Behind the Drink: The French 75

French 75 Cocktail

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.”

French 75

Contributed by David Wondrich
INGREDIENTS:

  • .5 oz Lemon juice
  • 1 tsp Sugar
  • 2 oz London dry gin or cognac
  • Champagne, chilled
  • Glass: Collins

PREPARATION:
Add the lemon juice and sugar to a shaker and stir to combine. Add the gin and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a Collins glass filled with cracked ice. Fill slowly with Champagne.

David Wondrich is the author of Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl and Esquire magazine’s drinks correspondent. He is also a Liquor.com advisory board member.

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Comments

  1. We’re huge fans of the French 75, mainly because, as Harry Craddock (The Savoy Cocktail Book) says, it “hits with remarkable precision.”

    Cheers,
    DIA
    @drinkinamerica
    http://bit.ly/DrinkingInAmerica

  2. Arthur Kaye says

    What are the odds that the drink is NOT named after the famous French artillery piece, the 75 mm field gun, developed in the1890s, adopted into the US armory in WW I and in use by the USA through the end of the 1930s, and still in use in France as a “saluting gun?”

  3. Maria Hunt says

    So David, please tell us, do you prefer French 75s with gin or cognac? We’d like a ruling :-)

  4. Jeff Deegan says

    Arthur [above], your humility is to be commended. Somebody buy this guy a drink.

  5. Joao Eusebio says

    hi David!
    just one quick quest. so why wasn’t it called a royal Tom Collins? extra points for being initially made with cognac?!
    Regards
    Joao

    • Liquor.com says

      That certainly could be an alternate name for the drink, but “French 75″ just has a better ring to it. That said, the first printed recipe on record for the cocktail did use gin and not cognac.

  6. At the French 75 bar in New Orleans, Chris Hannah gave quite an articulate explanation of why he believed it should be cognac. He actually had printouts of the lecture for souvenier-seekers. Good times.

  7. Dominik MJ • the opinionated alchemist says

    I am quite puzzled about the presentation. Classic European presentation demands a French 75 in a champagne glass [up] – gin, lemon juice and sugar are shaken, then strained into a chilled champagne flute and filled up with champagne – while the American version demands ice.

    I rather like the American version, as it is longer, more refreshing, yet the European version has also its perks, as it is more sophisticated…

  8. Wendy Shaw says

    I started drinking French 75′s in Beverly Hills California when i was 21, at (The Beverly Hills Hotel as one does)
    and it was always made with Cognac and California Champagne without ice cubes and lemon served
    in a champagne saucer, and this is the way I will always drink it !

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