Blast from the Past
By Chris Gill | Photos: Massimo Gammacurta
The true history of many classic cocktails is as muddled as a bitters-soaked sugar cube in an Old-Fashioned. Many concoctions were conceived long before any bartender decided to write down the recipes, so the story of a drink’s origins is usually so exaggerated and romanticized that it becomes more of a tall tale than an accurate historical account.
The French 75 is one example of this phenomenon. One story of this cocktail’s origins is that thirsty Allied soldiers created the drink during World War I when they wanted to mix highballs. Apparently club soda wasn’t available so they substituted Champagne (go figure). Because this high-caliber drink packed a powerful punch, it was named the French 75 after the Canon de 75 Modèle 1897, a.k.a. the French 75mm field gun, a piece of artillery that played a significant role in the Allied Forces’ victory.
This seems like a reasonable anecdote, except that the first documented recipe for the “75” (as it was originally named in Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails published a few years after the war in 1922) called for Calvados, Gin, Absinthe and grenadine—no Champagne whatsoever. The French 75 got both its current name and official recipe a few years later in 1927 in the cocktail recipe book Here’s How! by Judge Jr., which called for Gin, lemon juice, powdered sugar and Champagne. “This drink is what really won the war for the Allies,” said the description accompanying the recipe, which may be where the WWI soldier tale originated.
However, the recipe also mentions that using club soda in place of the Champagne will give you a Tom Collins, providing a hint to the French 75’s more probable background. Allegedly Charles Dickens served a drink very similar to the modern French 75 when he was entertaining guests during a stay in 1867 at Boston’s Parker House Hotel. An 1885 article about the hotel said Dickens served “Tom Gin and Champagne cups,” the latter being a mixture of Champagne, lemon juice, sugar and ice. The Tom Collins cocktail (Gin, club soda, lemon juice, sugar and ice) became popular about the same time, originally called the “John Collins” until 1874 when a popular practical joke/viral marketing ploy tricked unsuspecting bar patrons into ordering a “Tom Collins” cocktail made with Old Tom Gin.
Even though the French 75 is really just a variation of a Tom Collins, it still boasts a colorful history (it’s mentioned in Casablanca and several John Wayne films) and is one hell of a tasty drink that, as Harry Craddock said in his Savoy Cocktail Book, “hits with remarkable precision.” Some modern recipes replace the Gin with Cognac, but I prefer the more potent full-strength blast of using a vibrant, fragrant London dry Gin like Portobello Road ($35, 750ml). Don’t skimp on the Champagne either. Since it makes up most of the liquid volume, use something that you wouldn’t mind drinking on its own but that isn’t too sweet since you’ll be adding sugar. I recommend Veuve Clicquot Brut NV for the classic Casablanca mix, but even better is something crisp and citrusy like Lallier Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV ($50, 750ml).
2 ounces London dry Gin
.5 ounces fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
Chilled Brut Champagne
Place Gin, lemon juice and sugar in a shaker with ice and shake vigorously until sugar has completely dissolved. (If you can’t find superfine sugar, you can make your own by grinding granulated white sugar in a food processor or blade coffee grinder.) Strain into a Champagne flute and top with chilled Champagne (about 3 ounces). Garnish with a lemon twist.