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Behind the Bar: Bastille Day

French 75
French 75. Image:

Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

Get out your beret: Sunday is the historic French holiday Bastille Day! It’s time to play a few games of pétanque and eat a bowl of Gruyère-crusted onion soup and a plate of steak frites. But you must have at least one cocktail before you order a bottle of Beaujolais. So what’ll it be, Mack...err, make that monsieur Mack? Fortunately, you have a number of Gallic options, some dating all the way back to Prohibition.

While most elixirs served during The Great Experiment were terrible, a few good concoctions were enjoyed in that period. We exported the “American School of Drinking” to France, as Albert Stevens Crockett called it in his wonderful Old Waldorf Bar Days, and after Prohibition ended, we got in return beauties like the French 75—and, if you believe the legend, the Bloody Mary.

Now the Bloody Mary needs no set of instructions, no discussion, since every cocktail aficionado in the country will swear that his or her own formula is the best and all others are simply wrong, misguided or malicious. I, of course, will share with you my take on it, should you care to experiment a bit.

The French 75 is another story, but the recipe can be made with cognac or gin. Though the bartenders at New Orleans’ acclaimed French 75 Bar are prepared to duel at dawn to protect the primacy of the cognac version, I would be a second for either camp; I like them equally.

You can also enjoy the Sidecar, another classic from the Prohibition era. (Be warned: Some drink historians think that it’s simply a Brandy Crusta rebranded.) Harry McElhone, in his pocket-sized tome "ABC of Mixing Cocktails" credits a man named MacGarry of the Buck’s Club in London with the invention, but respected cocktail author David Embury insists that it was created in Paris by a close friend. For the sake of the holiday, let’s go with Embury’s version of history. And when you fix the drink, I hope you have the good sense to use French cognac, Cointreau and—do I really need to say it?—fresh lemon juice.

Finally, I suggest you end your Bastille Day with an after-dinner tipple that will be difficult to resist: the Parisian Blond. It’s a simple but perfect combination of Jamaican rum, curaçao and cream. À votre santé, mes amis.