“I’ll have a French 77,” said the short blonde woman slightly unsteadily in both speech and in gait.
I assembled the ingredients as I knew them: elderflower liqueur, gin, lemon juice and sparkling wine.
“This tastes funny,” she said wrinkling her nose.
“Funny how?” I asked. Because even though I have been making drinks for three decades I know it’s always possible that I can make a mistake. The wrong bottle. The wrong juice. The wrong drink. It happens.
“It tastes like soap,” she said.
“That’s the elderflower,” I said. “That’s what makes it a French 77.
“Maybe it’s a French 76?” she asked pushing the offending drink forward.
People make mistakes ordering all the time. They say Manhattan when they mean old fashioned, or they say “up” when they mean rocks. And drinks get confused too. Gimlets are made when Gibson’s are ordered. The world is an imperfect place, partly (or mainly) because it is filled with imperfect people, on both sides of the bar.
Her French 76: vodka, lemon juice, simple syrup and sparkling wine, also proved to be unsatisfactory. What she really wanted was a French 75. She was just confused about the number.
But confusing is what the French 75 is all about. It’s a 100 year old drink but early recipes list either cognac or gin along with lemon juice, sugar and sparkling wine. Some recipes include calvados and others suggest adding grenadine. Theoretically the drink came into being at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris invented by none other than legendary barman Harry MacElhone. Reported to have quite a kick it was named after the famed 75mm field gun that served the French forces of World War I so well. The recipe then fluctuated between gin (a typically English product) and cognac (a French product, making more sense for a drink named after a French gun) until finally coming to rest in the 1930’s in the Savoy Cocktail Guide (from another so-called “American Bar”) as the gin version. The original was almost certainly a variation on a Tom (or gin) Collins, replacing the sparkling water with sparkling wine, and serving it in a tall glass with ice.
By the time it was ordered in the 1942 film Casablanca, the drink would have been served in a champagne coupe, sans ice. But we never see that drink in the film. It is ordered by a German for his new French girlfriend in Rick’s American bar (named Café Americain) and is probably a timely subtle jab at the French. In fact, the French bartender it’s ordered from chastises the girlfriend in French for ordering it, and for being with the German. The French 75 field gun might have won the first world war for the French, but it lost it for them in World War II, as part of the outdated Maginot Line. Either way the order starts a bar argument between German and French soldiers (ostensibly allies at the time after the occupation of France) that leads to the climactic scene of French expatriates loudly singing La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem. But considering that the Champagne Cocktails also served in the movie (champagne, bitters and sugar) both come in coupes, it’s a safe bet those French 75’s would have too.
The French 75 saw a resurgence in popularity in the early 2000’s with the venerable (yet unspecified) cocktail returning to drink menus in force. Sometimes with gin, sometimes with cognac, it was a bit of a head scratcher. Add in the two additional variations, the French 76, made with vodka instead of gin, and the French 77, made with gin and the addition of elderflower, and confusion reigned supreme. Throwing in the more modern flute glass didn’t help either.
“I always remember it’s a French 77,” said the woman. “Because I was born in 1977.”
“You were born in 1976,” said the man with her.
“Oh yeah, that’s right” replied the woman a little wearily.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
-We often remember things the way we want to remember them, not as they actually were.
-The fictional Rick’s Café Americain (from Casablanca), might be the only famous so-called “American Bar” that I have ever heard of, that was actually owned and operated by an American.
-The customer might always be right, but sometimes making them right is harder than others.
-Ignorance might be bliss, but it can be costly, for both the practitioner and the world at large.