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French 75

Master bartender Chris McMillian of the Library Lounge in New Orleans continues his excellent video series with a World War I-era classic.

It’s supposedly named after a piece of artillery, the French 75mm howitzer, as a reference to the drink’s kick. One story has it being created by Raoul Lufbery, a French-American WWI pilot who wanted Champagne but also wanted a bigger kick, then added Cognac. Chris relates a story that supposedly Arnaud Cazenave (founder of Arnaud’s Restaurant in New Orleans) created it before he came to New Orleans from France, or perhaps just popularized it in the city (which is a lot more likely).

There’s a bone of contention over the recipe of this drink, with some claiming that it’s a brandy drink, and even making Cognac connections from France to New Orleans in describing an appropriate lineage. The consensus seems to be that this is properly a gin-based cocktail, even though if you go to the French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s Restaurant in the French Quarter (one of my favorite bars) you’ll get it with Cognac.

Chris makes them a bit sweeter than I like. Here’s the way I prefer it.

The French 75

1-1/2 ounces gin.
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice.
2 barspoons simple syrup.

Combine the first three ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake for 10 seconds and strain into a Champagne flute, and top with Champagne. It may also be served over ice in a Collins glass.

Toronto Cocktail

Taking Murray’s suggestion from the comments on the Hanky Panky yesterday, we decided to continue at full speed past the Branca Barrier. The Toronto Cocktail, from The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David A. Embury’s classic cocktail tome from 1948, was the choice and as it was Wes’ turn to mix last night, I passed the recipe on to him. Since he thoguht that Embury’s rather large proportions might make too big a drink (and after a long day at work, who wants to do math?), he decided to check a recipe on CocktailDB.com:

Toronto Cocktail
(CocktailDB.com version)

2 ounces rye whiskey.
1/4 ounce Fernet Branca.
1/4 teaspoon sugar.
1 dash Angostura bitters.

Stir with ice in a mixing glass for at least 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add an orange slice garnish.

*sip* … hey, it’s pretty good. I kinda like this. The medicinal quality is there, more there than it was in the Hanky Panky, but it wasn’t smacking me across the face, it was waving at me from the other side of the creek. It’s quite an eye-opener, though, as it’s really really dry. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course; I do like dry cocktails as compared to really sweet ones. But maybe this one could be a little less dry. “I don’t think there’s enough sugar,” Wes agreed. “I’d go with a whole teaspoon next time.” We did enjoy the drinks, though, but we certainly want to try the other version.

In Embury’s book the Toronto is listed among the “Whiskey Cocktails of the Aromatic Type,” along with the Old Fashioned, and is actually described as “a modified Old-Fashioned.” The first recommendation is to serve it with ice in an Old-Fashioned glass, with stir-and-strain as the second. I think next time we make this it’ll be with the original Embury proportions (although not his exact recipe; we’ll continue with Murray’s recommendation of our beloved Rittenhouse 100-proof rye instead of the Canadian).

Toronto Cocktail
(David Embury recipe with Murray Stenson’s variation)

3 ounces Rittenhouse 100-proof rye whiskey.
1 ounce Fernet Branca.
1/2 ounce simple syrup.
1 dash Angostura bitters (optional).

Build with ice in an Old-Fashioned glass and stir until the sides of the glass are frosty. Garnish with a curly strip of orange peel.

I’m also thinking of a variation that’ll hearken back to my medicinal use of Branca, in hot water with honey — maybe we’ll see how it tastes with honey syrup (as long as drinking this drink doesn’t make me think of being sick to my stomach).


Cocktail of the Day: The Hanky Panky

This is one that I had noticed in The Savoy Cocktail Book, which compiled by The Savoy Hotel’s head barman Harry Craddock in 1930, but I never made it because it was was one that I feared. Why? Because at the time I feared Fernet Branca, one of the three (four, really) ingredients called for in this drink.

I have a history of fearing rather odd drink ingredients — there were days years ago when I feared both gin and vermouth, and now I’m gleefully swilling both of them nearly every day. I even grew to love Italian bitters, both as aperitivi and digestivi: Campari, Ramazzotti, Cora, Averna, Nonino … I grew to love them all. But not Fernet Branca. For the longest time it was the sole bottle in our bar that we kept around strictly for medicinal purposes.

Lest you chuckle at that old excuse for keeping alcohol around, it’s true. It’s a strong herbal liqueur, and as we’ve known for centuries herbs are used medicinally, and have effects on human physiology. When I first heard of Fernet Branca many years ago, the guy who turned me on to it called it “the medicine chest in my bar,” which for years was an apt description. If I ever had an upset stomach or nausea, particularly from overindulgence, all I needed was one shot of Fernet Branca and I would invariably feel better in less than five minutes. Hardcore Italian drinkers would take it as a shot, or sipped over ice; the person from whom I got the online tip recommended it the way his Italian grandmother took it, in a teacup with hot water and a tablespoon of honey.

