As with most popular cocktails it is often difficult to find a concise origin story. The history of a cocktail requires tons of research which typically requires flipping through old newspapers and recipe books. There wasn’t a database or encyclopedia where bartenders stored recipes.
There is no better example of this than the French 75, a mixture of gin (or maybe Cognac?), lemon, sugar and Champagne. It is a joyfull, bright and intoxicating concoction that has become a staple for all respected bartenders and a go-to for cocktail enthusiasts.
We know all the parts but how did they come to be a completed puzzle? The French 75 was first noted in print back in 1927. In the midst of Prohibition a humorous magazine in New York put out a bootlegger-friendly cocktail book called Here’s How! which is where the original recipe is credited. A few years later the Savoy Cocktail Book included it in their seminal work which is where it grew legs. This made the French 75 the only classic cocktail born in America during the Prohibition era.
But of course there is conflicting evidence to this historical account. In the 1860s Charles Dickens would hold gatherings with literary peers at the Parker House in Boston. The Parker House was known for their Champagne Cups which were made of bubbly, sugar and lemon. At his parties, Dickens liked to add gin to the Champagne cup. So he was essentially serving the French 75 to his guests.
Turns out that combining gin and Champagne was widely popular with people in the upper class. It was a favorite of Queen Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales, as well as the king of Hawaii, Kalakaua. The combination of Cognac and Champagne was even more popular and referred to as the “King’s Peg,” The King’s Peg was a staple served across the eastern parts of the British Empire.
In short, the odds are that whoever invented the French 75 didn’t really invent anything at all. They simply gave it a name. But as with most things, the name is everything.
People were drinking spirits with sugar and bitters for a century before someone yoked that cheerful word “cocktail” to the amalgam and in doing so made it an American cultural institution.
So the combination of gin, Champagne, lemon and sugar finally received a proper name; the French 75. Named after the French cannon that was crucial in the Allied Powers victory in WW1, this cocktail has been referred to as the “most powerful drink in the world”.
In short you could read this history and say to yourself “there is nothing new under the sun”. And you would fundamentally be correct. When something is new it is rarely born out of nothing. The French 75 is a prime example. It is a concise version of a very old concoction that people have enjoyed for nearly two centuries. If it ain’t broke, just tweak it.
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