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The French 75 has been around for more than a century. While much of the current debate revolves around the use of gin or Cognac, its inception story is just as testy.
The same can be said of its composition, which has been made with everything from grenadine to applejack, Calvados and absinthe. But one thing is certain — the Champagne cocktail is a stalwart among purist drinkers and bartenders alike.
Hospitality speaks to Jemima McDonald from Earl’s Juke Joint and Romeo Lane’s Joe Jones about their thoughts on the French 75’s cult status, switching out elements, ice, glassware and everything you need to know about nailing the classic.
The French 75 has two main origin stories, both occurring between 1914 and 1915. One credits French Bartender Henry Tepe of Henry’s Bar in Paris with its creation, who named the drink ‘soixante-quinze’ after the cartridge shell of the 75-millimetre field gun used by the French army. The gun and the drink were both said to “knock you flat”.
Another origin story pinpoints the 75 to the World War I front where officers drank a combination of gin, grenadine, applejack and lemon juice from empty cartridge shells. The tale was taken from the frontline to the United States by war correspondent E. Alexander Powell.
The French 75 went on to appear in London in 1916 and was first published in a cocktail book in 1922. The rest, as they say, is a free for all. “The fantastic thing about booze history is everyone was drinking and wanted to take credit, so when it comes to cocktail history, everything is highly disputable because they were all drunken liars,” says Joe Jones, co-owner of Melbourne’s Romeo Lane.
Tall tales aside, a skew on a French 75 is ever-present on Romeo Lane’s cocktail list, with a gin passionfruit number currently on offer. That’s not to say Jones isn’t partial to the Cognac version, also known as a French 125.
“People certainly have their preference,” he says. “I think they’re both virtuous. A gin base is an extremely luxurious version of a Tom Collins topped with Champagne instead of soda.
“The gin version is a brisk, reviving option that’s almost like a turbo drink. But if you like a more European touch, what Champagne acid does to Cognac is quite fantastic — grape on grape is really cool. It adds an intense complexity that is equally as enjoyable.”
For Earl’s Juke Joint Bartender Jemima McDonald, the French 75 is a product of context. “It has so many classic ingredients that are iconic of the time,” she says. “If it’s made well, it’s super bright, super tart, a little bit sour and a tiny bit sweet.
“There’s a reason it has stayed somewhat popular within the hospitality and bartending world. It’s stood the test of time — it’s not going to leave the hive mind of hospitality people and it’s going to be on menus forever.”
While McDonald isn’t one for cocktails topped with sparkling, she leans towards Cognac in a French 75 for its complexity. “At Earl’s, our house always goes with Cognac because we’re a New Orleans-inspired bar, so Cognac is very important to us,” she says.
“Cognac has that dark, fruitiness, whereas gin is really a vector for whatever it’s paired with. I feel like there’s so many cocktails that have the same ratio of gin/lemon/sugar and you can get that flavour within so many different cocktails, but you’re not going to find that with Cognac. It’s not as well known and people don’t order it as much. It’s more French, obviously; it speaks to the name a little bit better.”
Gin, lemon juice, sugar and fizz are the key elements of the French 75 the drinking public have widely enjoyed since the late 1920s. The core components create the cocktail we all know, but it’s still recognisable with substitutes.
“We use it as a blueprint for a lot of drinks in our bar; when you break down the foundations, they can all be different things,” says Jones. “The sugar can be honey, which gives it a chewier, richer viscosity; it’s more foamy and dense. You can also replace the sugar with Campari, which is sweet enough on its own.
“Half a strawberry in the tin makes it fruity or pineapple juice can take it to a tiki place. We did a summer version with celery bitters and a pinch of salt, which took it to a savoury place. It has lots of legs in terms of impressing people, which makes it a classic. Even in its pure form, it’s upfront in its intention — it’s not complicated or weird — it’s just great.”
Romeo Lane’s current French 75 iteration has given lemon the backseat and instead brought in passionfruit, which is made into a consommé. Sugar has been given the boot and Capilano honey (it doesn’t mess with the flavour profile) is mixed with water to loosen things up.
“In a tin, you assemble the passionfruit consommé, honey syrup, gin and shake it hard with a handful of pellet ice until it’s dissolved,” says Jones. “The drink doesn’t need controlled dilution; you just want to get the mix cold and fluffy. Because the ice has dissolved, you just put it into a flute and top it gently with Champagne or sparkling wine. If you just made the mixture, chilled it in a glass and topped it with Champagne, it would still be delicious, but not texturally on point.”
As far as the gin goes, it’s always London dry. “We use Beefeater as our house gin because it’s reliable and citrus-forward,” says Jones. “Tanqueray is also perfect and Goldie’s is great, too. The flavour holds up and is preserved through the agitation.”
