Discussions about the French 75 usually result in a stand-off, with one party avowing their allegiance to gin as the base spirit and the other declaring brandy or death.
Somewhat unexpectedly, we did not encounter such a row when we convened a panel of experts to blind-taste through 13 renditions of the cocktail. The judges included bar owners St. John Frizell (Fort Defiance) and Joaquín Simó (Pouring Ribbons), who have both participated in enough of these outings that they rank as the Richard Dawson and Charles Nelson Reilly of the PUNCH “Ultimate” tastings. (That was a “Match Game” reference, kids.) But they both struck a pose of equanimity in regards to the French 75.
“It’s a seasonal drink,” said Simó. “In the spring and summer, I want it with gin. In fall and winter, I want it with Cognac.” Frizell told how he and his bar staff has recently done a French 75 tasting, aiming to put the drink on the menu, and had settled upon a Cognac version. However, he admitted, he may have preferred that version “because it’s Christmastime.”
The gin-brandy battle is a fairly recent one. The drink has its origins in the 1920s, and early recipes call for gin. Starting in the 1940s, however, some heavy hitters started advocating Cognac. David A. Embury, the bibulous and opinionated lawyer-author of The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948), said, in a rather remarkable assumption, “Gin is sometimes used in place of Cognac in this drink, but then, of course it could no longer be called French.” Dale DeGroff, the bartender at the forefront of the American cocktail revival, also liked Cognac in the cocktail, and printed that formula in his influential 2003 volume The Craft of the Cocktail. (DeGroff didn’t note that gin was also an option.)
But perhaps no one has done more to promote the Cognac camp that Chris Hannah, the head bartender of the French 75 Bar in New Orleans until recently. How the French 75 is made at the bar that is named after the cocktail is going to carry a lot of weight, and Hannah has staunchly stood by Cognac as the correct spirit.
That said, Cognac remains an epicure’s choice, and the vast majority of French 75s made across the globe are rendered with gin. Jason Diamond, a PUNCH editor who joined in the judging, is a fan of the drink, but had only recently, during a visit to the NoMad Bar, tried it with Cognac. His mind, thus, was open to further revelations as the tasting began.
Mirroring bar practices, the majority of the drinks tested called for gin. Only two asked for Cognac. Simó noted that this ratio likely reflect public tastes concerning the two spirits. “I think all gin cocktails benefited,” from the cocktail revival, he observed. “But I think brandy is still a hard sell on menus.”
The recipes were highly specific. Most contestants named particular brands of gin and Cognac, as well as makers of Champagne. When a recipe didn’t specify a Champagne, Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut was used.
Frizell said that the Champagne component was as critical to the success of the drink as the spirit. “Champagne is a main ingredient,” he pointed out. “Three or four ounces go in there.” Simó countered, however, that he thought the drink “less of a Champagne cocktail, than a cocktail topped with Champagne,” and that he used less of the bubbly in his own formula.
The level of coldness of that Champagne, too, was a matter of importance to Frizell. “I feel temperature is a problem,” he said. “If you order a French 75 in a bar that doesn’t specialize in them, you may get a short shake, so it’s not as chilled. It may be poured into a hot wine glass. The Champagne could be sitting out or in a bucket with two inches of water in it.”
Along the same lines, it was agreed that a French 75 has to get from the bar to the customer quickly, while it is still cold, crisp and effervescent. Samples that arrived to the panel flat and flabby were greeted with skepticism. As with most sours, balance was also an issue. Some drinks were thought too spirit-heavy, too tart or too sweet.
The French 75 has a reputation as a celebratory, slightly fancy drink. As such, several of us preferred it served in a flute, the cocktail’s most common vessel, while others were perfectly happy with it being presented in a coupe. But when one came out in a Collins glass over ice, we were put off. (If we’d wanted a Tom Collins, we’d have ordered one.)
Despite the paucity of Cognac French 75s in the line-up, it was a brandy version that took top honors. The winner came from Tim Miner of The Long Island Bar, who used one ounce of H by Hine Cognac, and a half-ounce each of simple syrup and lemon juice, all topped with Louis Roederer Champagne Brut Premier and served in a flute. A lemon twist was expressed over the drink and then discarded.
The panel found the drink bewitching and beautifully integrated, with lots of body and lushness. “That push-pull between the brandy and the citrus is doing all the work there,” said Simó. “This could go four seasons,” added Frizell. “It’s got enough summertime flavors. It’s so complete.”
Sarah Morrissey of Frenchette came through with the runner-up, presenting a lovely and balanced mix of one-and-a-half ounces of Plymouth gin, one ounce lemon juice, three-quarters of an ounce cane syrup, two dashes orange bitters and two ounces of sparkling wine. Simó applauded the drink’s “sheer crushability.”
Third prize went to perennial PUNCH medal-earner, Tom Macy of Clover Club. Macy’s recipes tend to be highly detailed, while staying within classic frameworks, and this was no exception. His French 75 contained one ounce Tanqueray, one-half ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice, one-quarter ounce simple syrup (1:1) and one-quarter ounce demerara syrup (2:1), topped with two-and-a-half ounces Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut Champagne. A further note instructed the maker to “Very gently dip a barspoon to the bottom of the glass once or twice to integrate the ingredients, agitating the bubbles at little as possible.” It all paid off in the glass.
The famous French 75 of Chris Hannah was also admired, though it just missed making the top three. Its chances were perhaps hurt by the fact that we were not drinking it in the French Quarter. As Simó quipped, “There’s something to be said for atmosphere.”