CASABLANCA, MOROCCO, 1940. You knew you were done for when you heard someone order a French 75.
It’s a simple drink, and the bartender still knows how to make it — two ounces of gin, two ounces of Champagne, a squeeze of lemon juice, a splash of simple syrup and a twist of lemon to let the crowd know you’re not just sipping on some soda. Such a little thing, really, to tear at your heart the way it does.
Served in a coupé glass or a Champagne flute, a French 75 (or a soixante-quinze, if you’re in Paris) declares its intention to party, no matter the circumstances. It was a drink some romantic created during the last world war, probably at Harry’s in New York: a drink with a kick that hit like a French 75 mm cannon.
It became the thing to tipple during the Roaring ’20s, a time when bathtub gin met fine Champagne, and the two jitterbugged the night away without a care in the world. She would have been a little girl then, peeking through the curtains at the glitterati, but even then she knew she’d grow up to be a woman who would order the kind of cocktail that married the fresh, herby, medicinal snap of gin with the sweet, sharp froth of sparkling wine: a woman who could say the cruelest things in that bell-like Swedish accent, and you’d take in every drop of it without complaint.
You don’t care who ordered it tonight — it probably was that other girl, the one you’re done with. But that used to be her drink, that other woman, the one who mattered. All through those precious months in Paris, you were the bathtub gin: hardscrabble, rough, a little bitter, but invigorating. And she was the Champagne: sophisticated and complex, her provenance unquestioned, equally at home at a royal ball or a basement birthday party.
You wouldn’t have thought the two would have meshed so well together; you wouldn’t even have tried.
But she did, and when she ordered that drink for the first time and made you take a sip, you knew it was love. The sugar was the sweetness of those days, the lemon, the sting of how they ended. “You must remember this,” the song says. Yeah, because you’ve got no choice, even though you pointedly took that drink off the slate at Rick’s. But it’s a classic, and the classics keep coming back to haunt you, like a dame with eyes like marbles and enough moxie to end the war.
Now it’s another world war (you’d think one would have been enough), and you’re stuck in North Africa, a sitting duck for heartbreak to waltz through the door. And of all the gin joints in all the cities in all the world, she had to walk into yours, with that Czech freedom fighter on her arm, and just then someone goes and orders a drink named after a gun.
Nothing evokes the feeling of watching your old flame walk back into your life with another man than the heady kick of Champagne blended with the bracing, grassy slap of gin. It’s like a smack in the face with a velvet glove.
And as you watch that plane take off on that foggy tarmac, you and that corrupt French policeman will head back to your bar for a Tom Collins, which is essentially the same thing as a French 75, with fizzy water instead of Champagne. It does the job, getting you through the night without the pink hue of romance. Just like the rest of your life, without her.