Australian spirits “don’t appeal” to Jones’ tastes, so don’t expect to find local options stocked at Romeo Lane. “I wouldn’t use a weird gin like I wouldn’t use a weird honey because then it gets further away from the original taste of the drink,” he says. “It’s hard to make classic drinks with things that didn’t exist at the time. Not everything has to taste like macadamia and eucalyptus.”
The sparkling element is also interchangeable — depending on how fancy you’re feeling. “If you make a French 75 with cheap sparkling wine, it’s still going to taste pretty good,” says Jones. “Cava is high acid, which makes the drink refreshing, and Perrier-Jouët is a premium option where you get that toasty, breadiness and yoghurtiness from the Champagne acid. It’s going to taste bubbly and alive.”
Classic cocktails at Earl’s are available to order, with fans of the French 75 almost always selecting gin as the base. The bar’s house gin is Tanqueray “which works perfectly because it’s citrus-forward”, says McDonald or they use Plymouth.
The bar’s Inner West location also means patrons are passionate about supporting local distilleries. “People are big on Aussie gins, so I would suggest Poor Toms’ Dry or Archie Rose,” says McDonald. “For Cognac, we use Martell VS or VSOP, but sometimes people want Calvados.”
When making the Cognac variation, McDonald combines 40ml Cognac, 20ml lemon, 15ml sugar and Hoshizaki ice in a shaker. “I shake it for a good seven seconds and double strain into a chilled stemmed glass before topping with Prosecco and garnishing with a lemon twist,” she says.
“You’re looking for a little bit of dilution, but it’s about the chill factor. You want it to be super cold and effervescent, which is why we use Hoshizaki instead of crumb ice.”
Topping with Champagne is tradition, but it’s not an option for all drinkers. McDonald uses a local Prosecco without additives to “give that dry, fizzy element”, she says. “The Prosecco is on the natural side, so it doesn’t have any additives and it doesn’t impart too much sweetness.”
The French 75 isn’t a particularly popular order at Earl’s, “and if it [is], it’s by hospo or gin enthusiasts”, says McDonald. Nevertheless, the bartender still has a raft of variations up her sleeve.
She lists half lemon/half grapefruit as a potential option alongside replacing gin/Cognac with Calvados or lightly aged rum with Angostura bitters. “Swapping the sparkling with pet nat is something we would do; they’re usually quite dry and it makes it look funky as well.”
Classic cocktails typically comprise just a handful of ingredients and emit the illusion of simplicity. But the simplest things are often the hardest to get right. To execute a French 75 at its maximum potential, it’s about being organised.
“Have everything on hand and be prepared,” says Jones. “Juice the lemons as you go so it’s fresh. The acid goes a long way to cutting through things like sugar and Champagne.” Moving fast is also a must. “If you shake something and it sits in the tin, it will go flat quickly,” says Jones. “You don’t want to top a beverage with Champagne and have it still be flat.”
Speed is also front of mind for McDonald along with holding back on the spirits. “It’s not meant to be a super boozy cocktail, so I wouldn’t go heavy on the spirits,” she says. “It’s meant to be nice and fresh so get it to the customer as fast as you can.”
A stemmed wine glass also comes in handy with keeping the cocktail cool. “We don’t use flutes anymore as our glassware has evolved, so we use a wine glass,” says McDonald. “You don’t want to warm it up by holding the glass with your hand.”
Romeo Lane also opts for a stemmed glass: “It’s a Champagne cocktail, so it should go in a flute,” says Jones. “We occasionally use a Champagne saucer which is similar in size to a flute.”
A Collins glass can also be used to serve a French 75, but it’s not particularly practical. “Unless you’re measuring it out, it would be easy to put way too much sparkling in a Collins,” says McDonald. “And people are likely to be weird and put straws in it.”
Jones is in the same boat when it comes to the Collins. “Our Collins glasses are 265ml whereas a flute is 180ml,” he says. “In order to keep the drink balanced, you need to use a vessel that’s going to maintain it. You can make them as best as you can, but if you over or under fill them, they’re not going to fit right.”
The French 75 might not be contemporary, and there’s no doubt it has been drowned out by its counterparts, but it’s more than capable of making a comeback. “I reckon people should give it more of a chance,” says McDonald. “It’s so bipartisan and it’s a ‘for everyone’ cocktail. Everyone can appreciate something about it.”
Whether it’s the tang, the fizz or the smashability, the French 75 is a foundational classic in the cocktail scene. “We’ve played with it for years in varying formats,” says Jones. “It’s such a fantastic bone structure for a drink.”
Lead image credit: Robb Report
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