Imagine a cocktail that packs such a strong punch that it was named after a French field gun. Not just any field gun, but one lauded as “merciless” by the Chicago Tribune in 1914.
The French 75 cocktail bears a fascinating, but hazy origin—which only fuels intrigue for this delectable drink.
But what is the French 75? The liquid mercenary is often served in a Collins glass and consists of gin, champagne, lemon juice, and sugar—a combination that may sound too mild and simple to be compared to weaponry of any kind, but appearances can be deceiving.
This French 75 was the 21 gun salute of cocktails in its day. And when we look closer at its history and recipe, we learn that the military moniker is more apt than it initially seems.
- Was imbibed by officers on the frontlines of WW1
- One of its inventors committed suicide due to war-related stress
- A 1920s satirist published the most popular recipe
- Charles Dickens served a proto-French 75 at his 1867 parties
The French 75’s Mysterious Origins
Known in France as the soixante-quinze, the famed field gun received much praise in its day for its
admirable simplicity and reliability—qualities that no doubt transfer to the equally simple but potent cocktail. And WW1-era barman, Harry MacElhone, concurred that it packed a wallop.
Allegedly, in 1915, at the New York Bar in Paris (patronized by Ernest Hemingway and other notable figures), MacElhone came up with a strong mixture of gin, absinthe, calvados, and grenadine.
As a fighter pilot during the war, we can bet that MacElhone could put together a cocktail that even the toughest of guys would feel comfortable knocking back.
But even though he’s often credited with its invention, it’s likely that MacElhone came up with only one variant of the cocktail, and probably not the first. The earliest written reference to the French 75 actually comes from The Washington Herald in 1915—and MacElhone’s name isn’t even mentioned.
The excerpt reads:
There has been brought back to Broadway from the front by War Correspondent E. Alexander Powell the Soixante-Quinze cocktail—the French Seventy-five. It is one-third gin, one-third grenadine, one-third applejack and a dash of lemon juice.
Will the Real Inventor Please Stand Up?
The Washington Herald clip adds another mystery to the origin tale: Did this original recipe come directly from the frontlines? As the story goes, officers during the war drank a mix of gin, grenadine, applejack, and lemon juice in empty cartridge shells.
Apparently the men had plenty of booze but no glasses. Nothing like having your priorities straight, but if any group of people in the 20th century needed a drink, it was World War I soldiers.
But even if Harry’s New York Bar in Paris wasn’t the birthplace of the drink, another bar around the corner from Harry’s is said to be responsible for the first French 75. Henry’s Bar in Paris (easily confused with Harry’s) was run by Henry Tepe, a bartender and hotel owner.
Henry’s life consisted of jubilant highs and steep lows. He was close friends with a man called Colonel Young of Alabama—a veteran of the American Civil War.
Starting out as a bartender at Chatham Bar and Hotel, Henry became a hit with patrons like Col. Young due to his amiable disposition.
He was so fond of Henry, the Colonel gave him the money to start up his own bar in Paris, which became a big success with Parisians and Americans alike. Until the Colonel’s death, not long after the war began, he was a frequent patron of Henry’s. It was said he camped at the bar morning, noon, and night.
The old vet sure knew how to spend his last days!
Sadly, things didn’t end well for the genial bartender. In 1918, he broke down due to the stress of the war and his declining health. In his depression, he jumped out of the window of an upper floor room at his hotel, the Rue Volney.
But before he took the extra express elevator, Henry was said to have invented the mixture that made its way to Harry’s, possibly resulting in Harry’s New York Bar receiving undue credit for its invention.
Given the simplicity of the drink, it certainly makes sense that other mixologists experimented with French 75 ingredients or similar ones before both MacElhone and Tepe.
It’s even been suggested that cognac, not gin, was the original spirit. Given the cocktail’s French origins, that idea would make sense.
Whether one uses gin or cognac, the French 75 is a winning recipe. Earlier examples of experimentation with spirits and champagne only prove its timeless nature.
Consider that the combination of gin and champagne was a favorite of Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII.
Tom Gin and Champagne cups (which also included lemon and sugar) was a drink served by Charles Dickens at his Boston parties in 1867.
Yet the name “Tom Gin and Champagne Cup” doesn’t have much of a ring to it.
Being christened with the name of a powerful French field gun probably resonated with a populous that was steeped in war. If you ask, what’s in a name? The answer is probably everything. War was on people’s minds, and the reference to it must have given the drink a memorable aura.
We may never know the definitive origins of this elixir. But we can say for certain that the French 75 is a damn good cocktail that took off like a cannon in Europe and America.
An Elixir for a
The long evolution of the French 75 culminated in the bubbly recipe that’s popular today. The champagne/gin mixture was immortalized in 1930’s The Savoy Cocktail Book written by legendary barman Harry Craddock. The book made it big in London and was a success that even an ostensibly dry America could appreciate.
