French 75: A cocktail blast from the past

by Terry B on April 25, 2012

This classic cocktail, made here with gin and champagne, has a storied past, albeit with many versions. And it packs a wallop that lives up to its artillery-based name. Recipe below.

We’ve been drinking more cocktails lately, and I blame Michael Romane. Yes, cocktails have been the new black with the drinking crowd for a while now. But except for the occasional martini or gin and tonic, Marion and I have tended to reach for the wine list in bars or restaurants. Until our friend Michael started telling us about his cocktail making—and drinking—adventures.

You may recall that he did a guest post here last September in which he made two delicious cocktails, one with pear vodka and cucumber, the other with bourbon and thyme. He’s also pointed us to a couple of great bars for cocktails in Chicago and generally just put mixed drinks back on our radar.

Cocktails, long absent from the serious bar and restaurant scene (except for the standard booze + mixer + ice/garnish/etcetera), have come roaring back over the last few years. Once relegated to the back pages of mostly second string restaurant menus, they’re on everyone’s menu now, and in starring roles. Partly, it’s the artisanal everything movement in food—give people something new to obsess over, to produce (or consume) in locally sourced, seasonal small batches, using arcane, carefully crafted methods and they’ll do it. Housemade bitters, anyone?

But partly, it’s because cocktails are just cool. Their old school hipness always turns the evening up a notch or two. Glasses get passed around. Jokes get funnier. And everyone feels more glamorous.

The French 75 recently crossed our paths on a couple of menus. The first was at the Highball Lounge, appropriately enough, a second floor bar that calls itself Chicago’s classic cocktail bar. The second was at Frontier, the restaurant that inspired last week’s Scallops with Melted Leeks and Egg Noodles. The Highball Lounge served it in a champagne flute, as I’ve done here. Frontier served it over ice in a rocks glass. Both ways are popular. The cocktail itself is usually a mix of gin, champagne and lemon juice, often with sugar in some form. Some versions replace the gin with cognac, but gin is by far the more common choice.

The drink’s history is murky. The one thing everyone agrees on is the source for the name. It was the Canon de 75 modèle 1897, a French 75mm field gun widely seen as the first piece of modern artillery. Unlike older cannons, only the barrel and breech recoiled, so the cannon remained stationary and didn’t need to be re-aimed between firings. The French 75 could fire up to 15 shells or more a minute, hitting targets up to five miles away. The powerful weapon saw a lot of action in World War I.

“The war to end all wars” is also generally seen as when the cocktail was born. But here’s where the murkiness kicks in. Wikipedia, that knower of all things, states confidently that it was “created in 1915 at the New York Bar in Paris.” They even give the inventing bartender’s name. Other sources are less convinced, some speculating that it was invented by British soldiers homesick for their Tom Collins’s, perhaps even in the trenches, with champagne standing in for the club soda they didn’t have on hand. Yet other reports place its creation in England or the United States.

What is clear is that this delicious drink packs a punch worthy of its name. American humorist Jean Shepherd, author of In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash (a collection of short stories that was the source for the movie A Christmas Story), said, “It’s unclear what makes the French 75 so powerful—maybe it’s the combination of liquors—but, whoo boy, do you feel it when you down one!”

I think he was on to something. And besides the alcohol, there’s the addition of sugar, which seems to intensify alcohol’s effect. In this version, gin, triple sec and champagne are given a boost with simple syrup. Lemon juice helps brighten the flavor of the fizzy, potent classic.

French 75 Cocktail
Serves 2

1-1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) gin
1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) triple sec (I used Cointreau)
1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) simple syrup (recipe follows)
1/3 ounce (2 teaspoons) fresh lemon juice
champagne (or dry sparkling wine or cava), chilled

In a cocktail shaker, mix 4 or 5 ice cubes and the gin, triple sec, simple syrup and lemon juice. Shake until thoroughly blended and chilled. Strain mixture into 2 champagne flutes. Top off with champagne. Enjoy responsibly.

Simple Syrup comes by its name honestly. It really is simple. Mix equal parts water and sugar in a small saucepan (I used 1/2 cup each). Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring frequently, until sugar is completely dissolved. Cool in pan, then transfer to a clean jar. Simple syrup will keep in the fridge for a week or longer.


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

kitchenriffs April 25, 2012 at 3:51 am

I love this drink! And you’ve given it a particularly nice write-up. And IMO Cointreau is the only triple sec to use in this drink (or really any other drink that requires triple sec, with the possible exception of the Margarita). Cava is a good choice for the bubbly. Really fun post – thanks.

randi April 25, 2012 at 5:38 pm

I tend not to stray from gin & tonic but I might be persuaded with this. Looks refreshing!

Terry B April 25, 2012 at 5:49 pm

Thanks, Kitchenriffs! I used cava for these, and it was perfect. Spanish winemakers really produce beautifully dry, crisp sparkling wines—and they’re wonderfully priced. BTW, for the gin, I used Hendrick’s. It has become one of our favorites lately.

Randi, if you’re a fan of gin and tonic, I think you’ll love this. Every bit as refreshing, with a little something extra going on.

beth grossman April 30, 2012 at 11:42 pm

Used to drink these in college at a bar called The Bistro at Penn State, senior year. I made these the other night and we got completely trashed. SO strong. But I love the taste.

Terry B May 1, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Beth, Marion’s sister drank French 75s in college too. Sounds like you were both far more sophisticated in college than I was. You’re right, they really do go down easy and sneak up on you. After one of these, I tend to switch to straight champagne for a second drink. But in honor of your old college days, getting trashed on these sounds kind of fun.

Mel S. May 23, 2012 at 10:42 pm

Looks delish, much more so than the old sickly sweet Singapore Sling, the cocktail of my college days. I also not-so-fondly recall a cocktail called The Boomerang, consisting of equal parts champagne and silver tequila.

This sounds more sophisticated and a tad less powerful.

Terry B May 25, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Mel, I have to say, I think you’ll like this. Last night, Marion and I were driving around aimlessly, making up errands on the fly. At some point, we realized we were near a store where we could get both cold cava and Cointreau, the two ingredients we were missing to make some French 75s. Suddenly, the evening took a lovely, boozy turn.

Helen February 13, 2015 at 3:08 am

I would love to multiply the recipe for a family gathering… Approximately how much champagne would I need for the two drinks (as per this recipe) yo keep proportions consistent?
Thanks in advance!!

Terry B February 13, 2015 at 9:48 am

Helen, it depends a little on the size of your champagne flutes, but about three ounces of bubbly per drink should do it.

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