Spring is here and besides the fact that my allergies are playing up, Central Park is actually starting to look like a park again, asparagus is in season and a Pimm’s Cooler finally seems fitting. However, I think this time of year calls for a refreshing Champagne cocktail. Of course, Champagne is the anytime libation, but there’s something to be said for a beautifully made sparkling cocktail, sipped on while the sun sets over Manhattan (or wherever you are. I’m in Manhattan) and a plate of oysters is on the way.
Talented bartenders the world over have proven that there is very little that doesn’t mix with Champagne (except perhaps milk). From rum and Cognac (Dale de Groff’s Ritz cocktail, yes please) to bourbon (the Seelbach) and perhaps the easiest marriage of all, St Germain aka cocktail Duct tape. One of my all-time go-to cocktails has always been the French 75, a cocktail that every bartender should know without blinking. It’s also one of the only cocktails created around Prohibition that came away with its reputation intact.
I’ve always loved the simple yet refreshing mix of gin, lemon and sugar and finished with a fine Champagne or sparkling wine. But I’ve heard many rumblings over the years that it was first made with Cognac as a base and not gin. I’ve tried both and I like both, depending on my mood, but I thought I’d delve a little deeper as we head into spring when this drink – whatever the base – is perfect. I got in touch with a friend and great bartender, Chris Hannah from New Orleans institution Arnaud’s, just a stone’s throw from the quagmire that is Bourbon St.
They are famous for several things, but perhaps not more so than the fact that they make ridiculous amounts of their signature drink, the French 75. Not that it was invented there but Chris is somewhat of an authority on the great drinks of New Orleans so I asked him to clarify some of the history of this wonderful cocktail. Here’s what he had to say:
“By now we all know the French 75 Champagne Cocktail was named after the French Artillery Gun used by the allies during the First World War. What we don’t know, and are constantly discussing (well, at my bar anyway) is the origin of the French 75. Until now. The French 75 was created initially as a toast by the Allied Fighter Pilot Aces during World War I. They were the Fighter Pilots of 411, the Lafayette Escadrille, an outfit made up of French and American Aces. Their toast was a thankful praise of their safe return as well as a respectful farewell for those who didn’t make it back to the base that evening.
Initially the ritual was a simple toast of Champagne, but the Americans, who were used to something more potent such as whisky, began to opt for whatever Cognac was available. Raul Louffberry, after one particularly safe return, added a couple of cubes of ice to his cognac and topped it with Champagne. It was a hit with both sides of the Allied Fighter Pilots and because of its potency they agreed to name it after the French 75 artillery gun that inevitably helped win the first World War.
Rene Fonk was a Frenchman in the same outfit, and was as highly regarded as the great Raul Louffberry, and takes credit for adding a lemon peel and a spoonful of lemon juice to the libation ritual. Today we make the same drink that the Fighter Pilots of 411, the Lafayette Escadrille, made during the First World War only we now add a little sugar to the cocktail.
Because the above is all true and documented I have to ask one question. Why am I supposed to think the English invented this drink just because the first time it’s seen in print is in some silly cocktail book with Savoy in its title? Are we looking for “the first time it’s seen in print” in more than just English? Why did the British soldiers in France have gin and the Americans no whisky? The cognac faithful have the exact people, from the exact fighter pilot outfit and the gin faithful have none. So we’re supposed to settle with “it’s a Tom Collins with Champagne” and that’s it.”
Now we can all sleep tonight. Thank you, Chris.
Here’s an interesting radio clip from 1969 you might enjoy, by Jean Shepherd (tip: start at about the 27th minute)