This is the story of the most elusive cocktail ever invented, a drink subversive in its potency. The novelist Alec Waugh called it the most powerful in the world. It does not have one recipe, but many. Prepared properly, it can be delightfully refreshing, or it can be rich and complex. Made badly, it is lifeless bilge.

Locating the date of the first-ever French 75 is like fixing the date of the first-ever kiss. You can’t do it. There are no reliable records documenting the birth of individual cocktails. Careful record-keeping is an integral part of the work done by accountants and scientists. Bartenders live under no such injunctions.

What we can say is that the French 75 almost certainly originated in France (the name gives that much away at least). Even so, its creation is quite often attributed to a London gentlemen’s club called Buck’s. The club, however, does not acknowledge an association of any kind. Meanwhile, the current standardised version of the cocktail, served around the world, only vaguely resembles its predecessors. It was made famous at the Savoy in London in the 1920s, but the drink the hotel serves today is nothing like the one imbibed back then.

So, what can we say for sure about it? No one doubts the cocktail got its name from a French 75mm artillery piece. The Canon de 75mm Modèle 1897 was the first modern field gun, firing up to 30 rounds a minute. It was instrumental in stopping the German advance toward Paris. As a tangible symbol of military might, and a reminder of French sacrifice in the field, it became a crucial vehicle for wartime propaganda.

This public campaign was initiated one rainy Sunday morning, February 7 1915, when women fanned out across France selling emblems of the cannon suspended from red, white and blue ribbons. By the end of “La Journée du 75”, 22 million of these had ended up in buttonholes and nearly 5.5mn French francs had been raised to provide care packages for men at the front.

The propagandising of the 75 cannon did not end there. Songs and poems were composed in homage to the gun. Images of it appeared on romantic postcards (L’Artillerie de L’Amour) and on postcards the military gave to servicemen to send home from the front. The gun was emblazoned on everything from clocks and watches to cigarette papers and chocolates. It was in this frenzy that the eponymous cocktail was born, and, like the weapon, it packed a punch.

The earliest known reference to the cocktail is in a “New York Day by Day” column by OO McIntyre that ran in The Washington Herald on December 2 1915, 16 months into the first world war. “There has been brought back to Broadway from the front by War Correspondent E. Alexander Powell the Soixante-Quinze cocktail — the French seventy-five,” McIntyre reported. “It is one-third gin, one-third grenadine, one-third applejack [apple brandy] and a dash of lemon juice.”

The following year, the British magazine Sphere noted the mood in war-weary Paris: “The only indication of levity which any restaurant manifests is a cocktail invented by the mixer of the American bar at Ciro’s called a ‘soixante-quinze’, an agreeable blend of Calvados apple brandy and other mysterious ingredients.”

The cocktail was not, however, invented at Ciro’s. A better authority, Robert Vermeire’s Cocktails: How to Mix Them (1922), gives priority to Henry’s Bar, around the corner — and even then Vermeire only goes so far as to say that Henry Tépé “introduced” the cocktail.

The rest of its history is difficult to unravel. For a start, the drink has not conformed to typical cocktail protocol. Normally when an established drink is tweaked, it gets a new name. With an onion, a Martini becomes a Gibson, for instance. Such rechristenings are not common with the French 75. It often has gin, but not always; ditto for champagne. It can have fresh lemon juice, or not. The drink comes in a champagne flute, a graceful coupe or a tall highball glass. It is served with ice cubes and without. It doesn’t have garnish — and it does. It can include absinthe, but that is not typical.

Four days spent exploring London bars drove this home. At the wood-panelled bar in London’s oldest restaurant, Rules, the French 75 came in a frozen highball glass with ice. At Chutney Mary, an upscale Indian restaurant on St James’s Street, it is made with a cube of brown sugar. At Franco’s, which claims to have been one of the first Italian restaurants in London, they use a floral gin from Italy called Panarea Sunset, and the cocktail comes in a champagne flute with no ice. When we visited, the restaurant was experimenting with a new version using white balsamic vinegar.

To get a sense of the murky, often made-up history of the drink, consider the Buck’s Club attribution. When we visited recently, Major Rupert Lendrum, club secretary and former equerry to the then Prince Charles, recounted his members’ passion for late-night wiffle ball cricket matches in the bar and happily recalled the club’s connection to PG Wodehouse’s satirical novels. He proudly informed us that the first head bartender, Pat McGarry, invented the Buck’s Fizz. But he insisted the club did not invent the French 75, and has never served it.

The club’s records are sparse, but we know Lendrum is correct on the invention part because Buck’s was founded well after the drink became fashionable. Circumstantial evidence, however, suggests the drink would have been served at Buck’s Club at some stage. First, the club was founded in 1919 as a retreat for military officers. Many had served in France and would have sampled the patriotic French 75 cocktail there. Surely some would have wanted one at Buck’s? Second, we have good reason to believe the bartenders knew how to make it. One of them was McGarry’s friend Harry MacElhone, who deserves credit for popularising, if not perhaps inventing, one of the standard French 75s of the time. He would have almost certainly shown his friend and bartender colleague McGarry how to mix the drink, if he did not already know.

