The historians of tippling (and I’m one of them) are seldom able to provide precise origins for the most popular drinks—which ironically is the thing tipplers really want.
There’s no better cocktail with which to prove this than the mighty French 75, a mixture of gin—or is it cognac?—with lemon, sugar, ice and Champagne. Refreshing, delightful and wickedly intoxicating, it’s a concoction every bartender must know and every drinker cherish.
But where does it come from? All of the pieces are accounted for, so it’s just a question of how in blazes to get them to fit together. The French 75 as we know it first appears in print in 1927, at the height of Prohibition, in a bootlegger-friendly little volume called Here’s How! put out by a New York humor magazine. From there, it got picked up by the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, and once it was in there, it was everywhere. The elixir has the distinction of being the only classic born in America during the dry period.
Here’s the problem, though. When Charles Dickens visited Boston, way back in 1867, he liked to entertain the literary lions of the town in his room at the Parker House with “Tom gin and champagne cups,” as an 1885 article about the hotel claimed. A Champagne Cup is bubbly, sugar, citrus and ice. Add Tom gin, as that story seems to indicate, and you’ve got something perilously close to the French 75.
Indeed, the combination of gin and Champagne was a popular one with gents of a certain class. According to their contemporaries, it was a favorite of Queen Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales, and also Kalakaua, the sporty type who was king of Hawaii. The combination of cognac and Champagne was just as well-known, if not more so; as the “King’s Peg,” it was a standard served in the eastern parts of the British Empire.
In short, the odds are that whoever invented the French 75 didn’t really invent anything at all. All he or she did was give it a name. But of course, with drinks, the name is everything: People were drinking spirits with sugar and bitters for a century before someone yoked that cheerful word “cocktail” to the amalgam and in doing so made it an American cultural institution.
When the formula of gin or cognac, Champagne, lemon and sugar got the moniker of the fast-firing, accurate French field gun that had become an icon of victory in the American coverage of World War I, it suddenly took on new cachet. Now it was, as the novelist Alec Waugh dubbed it, “the most powerful drink in the world.”