WHEN I WAS in journalism school, my investigative journalism professor stressed the importance of knowing the bias of your sources. We all have bias built up over a lifetime. We see things, rightly or wrongly, through the prism of our own experience. So, when I raised my hand and asked who had written our textbook for her class, I was surprised to be met by stunned silence.
Later she confided to me that in the 10 years she had taught that class, with hundreds of future investigative journalists every single semester, not one had ever asked her that question.
That memory resurfaced immediately after the French 75 cocktail I made was sent back.
“She says that you made this wrong,” the waiter smirked in that way that only waiters can.
I had made the classic drink as I knew it — cognac, lemon juice and a touch of simple syrup, shaken and then poured over the rocks in a tall Collins glass, and topped with Champagne. A cognac Collins topped with bubbly wine instead of bubbly water. Tres Francais, indeed.
I guessed the problem was with a little hiccup in the classic cocktail equation — French 75 is just as correctly made with gin instead of cognac.
The story goes that the drink was invented in 1915 at the New York Bar in Paris by bartender Harry MacElhone. Ironically, MacElhone later bought the bar from its American owner, former jockey Tod Sloan, and renamed it Harry’s New York Bar, making it a French bar owned by a Scot named after an American city. Taking its French ingredients, cognac and Champagne, MacElhone added a double entendre, naming it after the venerable French 75 mm cannon, which at the time was being put to much use in World War I.
Later the drink came to include gin perhaps partly because its creator was a Scot and partly because Tom Collins (made with gin) was also popular at the time.
The preeminent “Savoy Cocktail Book” of 1930 lists the gin version. Later cocktail guides ping-pong back and forth between the two versions.
Knowing this, I mixed the gin version, passed it to Mr. Smirky and went about my business.
Soon enough the gin version was returned to the service window.
“She says that you still made this wrong,” he said, his smirk replaced by a look of outright annoyance. Having been on his side of the service equation — with the kitchen as the offending party — I know what it can be like. I asked what was wrong with it.
“She says she’s a mixologist in the city, and she always strains it into a Champagne flute.”
One thing is certain; none of the recipes in any of the classic guides ever suggests the drink be served that way. In fact, the flute wasn’t even de rigueur for French bubbly until more than half a century later. But, who am I to argue with a city mixologist?
So I made it the way she wanted, shrugging off 50 years of tradition in the process. The drink returned one more time; it was missing a sugared rim.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
• The heroic cannon of World War I ironically was also part of the Maginot Line, which failed miserably during World War II, proving that if you don’t adapt you run the risk of falling behind.
• Harry Craddock, compiler of the “Savoy Guide” wrote of his French 75, “Hits with remarkable precision.”
• David Embury, who was not a city mixologist, suggests that if gin is used “it no longer should be called French.”
• The 1984 “New International Bartender’s Guide,” which lists no author, includes a recipe for the flute version.
• Wikipedia also lists the flute version. Ironic, since Wikipedia is never allowed as a source for actual news stories.
• Calling yourself a mixologist doesn’t impress someone who has been tending bar for 25 years.