it something else, and a mixological star was born.  Sometimes it really is about the name.  Because even the Cognac version, called then a King’s Peg, was widely consumed in the more Eastern parts of the British Empire by colonial types getting their drink on.

 A Note on Ingredients: The Bubbly Stuff

Often a bar will pour French 75s using the relatively cheap plonk that is their house sparkling wine pour.  These days, that pour is often Prosecco or Cava, and while they make a serviceable drink, they are made from different grapes than Champagne, and in the case of Prosecco, from a different method of getting the stuff bubbly.  The use of real Champagne, particularly a nice Blanc de Blanc with toasty brioche notes and stone fruit flavors, makes an enormous difference.

That said, unless you are the kind of person who lights her cigarettes with hundred dollar bills, a nice bottle of Champagne is not usually the sort of thing you open to knock off a few cocktails after work on a Friday.  You could reach for a nice Cremant de Bourgogne, produced with at least 30% of the same Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes as Champagne or something like Gruet Brut, a traditional method sparkler made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes in New Mexico that is one of the world’s great wine values.

You may not be able to afford Champagne for cocktail use, but choose a sparkler that will get you close and your French 75 will be tastier than if you simply reach for the $7.99 sparkler on special at your local liquor mart.  At the end of the day, you want something dry, with pinprick bubbles to carry the drink, particularly if you are mixing it traditionally over ice, and a nice depth of flavor to mingle with the citrus and gin.

A Note on Service

Order a French 75 at three different, but very good bars, and you are likely to be served the drink in three different vessels.  At Bar Number One, your French 75 arrives in a tall glass over ice.  In Bar Number Two, it comes in a Champagne Flute and in Bar Number Three; they serve it to you in a cocktail glass or coupe.

This is a place where great minds differ.  The PDT Cocktail Book calls for the drink to be served sans ice in a coupe, Ted Haigh calls for it to be served sans ice in a Collins, Zombie or, as a last resort, in a Champagne Flute.  The Savoy Cocktail Book of course says to serve the thing over cracked ice in a Collins glass.

At the end of the day, this is really a decision you should make based on the quality of your ice.  If you have large, cold, dry cubes that will melt slowly and not quickly shut down the bubbling of your sparkling wine, then the drink should be served tall, over ice.  If your ice is wet and soft, the kind that melts quickly, the rapid additional dilution will make for a limp cocktail indeed, so choose accordingly.

A Very Quick Note on Proportions

Like everything else to do with this cocktail, various sources use different quantities of gin, lemon and sugar before we even get to the Champagne component.  Two ounces of gin is the general standard, and recipes that knock this proportion down to a lower number should be viewed with some skepticism as this drink is supposed to pack a wallop.  That said, dialing back the gin can make for a more forgiving drink if you are consuming more than a couple or have a busy morning ahead.

The lemon and sugar are another matter, with there being a lot more agreement on the general sugar level than the general sour level.  Earlier recipes often call for a mere dash of lemon juice to offset a teaspoon or so of sugar.  This reflects an earlier generation’s preference for sweeter drinks, and perhaps the need to mask inferior gin with more sweetness.  In general, consider the preferred proportions for your sour and go from there.

Some Recipes

French 75, Traditional

2 oz. London Dry Gin (or Cognac if you must)
1 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
1 tsp. superfine sugar or ½ oz. simple syrup
Champagne, well chilled

Fill a Collins glass 2/3 full of cracked ice cubes.

Combine your lemon juice and sweetener in a cocktail shaker.  If using sugar, stir to dissolve.  Add the gin and ice and shake until cold.  Strain into your ice filled Collins glass and top up with the Champagne.  Serve without garnish.

French 75, The PDT Cocktail Book

1 oz. Tanqueray Gin
½ oz. Lemon Juice
½ oz. Simple Syrup
Moet Imperial Champagne, well chilled

Combine gin, lemon juice and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice.  Shake and strain into a chilled coupe glass.  Top with 1 oz Moet Imperial and garnish with a lemon twist.

French 75, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Deluxe Edition

2 oz gin
1 oz lemon juice
2 tsp. sugar or 1 tsp. simple syrup
Champagne, well chilled

Combine lemon juice and sweetener in a cocktail shaker.  If using sugar, stir to dissolve.  Add the gin and ice and shake until cold.  Strain into a tall glass without ice and top with champagne, stirring gently to combine.  Garnish with a long, thin lemon spiral and a cocktail cherry (ed. Note: No on the cherry.)

Brian Dressel, the general manager of Midnight Cowboy, offers this variation, using an aged style of Old Tom Gin, Amaretto for the sweetener, and a mixture of white balsamic vinegar and lemon for the sour component.  The finished drink is reminiscent of the dry, almost sour apple ciders produced in Spain.

The Orchard '77

1 oz. Ransom Old Tom Gin
1 oz. Amaretto
¼ oz. fresh lemon juice
¼ oz. white balsamic vinegar
Pinch of sea salt
¼ Of an apple cut into slices (Gala Apples work well)
Dry sparkling wine, well chilled

Muddle the Apple, vinegar, salt, and lemon juice in a shaker tin. Add the spirits and ice. Shake vigorously for about 30 seconds. Fine strain into a chilled champagne flute and top with sparkling wine. Garnish with three additional thin apple slices, in a fan pattern.

Enjoy.

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