After working at Buck’s, MacElhone went on to acquire the famous expatriate New York Bar in Paris, to which he prepended his first name. His version of the 75 there built on the earlier versions mentioned above. It consisted of calvados, gin, grenadine and absinthe.

To add more detail on the sloppy history of the drink, the MacElhone family, which still runs Harry’s New York Bar, says — as do others — that Harry’s cocktail book, Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails, appeared for the first time in 1919. The family does not have a copy, and there is no credible evidence for this assertion. What we do have evidence for is the earliest edition listed in the British Library with a publication date of 1922, around the time MacElhone acquired the bar.

The French 75 served in Harry’s today no longer uses calvados; it uses champagne along with high-octane gin, absinthe, sugar and lemon juice. According to McElhone’s great-grandson, Franz Arthur MacElhone, the bar serves 9,000-10,000 French 75s annually, second only to the Bloody Mary. Harry’s current French 75 is pleasant and refreshing, although we prefer the more powerful original with calvados.

A glass containing a bubbly yellow cocktail – the version of the French 75 served at  Arnaud’s Restaurant in New Orleans, which uses brandy instead of gin. The glass is decorated with a lemon peel star and sliver on the side
A French 75 served in the style of Arnaud’s Restaurant in New Orleans, which uses brandy instead of gin. It now outsells every other drink at Arnaud’s ‘probably 10 to one’, says proprietor Katy Casbarian © Max Ferguson

The bartender most responsible for introducing the lighter, fresher champagne version familiar today was Harry Craddock of the Savoy. Craddock was the “king of cocktail shakers”. His fame had a lot to do with his élan, as well as the Savoy, a magnificent stage for any bartender. Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book, published in 1930, is recognised as one of the masterpieces of the genre. It has witty sayings, art deco illustrations and 750 recipes. Craddock’s French 75 consisted of dry gin, sugar and lemon, topped off with champagne. “Hits with remarkable precision”, was the accompanying aphorism. The author of the quip, Savoy archivist Susan Scott discovered, was Vyvyan Holland, son of Oscar Wilde.

Today, the Savoy bar serves a riff on this that uses botanical Bombay Sapphire gin instead of London dry, and pours the cocktail in a champagne flute with a long-marinated bronze-coloured maraschino cherry at the bottom. It is finished with a lemon zest.

In the US, the story of the French 75 was further complicated by Prohibition. The Stork Club Bar Book, first published in 1946, said the cocktail was “enshrined in the pharmacopoeia of alcohol artistry in the United States”. But in the post-Prohibition years preferences ran toward simpler mixed drinks, such as Martinis and highballs. Then, at the turn of the century, the old cocktail culture re-emerged with vigour. The resurgence of the French 75 was particularly spectacular in New Orleans.

Until then, it had never been one of the quintessential New Orleans cocktails. The 1937 classic, Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em, by Stanley Clisby Arthur, did not mention it at all. But a renovation at the venerable Arnaud’s Restaurant marked a turning point. In 2003, Arnaud’s owners, Archie and Jane Casbarian, created the French 75 Bar as well as a new version of the cocktail. According to their daughter and the current proprietor of Arnaud’s, Katy Casbarian, her parents wanted a bar with “a French flair”, in keeping with the French Quarter in which it resides.

Arnaud’s previous owner, the colourful Germaine Wells, had always fancied French 75s with gin and champagne, while Archie Casbarian drank brandy daily. Its new French 75 was a combination of their preferences, dropping the gin and using Archie’s brandy and Germaine’s lemon, sugar and champagne.

The bar took off, abetted by Chris Hannah, a budding (and now famous) bartender. He became a missionary for Arnaud’s signature drink, tweaking the mixing of it and insisting on precise measurements. He argued for the originality of his formula which, if not exactly like the original, is much closer than the Savoy’s. “The French 75 cocktail had a journey to becoming the New Orleans cocktail,” Hannah told us. “I feel like I wrote the story. It’s what I am known for.”

The French 75 outsells every drink in Arnaud’s “probably 10 to one”, Casbarian said. And it’s now found in fine bars and restaurants throughout the city. At Commander’s Palace, another New Orleans dining shrine, enthusiasm for the 75 runs high. So high that the restaurant’s high-spirited impresario of spirits, Dan Davis, suggested we sample all the standard versions that emerged over the years. It took him several weeks to find all the ingredients, including applejack for the original version. Intensely sweet, it was surprisingly unsatisfying. Davis also used the occasion to invent a new 75 by adding cognac to Harry Craddock’s version. It was superb.

The latest iteration of the French 75 comes in jelly shots, which no true lover of cocktails will embrace. But retracing its century-long history through London, Paris and New Orleans, two things are clear: the French 75 is still around because it moves with the times. And, to paraphrase The Savoy Cocktail Book, it always finds a way to hit with remarkable precision.

Three ways to make a French 75

  1. Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass

  1. Pour into a tall glass containing cracked ice and fill with champagne.

  1. Place the cognac, lemon juice and simple syrup in a shaker filled with ice and shake only long enough to chill.

  2. Pour into a frosted champagne tulip glass, top with champagne and add a lemon twist.

John Maxwell Hamilton is writing a book about the New Orleans history of the French 75. He is author, most recently, of “Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda”. Polly Russell is the head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and a food historian

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