The hard-hitting drink has the distinction of being among the cocktails that gained popularity during the height of prohibition. When America was seemingly dry, the tincture was still able to
hit with remarkable precision, as Harry Craddock put it.
But a few years before Craddock’s book made it to the London market, a more subversive text crept on the scene in America.
Here’s How was a liquid recipe book (completely wholesome, of course) written by cartoonist and illustrator Judge Jr., nom de plume of Norman Hume Anthony.
He got his name because he wrote for the satirical Judge Magazine. And as a satirist, prohibition humor wasn’t lost on him.
Judge Jr. embodied the cavalier attitude of anti-prohibitionists, saying at the start of his recipe book,
Like a great many other people, I never thought of taking a drink before prohibition.
Here was a man who boldly spat in the face of prohibition and had a hearty laugh at its failures.
A reviewer of Judge Jr.'s book even said wryly that its contents were “utterly wasted in our time.” But the statement was purely ironic, since everyone from bootleggers to the modern imbiber owes a toast to Judge Jr. for defining recipes we now know as classics—including the French 75 recipe that would be penned in Craddock’s text three years later.
Even though the recipe of their time is largely the same as the most popular one today, the quality of the cocktail back then was a little different from today.
Like many other drinks in 1920s America, including the Bee’s Knees and the Sidecar, the French 75 was palatable in part because its sweet ingredients helped make the gin bearable—and gin was a popular spirit in the 20s.
Gin was so ubiquitous because it could be produced fairly easily, by filling a bathtub with alcohol spirit (ever heard the term “bathtub gin?”) and adding water or sugar and juniper oil to thin it out.
The addition of sugar helped to mask the taste of the questionable gin. The addition of grenadine—a syrup derived from pomegranate—or sugar in French 75 would have kept patrons from noticing all the funky flavors in the moonshine. Some of those flavors came from sources like creosote—an antiseptic made from tar.
You’d think that’d be a reason to stick to wine and beer! But, unfortunately for speakeasy patrons, bootleggers could sell their moonshine at a cheaper price than wine and beer.
Unlike the 21 Club in New York, which also had a wine cellar and a high profile clientele (think Joan Crawford and, of course, Hemingway), many speakeasies relied on cheap spirits from anyone selling to keep the operation going.
We should be grateful that the French 75 we enjoy today is without a doubt much better quality than the one they imbibed in speakeasies.
A Barrage of Riffs and Variations
Although Here’s How and The Savoy Cocktail Book contain the most familiar French 75, it was, as we’ve seen, not truly the first incarnation. But there was also an arsenal of other variations that were developed after prohibition and continue to be developed today.
If champagne isn’t your preferred bubbly, you can sub cava or prosecco. Also adjustable is the sugar. Powdered sugar is in-keeping with Judge Jr. and Caddock’s recipe, but grenadine is used in the original 1915 version.
For those who want to change the spirit, one version that would thrill whiskey lovers is the French 95. Dating back to at least 1976, the substitute of whiskey over gin adds a warm caramel color and more sweetness than the original mix.
Perhaps the French 125—using cognac instead of gin—makes the most sense as an alternative, given its use of the quintessential French spirit. But the only downside for traditionalists is that it might depart from the original’s militaristic edge.
In the 1980s, one patron at the French 75 Lounge in Paris ordered a French 125 and exclaimed, “It drinks so beautifully! It’s so sweet and innocent”—a slight knock to the masculine reputation of the old bevvy.
But this was partly due to what was called a “recipe revolution” in the 1970s. Stanley M Jones wrote Jones’ Complete Barguide in 1977 where he outlined the recipe for the French 125. He claimed the younger generation were inexperienced drinkers who wanted sweet mixes that masked the taste of liquor.
So, anyone who prefers to make love, not war might find the French 125 more agreeable.
Keeping with the mellow theme, the French 76 lightens the armory with vodka—a spirit Jones believed was neutral enough to appeal to novice drinkers. No offense intended to vodka lovers, of course.
Though I must say, when making the recipe with vodka, Jones should’ve instead named it the Russian 75. Missed opportunity.
These are all good alternatives depending on your personal preference, but there’s no denying that the original remains strong and steadfast.
The French 75 of old, like the weapon it was named after, lasted through many battles in its era. From the turmoil of prohibition to the personal woes of its makers and imbibers—this drink has seen a lot!
So what better way to end a long day than to fill a cartridge-like Collins glass with the traditional French 75 recipe? Like an old war buddy, this classic will always give you a strong shoulder to lean on.
French 75 Cocktail Recipe
1 1/2 oz Gin
1 fl oz Lemon juice
1 Teaspoon powdered sugar
Champagne the rest of the way
Preparation: Stir powdered sugar with lemon juice until the sugar dissolves. Add gin then shake with ice and strain into a glass with cracked ice. Fill with champagne the rest of the way.