“I’m pretty sure I’ve made more French 75s than everybody in the world,” says Chris Hannah. After 14 years manning Arnaud’s French 75 Bar in New Orleans, that’s no hollow brag.
Named after a light-but-powerful French gun used in World War I—a not-so-subtle nod to the drink’s lethalness—the citrusy, Champagne-topped cocktail was first invented and made famous at the New York Bar (now Harry’s New York Bar) in Paris in the early 1900s. Though originally made with Cognac, a gin-based variation, which first appeared in print back in 1927, has since become the standard bearer.
However, that’s not the case at the eponymous Crescent City bar, where Hannah has worked since 2004. He first remembers making a Cognac-based version of the drink in 2007, as taught by longtime Arnaud’s bartender Bobby Oakes. Though the basic ingredients haven’t changed much since then—the recipe has always called for Cognac, lemon juice, simple syrup and brut Champagne—the technique has certainly evolved over the years.
“We had a cocktail boom, but we didn’t know what we were doing with it,” says Hannah, now head bartender at the French 75 Bar. “It’s interesting for me to look at pictures of the drinks I made in the bar over 10 years ago compared to now. It’s all changed—they’ve gotten prettier, gotten better.”
Much of that is owing to the fact that his approach to the drink has become more precise. When he started, Hannah recalls, the practice was to cut the lemons in half, and squeeze them directly into the mixing tin. “We didn’t really measure it, but we knew it was a half-ounce [of juice] in each lemon; each half of a lemon made two drinks.” Today, the lemons are juiced ahead of service and meticulously measured for each cocktail. In addition, instead of the original 50-50 measure of sour and sweet, Hannah adjusted the recipe slightly to include a generous quarter-ounce (or, one-third ounce) of lemon juice to balance out a “shy quarter-ounce” of simple syrup, resulting in a drier drink.
He also insists on topping the drink with Champagne—as opposed to another sparkling wine, like prosecco or Cava—which he values for its effervescence. “A dry Champagne is important for balance,” says Hannah, who opts for Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut. As for the choice in base spirit, he keeps things traditional: He always relies on Cognac, as opposed to gin, which was the choice of the bar’s longtime proprietor, Archie Casbarian, who died in 2009, and of the bar’s original founder, Count Arnaud Cazenave.
“[Casbarian] wanted to make the drink the way Count Arnaud enjoyed it,” says Hannah. “He chose Courvoisier VS.” (Though Hannah will occasionally opt for Pierre Ferrand’s Ambre bottling when making the drink.)
Presented in a six-ounce, tulip-shaped Champagne glass and garnished with a simple swath of lemon peel, the recipe is unlikely to change anytime soon. But Hannah does expect to reach one rather impressive drink-making milestone: In the very near future, he estimates that he’ll have made more than one million French 75s.
Chris Hannah Makes a French 75