Thursday 21 October 2010

On the use of Champagne in cocktails

A French '75. (The sugar cube quickly loses
its cubeness and becomes more of a heap)
I've largely given up ordering Champagne cocktails in bars, having come to the conclusion that the classic versions offered in many have far too much brandy (and often too much Angostura). I'm guessing this is because these components are a lot cheaper than the Champagne itself, though it may just be a sort of gleeful "more is more" ineptitude. (At 43 South Moulton I watched as the barman—who was full of cocky confidence in his mixological wisdom—placed a sugar cube on the bar top and literally saturated it with bitters, before slopping it into a glass which he filled a good third full with brandy.)

I feel that if you’re going to make a mixed drink with Champagne you should be able to taste that Champagne and the recipes should be subtle. For the record, I would take a sugar cube, splash three or four drops of bitters on to it then place it in a champagne flute. Over this I pour enough cognac just to cover it, then top up with Champagne. (This is based on glasses a good five inches tall.)

When I became interested in the French ’75, a mixture of champagne, gin, lemon juice and sugar, I tried applying the same principle. The drink takes its name from a French 75mm cannon from the First World War—and the naming is ascribed variously to the experience of drinking it being like the impact of a 75mm shell, or to the combination of typically British and French ingredients representing some sort of entente cordiale. Its invention is often attributed to Harry McElhone (of Harry’s American Bar in Paris), although Harry himself apparently attributed the drink to MacGarry of Buck's Club in London (home of the Buck's Fizz; it's also no accident that the barman at Woodhouse's Drones Club is also named McGarry*). Many are actually under the impression that the drink originated during Prohibition in the US (where it became popular at the Stork Club), though Simon Difford feels that it is unlikely the Americans would name a drink after a (metric unit) French WWI gun, especially given that the war would have been long over by the time Prohibition came along.**

The 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book has the ingredients as described above (apparently the first recipe to appear in print), though it's worth noting that David Embury in his classic The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks from 1948 seems to think the standard version uses cognac and that gin is a variation. More strangely, Larrousse Cocktails (UK edition 2005) by Fernando Castellon states that the original French '75 used calvados instead of the Champagne, and that it was McElhone who made the switch. I can't help thinking that if this were true it is scarcely the same drink, though if there was originally a drink called a French '75 containing gin, calvados, lemon juice and sugar, then you can't argue with that. (I must try it.) Castellon does not give his sources, however. In Robert Vermeire's Cocktails: How to Mix Them (1922, though I admit my copy is the twelfth edition) his recipe for a Champagne cocktail*** has you "squeeze the essence of two or three pieces of lemon peel into the glass" and add another piece to the drink, suggesting a pretty close relationship between the two cocktails. It's easier to see the French '75 as evolving from the Champagne cocktail than from the drink Castellon describes.

Most people seem to use 1½ or 2 measures of gin, about ½–1 measure of lemon juice and about a teaspoon of sugar syrup or fine sugar. These are stirred or shaken and added to a glass to which the Champagne is then added. Some recipes add triple sec, calvados or grenadine. Some serve the drink on the rocks and some with a maraschino cherry.

This version came as the result of my tinkering along the lines of the classic Champagne cocktail described above.

1 sugar lump
3–4 drops of orange bitters
Juice of ¼ of a lemon
About a measure of gin

Splash the bitters on to the sugar cube and place this at the bottom of a flute. Add enough gin just to cover the cube. Add the lemon juice then top up with champagne, stirring gently if necessary, but not with the intention of dissolving the sugar cube—it should sit there at the bottom, bubbling away and gradually breaking down. Although the classic version is supposed to derive its firepower from the quantity of gin, making it this way means you can still taste the Champagne’s character as well as the gin coming through, plus hints of rind oil from the bitters, all freshened by the lemon. Of course it becomes sweeter as the sugar dissolves and as you get closer to its source at the bottom, but, hey, life is about change.

*Oddly, no one seems to agree on MacGarry's Christian name—I've heard Pat, or Malachy—or even whether it was McGarry, MacGarry or Macgarry
**Of course the basic principle of adultering Champagne was much older—the Champagne cocktail is mentioned by Jerry Thomas in 1862. The Seelbach, a combination of bourbon, triple sec, Angostura bitters and Peychaud's bitters with Champagne, was invented in 1917 at the Seelbach hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, though apparently lost until rediscovered by the hotel in 1995. I've not tried it but it sounds interesting.
***In fairness Vermeire does also have you "soak" the sugar cube in bitters, but I still think this is OTT.

1 comment:

  1. I fear I may owe Mr Castellon an apology: I've just found, in Vermeire's very 1922 book, a cocktail called simply a "75", which is one part calvados to two parts gin plus lemon juice and grenadine. He writes, "This cocktail was very well appreciated in Paris during the war. It has been called after the famous light French field gun, and was introduced by Henry [sic] of Henry's bar fame in Paris." Or course where this diverges from Castellon's story is that it suggests MacElhone's version was the calvados-and-gin version, leaving open the question of at what point, and by whom, the Champagne was brought into play.