It got its start near the battlefields of France, it’s long been a fixture of upscale bars in New Orleans and the festive holiday season is its prime time. But the French 75, an effervescent mixture of sparkling, sour, sweet and spirit, has also become the source of a spirited debate.
What should give this potent cocktail its extra kick? Cognac, gin or some other spirit? I sipped my way around town, speaking with several bartenders to get their take on this quintessential holiday drink.
I began at the drink’s namesake: Arnaud’s French 75, which was named for restaurant founder Count Arnaud’s favorite cocktail. Here, drinks are expertly mixed by Chris Hannah and his crew.
Ask Hannah about the French 75’s history and you’ll not only hear a narrative but also receive a printed handout, detailing the drink’s path around Europe during and after World War I.
Hannah tells that when French and American members of the Lafayette Escadrille battalion had leave from the trenches, they frequented the bar at the Hotel Chatham in Paris. There they celebrated their victories with Champagne and cognac and named the mixture (mingled with lemon and sugar) after the French army’s 75 mm. field gun.
Just down the street from the hotel was Harry’s New York Bar, where English soldiers celebrated their victories. Though they were allies, the English and French were not always friendly. So, the Brits not only celebrated apart from the French but substituted the very French cognac in this drink with British gin. Harry’s bartender Harry Craddock is credited with first publishing the drink’s recipe, and his calls for gin.
But according to Hannah’s timetable, the cognac version came first. Cognac was also the spirit preferred by Count Arnaud, and so that’s how the French 75 bar makes the drink (unless a guest prefers gin). But even the Count couldn’t resist creating his own twist. His own customized version, the Ambrosia, is made with Cointreau and apple brandy and remains part of the bar’s drink list.
Many other variations abound, often with their own creation stories. That’s true at the Windsor Court Cocktail Bar, where Kent Westmoreland offers Ilsa’s Blue Dress, made with gin, Champagne, lemon, sugar and crème de violette.
“I didn’t have a French 75 until after I moved to New Orleans in 1982,” said Westmoreland. “Back in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I am from, they weren’t making French 75s.”
The first time Westmorland ever heard of a French 75 was in the movie “Casablanca.” In a flashback scene, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) are in Paris when the city falls to the Germans, and Ilsa is wearing a blue dress that day. She says she will only wear the dress again when the Germans leave Paris. Westmoreland pays homage to this moment, adding crème de violette to the traditional recipe, which turns it a pale blue. Ilsa’s Blue Dress is part of the Champagne cocktail section of Westmoreland’s menu, and making your way through it should be on everyone’s holiday drinking list.
At Compère Lapin, bartender Abigail Gullo continues the theme of war’s connection with the French 75 in a drink called Paris Between the Wars, made with scotch, Campari and hard apple cider. That cider is dry and effervescent like Champagne, the scotch and Campari counteracts the cider’s fruitiness, and the Campari also makes it a lovely color.
Faced with creating a drink for a cocktail competition, she said “the ingredients came together in a fevered dream.” Later, she realized it had its own narrative, since scotch, Campari and French cider represented Scotland, Italy and France. Though Italy was with the allies in World War I, it began World War II as an Axis power.
“I asked myself, ‘What happened between the wars between these countries?’ ” said Gullo. “And I then thought about the Treaty of Versailles, and that led to the name.”
The French 75 had a role in Gullo’s own move from New York to New Orleans. She was discussing her plans at Cure with one of the proprietors of the Freret Street cocktail lounge, where a customer a few bar stools down overheard their conversation.
“He was my idea of the quintessential New Orleanian, wearing a three piece suit, bowtie, looking like Atticus Finch,” Gullo recalled. “He addressed me, ‘Ma’am, I hear you want to bartend in New Orleans. Well I have a question for you. If I came in your bar and ordered a French 75, what would you say to me?’ ”
Gullo panicked for a moment; should she choose gin or Cognac? Then she knew the answer.
“Well, sir, I would ask you: ‘Would you like gin or Cognac?’ ” she said. “And the man replied, ‘Good. You are qualified to bartend in New Orleans.’ ”
In a city that prides itself on hospitality, the most important thing is keeping your guest happy. And whether you prefer gin or Cognac, we can all agree on that.