The thing about Fernet Branca that took me so long to get over was not just its bitterness and herbal quality, which I enjoy very much. It’s got a pretty overwhelming astringent medicinal quality to it that tended to remind me too much of the Nasty Medicine I had to take all through my childhood. I knew it had good stuff in it, but why must it have a layer of Nasty Medicine on top?!

For quite a few years Wes and I had tried a few cocktails that called for Fernet Branca as an ingredient. We never could get past that medicinal quality, and never made them again, nor any other Fernet Branca cocktails. I kind of gave up.

Then, two Fridays ago, there was another in a long series of advanced post-graduate cocktailian colloquia — i.e., an evening of drinking at Dr. Cocktail’s house. After waking up our palates with the liquid equivalent of a 2×4 upside the head — sips of two wormwood-flavored bitter liqueurs (but not absinthes), Gorki List Pelinkovac from Serbia and the Swedish-style but Florida-made Malört, which Doc calls “eau de vie de dill pickle” and which is apparently hugely popular in biker bars, and both of which we rather liked — we were offered a Fernet Branca-containing cocktail. If it comes from the Doctor’s bar, I will try it, no matter what, so he told us about a drink invented by one Ada Coleman, who began work at the Savoy Hotel’s bar in London in 1903, a drink that became her most famous and longest-lived. Harry Craddock, who began work there in 1920 and who published The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930, included it due to its continuing popularity.

The trick with this one, explained Doc, was using a really large orange twist not only to garnish the drink but from which you express as much orange oil as you can. The orange oil sprayed onto the surface of the drink, both for flavor and aroma, is what tames the Fernet Branca, reels it in, transforms it from Nasty Medicine to a marvelous subtle complexity.

I seem to recall Doc making this with a 2:1 proportion of gin to vermouth (I’ll have to double-check with him later), but we did it at the original proportion of 1:1. We did take Doc’s suggestion, since it worked so well the first time we tasted it, to up the Fernet Branca content from 2 dashes to 1/4 ounce, and to make sure we sprayed a lot of orange oil from the peel.

The Hanky Panky Cocktail

The Hanky Panky Cocktail
(Created by Ada Coleman, The American Bar, Savoy Hotel, London, early 20th Century)

1-1/2 ounces dry gin.
1-1/2 ounces sweet vermouth.
1/4 ounce Fernet Branca.
Large slice of orange peel (1-1/2″ x 4″ approx.)

Stir with cracked ice for no less than 30 seconds, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist the peel over the drink to spray out as much orange oil as you can onto the surface of the drink; garnish with the peel.


The Hanky Panky Cocktail
(Dr. Cocktail variation from CocktailDB.com)

1-3/4 ounces gin.
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth.
1/4 ounce Fernet Branca.

It was very cool indeed to sip this drink while toasting its creator, who conceived of it nearly a century ago. I also have Ada (and Doc) to thank for finally breaking my fear of Fernet Branca, as we’ll make the Hanky Panky often.

[2010 UPDATE] Nowadays I love Fernet Branca so much I keep a flask of it in my bag at most, if not all, times. How about a Fernet Old Fashioned?



This is one of the classic aperitivos, and the precursor to the Negroni by many years. As the story goes, it was served by Gaspare Campari in his bar in Milan from the 1860s on. (You probably recognize his name.) The drink was also called the Milano-Torino because of the origins of its main ingredients — Milan for the bitter Campari, and Turin for Cinzano, most well-known sweet vermouth at the time.

This is incredibly refreshing, and a good way to introduce someone to Campari.

The usual recipe calls for 3 cl, or about 1 ounce, of each of the two main ingredients. I like mine a little bigger, and generally use a jigger of each in a slightly larger rocks glass when I’m at home.

Italy’s classic aperitivo

1 ounce Campari.
1 ounce sweet vermouth.
Soda water.

In a short rocks glass, build over ice. Add soda and stir. Orange slice garnish.

On a hot summer day I could knock these back morning, noon and night. On almost any other day, too.


The Astoria Bianco

Here’s one from the wonderful bartender Jim Meehan of PDT (Please Don’t Tell) in New York City. This is a great way to introduce people to vermouth who might be afraid of it. Dolin Blanc is probably the best sweet white vermouth available now, and will knock your and your guests’ socks off, but you can also use Martini & Rossi Bianco.

The Astoria Bianco
(by Jim Meehan, PDT, New York)

3 ounces gin.
1 ounce sweet white vermouth (Dolin Blanc or Martini Bianco).
2 dashes orange bitters.
1 orange twist.

Fill a pint glass with ice. Add gin, vermouth and orange bitters; stir well. Strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with the orange twist.

This is lovely.