Get out your beret: July 14 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 Blonde. It’s a simple but perfect combination of Jamaican rum, curaçao and cream. À votre santé, mes amis.
1. Bloody Mary
The origins of this savory brunch favorite are murky, but one story holds that it was created at Harry's New York Bar in Paris in the 1920s. Whether you choose to believe that over any of the other origin stories is up to you, but it does make a great excuse for mixing up a batch of Bloodys first thing to get your Bastille Day off to a great start.
Another Prohibition-era classic with a fuzzy history, this drink may or may not have been created in Paris, but its ingredients render it French in any case: cognac, Cointreau and fresh lemon juice. Garnish with an orange twist and a sugar rim for an extra-festive sip.
3. Parisian Blonde
Best enjoyed with (or instead of) dessert, this equal-parts combination of Jamaican rum, orange curaçao and heavy cream is rich and indulgent. It makes a fantastic finish to a Bastille Day meal.
4. French 75
This combination of gin, lemon juice and simple syrup topped with Champagne is a perfect any-time-of-day drink, from brunch right through the evening hours. Be warned, though: It does pack the punch of the 75-millimeter field gun used by the French in World War One for which it's named.