I don’t recall how the conversation started, but I remember well how it ended.
“I never went back there,” said the young woman.
Our conversation had involved Jazz Fest, a bar in New Orleans, a bartender at that bar, and a drink called a French 77.
“He told me there was no such drink,” she said clearly still bothered by the encounter. “And then gave me a long-winded lecture involving some French cannon.”
I set down the French 77 in front of her and nodded.
“I asked for another bartender and the new guy finally made the drink for me,” she said pausing before taking a sip. “I showed him the recipe on my phone,” she added after taking that sip.
God bless the Internet. And shame on that bartender. The unfortunate part is that he was right, sort of. But by being right he destroyed a relationship with a customer. As a therapist once told me (over drinks, ironically), it is always important to remember in any relationship: “What are you trying to do with the other person?”
That bartender had lost sight of the customer, and what he was trying to do. Once that happens, it doesn’t matter how right you are.
The story goes that the French 75 was invented in 1915 at the New York Bar in Paris by bartender Harry MacElhone. Mr. 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 Scotsman but named after an American city. Taking two French ingredients, cognac and champagne, MacElhone added a double entendre, naming his creation after the venerable French 75 mm cannon, which at that time was being put to much use in the First World War, not all that far away from the New York Bar.
Later the drink came to include gin as an ingredient, partly perhaps, because its creator was a Scot, and partly because the Tom Collins (also made with gin) was very popular at the time. The French 75 was then built in a Collins glass with ice.
The Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930 lists the later gin version. Later cocktail guides bounce back and forth between the two versions. Gin in Trader Vic’s 1947 guide, cognac in David Embury’s Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948) and back to gin in most of the Mr. Boston series. These days the drink is made with either gin or cognac (or brandy), lemon juice, sugar, and topped with sparkling wine. It is served in a champagne flute without ice. Ironic for a “classic” cocktail since the flute didn’t come into use for sparkling wine until well after the Second World War. The French 76 soon followed made with vodka instead of gin or brandy (with grenadine occasionally), and also served sans ice in a champagne flute. Bringing us to the French 77, which is now made with vodka, lemon juice, and St. Germaine elderflower liqueur (recipe courtesy of the Internet).
I shared none of this information with the little lady, because I have learned over the years that unsolicited advice, or knowledge, is rarely welcomed. In fact it can sometimes be extremely off putting.
Just ask Miss Perturbed, who now sat contentedly sipping her drink. We eventually moved on to other topics of conversation. Bartending so often can be much more than mixing, or even talking about, drinks.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
• There was a 76 mm cannon in World War I, but it was American made.
• The French 75 mm cannons were part of the ill-fated Maginot Line, a defense that failed miserably during World War II.
• Always being right can ultimately be very, very lonely.
• Author David Embury suggested that if gin was used in this drink “it no longer should be called French.” He was also an attorney, go figure.
• That therapist left me her phone number even after I made it clear that I was already in a relationship. Double go figure.
• “220, 221, whatever it takes.” Michael Keaton’s character in the 1983 movie “Mr. Mom,” trying to impress his wife’s boss with his carpentry knowledge. Funny because electricity is either 110 volts or 220 volts; there is no such thing as 221 volts.
• “The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it,” Mark Twain wrote in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
• “Give the lady what she wants.” Words to live by, popularized by Chicago Department store magnate and Chicago University founder Marshall Field.