Vive le Soixante Quinze

During the Great War more than a century ago, the entrenched Hun rightly came to fear the French 75 millimeter field cannon. Designated the Canon de 75 modèle 1897 by the French military, it was a mobile, accurate, fast-firing artillery piece that rained down death and destruction upon the enemy. So of course it makes sense that it would become the inspiration for a classic sparkling wine cocktail, the French 75.

Our gin exploration tour made a stop in 1915 Paris last night when we gave the French 75 a whirl in the ultra lounge. According to legend, Harry MacElhone, a bartender from Scotland who learned his trade in London, invented the French 75 (or at least a prototype of it) while working at the New York Bar in Paris during WWI. He must have earned some tidy tips because after the war he would buy the joint and rename it, what else, Harry's New York Bar. There's a nice symmetry to this story since it combines elements from France, Britain, and America to form a formidable cocktail alliance that's stood the test of time. And as our experience last night confirms, if you're not careful the French 75 could well blow your head right off.

The French 75 is easy to make, exceptionally refreshing, and powerfully potent. The basic recipe allies gin, lemon juice, sugar and champagne. In that way it's similar to a Tom Collins, with the champagne instead of club soda providing the bubbly effervescence (and a little extra kick in the pants). The main difference is in the preparation and presentation. I reviewed several French 75 recipes and while they all agree on the main ingredients, there are differences of opinion on the proportions. As with most things, I let personal preference be my guide, and you should absolutely feel free to do the same. This is a basic recipe that you can use as a starting point and then adjust to your taste:

  • 2 oz. dry gin
  • 3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
  • 3/4 oz. simple syrup
  • 2 oz. champagne

A quick note here - like revenge, this is a drink that is best served cold, very cold. So make sure that your champagne is well chilled before you start. Ours wasn't quite there when we started last night, but with the help of an ice water bath it made it there by the third round. Now, in a cocktail shaker combine the gin, lemon juice, and syrup. Add ice to the level of the liquid and shake well, at least 20 seconds or so. You want to really feel the frost in your hand before you're done with the shake. Strain this into a champagne flute, then top off with the champagne. If you fancy some fancy, a long curly peel of lemon is the traditional garnish.

The different recipes I perused suggested several variations on the main theme. You do want to start with good quality ingredients, but you don't have to spend a fortune. We used our Aviation gin and Korbel extra dry champagne. I don't see a lot of sense in adulterating a really good champagne, but let your wallet and taste buds be your guide. If you like things dry, go with a brut, if you like things sweeter, you can use more syrup or substitute a Moscato or Prosecco as the sparkling wine. I saw one recipe that called for cognac instead of gin, and another that suggested a honey rather than sugar simple syrup for a little more character. Sans the champagne, that's basically the recipe for a Bees Knees, allegedly invented a few years after the war and the French 75 in an American speakeasy to help  mask the dubious flavor of their bathtub gin. As I alluded earlier, the French 75 should be served with a warning, because like a good courtesan they are deceptively intoxicating and go down with brazen ease. So be sure to enjoy responsibly.


9 thoughts on “Vive le Soixante Quinze”

  1. A classic from the Golden Age. Some favorite adjustments to a French 75:

    - add a splash of absinthe to the mix tin, or use a cocktail mister to coat the inside (absinthe is a fun secret ingredient, and although pricey, it lasts quite a while when you’re misting it)
    - add a dash or three of bitters — I’m reaching for Peychaud’s
    - substitute the gin for cognac (a “French 125,” according to New Orleans lore, although I can’t find any reference to a 125mm artillery piece in the French WWI inventory)

    If anyone’s looking for a very solid, Golden Age cocktail book, you can’t go wrong with Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails.

    1. Yeah, I need that book for the ultra lounge. Are you still thinking of doing a bar stocking primer? I'm working on the very basics, we still have no rum, only one whiskey (and no whisky), no vermouth, and only a few liqueurs. I've got a long way to go to get fully set up.

      1. Yes, I am. The family emergency kind of threw things out of kilter, but a bar basics post is definitely in order. I should get hopping on that.

      2. Ultra Lounge reminds me of the Millenium Bar that I constructed in our unfinished basement with leftover construction wood and Ikea lighting on the eve of 2000. I had a nice stack of German beer coasters and a tiny refrigerator.

        1. Ours grew out of a family room remodel in the basement. With the kids gone, the Mrs. wanted to make the space more adult and less multipurpose. I tore out a closet at the entry end of the room because horrible feng shui, put in a couple of stained two-panel poplar doors, sheetrocked the under-stairs storage space to make a doggie room, painted everything and had new carpet installed. Mrs. Twayn did the design work on a tight budget - she calls it neo-mid-century modern, so MCM inspired but not replicated. We got a good deal on a leather-look sectional sofa and ottoman, a new TV cart and matching tables, and a green upholstered chair. Later on we added the bar cabinet and a swag lamp, then most recently the pub table and stools. The wife even named the furniture pieces after Mad Men characters - the sofa is Don, the chair is Betty, the bar is Joan (because it has nicely rounded curves) and the table and stools are Roger Sterling. I like it a lot.

  2. apropos, I made caipirinhas on saturday. Which reminds me to strongly suggest that a well-stocked bar needs at least one bottle of cachaça.

    this one is perfectly serviceable.

    But for a special occasion, may I humbly suggest a barrel-aged one.

    My last bottle was a barrel-aged one, which ran around $30 for 750 ml (I think?? it seemed slimmer than a liter)

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