Whether we drink to celebrate the occasion or fortify ourselves until it (and the visiting relations) pass, the holiday season is prime time for tippling. It’s too bad that so many of the drinks we associate with Christmastime—we’re looking at you, eggnog—rely on a rich dairy base or contain enough spices to bake a pie, which makes consuming more than one of these beverages in a single afternoon a somewhat daunting task.
The solution is to find a cocktail that still feels special occasion-worthy (we’ve got 364 other days to mix a Negroni), but might be enjoyed two or three times before we make that last plate of turkey and call it a night. With this aim in mind, I’d like to introduce the French 75.
There is nothing particularly Christmas-y about the cocktail, aside from the fact that it calls for Champagne and is served in a wine flute; in my mind, these features make it imminently toastable and are more than sufficient. It is also, as far as I know, the only cocktail to be named after artillery support: according to legend, Harry MacElhone of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris first mixed the drink in 1915 and christened it after the French Army’s preeminent field gun, owing to its potent kick. Given that Great War connection, you might wish to raise a glass to the festive spirit of those French, British and German soldiers that crossed No Man’s Land to play pick-up football and sing carols during the informal “Christmas Truce” of 1914.
But back to the subject at hand: the typical recipe calls for London Dry gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and Champagne. This combination makes it crisp and effervescent, light but high-proof, and something you can slowly sip from a tall glass while you wait for that fondue kit rumored to be stored somewhere in the attic to materialise.
Despite the seeming perfection of its build, there continues to be much debate over its ingredients. MacElhone’s original recipe was radically different from how the drink is made today, and called for Calvados, gin, grenadine, and absinthe; the standard gin-and-bubbles iteration was only canonized by The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930.
While bartenders largely agreed that it should contain Champagne, sugar, and citrus, the base spirit has appeared variously as either gin or cognac throughout the decades. While I was first introduced to its gin iteration, which continues to be the far more popular of the two, I’ve since developed an appreciation for its cognac-based counterpart. Aside from the French connection to its namesake, the oak-aged spirit adds extra richness to an already decadent drink.
Whether you go the gin or cognac route, you need something reliable, not necessarily top shelf: I’d recommend Beefeater for the former, or any standard V.S. in the case of the latter. And while the French 75 might be economically topped off with cava or prosecco at any other time of the year, let’s not forget that it’s Christmas: plump for Champagne and your guests won’t forget it.
45ml gin or cognac
15ml simple syrup
15ml lemon juice
Lemon twist, for garnish
Add gin (or cognac), simple syrup and lemon juice to a shaker filled with ice and shake until chilled, about ten seconds. Double strain into a chilled wine flute and top with Champagne. Garnish with lemon twist.