Drunk History: The Absolutely True Story of the Origin of the French 75S

Myth pervades the origin of nearly every classic cocktail. For instance, Winston Churchill’s mother supposedly created the Manhattan. (She didn’t.) Similarly, Jennings Cox, an American mining engineer, was allegedly the first person in Cuba to figure out that rum, lime and sugar might make for a nice drink. (He wasn’t.) And then, there’s the origin story of the French 75.

If popular history is to be believed, English soldiers first concocted the drink while fighting in France during World War I. As legend has it, these intrepid men took the only raw ingredients at their disposal (gin, lemon juice, sugar and champagne) and combined them in a 75-millimeter artillery shell. They gave it a little shake, and voilà, that’s how the French 75 was born. (Well, not really.)

A book from 1919 may hold the real story. That year Harry MacElhone published Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails, a precursor to today’s bartending bibles. Inside, he included a recipe for a drink called a French 75; he listed its creator as a bartender named “MacGarry” of Buck’s Club in London. There’s no mention of MacGarry rummaging around for an artillery shell in there. Instead, the drink was identical to a Tom Collins—gin, lemon, sugar, soda—with one change: The substitution of champagne for soda water.

Which brings me to another strange bit of mythology: For some reason, a modern-day French 75 is never served on the rocks. But when I say that MacGarry’s French 75 is identical to a Tom Collins save for the bubbly, I mean exactly that. And so, like a Collins, a French 75 should also come with ice—a far cry from the odd concoction being poured into champagne flutes these days.

Personally, I’ve never understood that version of the drink, with its odd bit of floating lemon peel. I much prefer MacGarry’s version. If properly constructed, it becomes the classic bracer, which he—not a group of thirsty English soldiers—meant all along.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 ounce London dry gin
  • 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce 2:1 simple syrup, made by slowly heating two parts sugar to one part water in a small saucepan on the stove, until the sugar is dissolved.
  • 2 ounces chilled champagne

METHOD
Combine all ingredients but champagne in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until ingredients are combined and chilled. Add champagne. Pour over fresh ice in a tall glass and garnish with a lemon peel.


Jeffrey Morgenthaler is the bar manager at Clyde Common, the acclaimed gastropub at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon. Watch him make his version of the French 75 here.

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Photo by Dina Avila