What is French mixology?

A few days ago, I was on a small cruise ship on the Nile. Lucky me. I was not drinking much, because beverage alcohol is pretty much just something for tourists in Egypt, the selection is limited, the prices are high, and odds are, the man behind the bar has never tasted alcohol and brings little insight to his position. Nevertheless, I was put on the spot by friends and after some rummaging, dug up a cocktail (1) for which the necessary ingredients were available, and (2) seemed remarkably appropriate, thematically.

This is a cocktail from the 1929 Cocktails de Paris.

I’d never made it before. It’s possible nobody on the planet has made this drink in decades—I have no idea. That split base is… not promising. But what the hell. I walked the bartender through the process, for which he charged me an astounding amount of money, but the drink he made was enormous, bracingly strong (obviously), a lovely pink hue, and made a fine conversation piece. Worth it.

The surprise, though, was that the drink was tasty. It was a dry bucket of booze, but the gin and scotch kind of melded into something new, perhaps mediated by the Pernod, and even though we used minute amounts of both the Pernod and grenadine, they both were there, in the background.

I would also state that (besides being a French cocktail) the drink felt like a French cocktail, in the way that the Rose is French, although I’m unable to articulate why.

Thoughts?

Interesting question. I may pose it tonight to my French nightly cocktail partner. The French love to look at something foreign and say, “Mais oui ! We adore it, but you must to understand simple American. We’re French. We must to do it OUR way [sic].” That’s pulled from memory, but I have actually been told that.

Without having tasted it, I couldn’t say anything specifically about the flavor, but maybe it’s the against-the-grain split base that suggests this Frenchness? I’ve seen several cocktails that claim French (or New Orleans) roots with split bases.

Did they actually have Gordon’s and Johnnie Walker? Or were there substitutions? It would be interesting to know if the recipe was robust enough to swap brands or relied on the specific flavor profiles of those bottles. It was obviously at least robust enough to endure whatever formulation/flavor changes that had happened since 1929.

As a simple base slightly seasoned (in this case, the pastis and grenadine) to accentuate the base flavors without overwhelming them? That’s classic French simple cooking style.

And with your initial reaction to the recipe, I find also find that in many things French, the description may be… less than appetizing, but the taste can be surprisingly interesting (if not good). Surprise adds a great deal and is a very French ingredient. Your expectations were already quite low (Egypt, possibly unskilled barman, limited selection, questionable recipe). Have you tried it again since returning home (if you’re back yet), or in the context of other cocktails?

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I wrote an article a couple of years ago for a French magazine on the topic of a “French school of mixology”. The answer was that the French never developed a consistent “French touch” in drinks making.

While John’s look a that recipe through the prism of French cooking looks promising, I’d say that split-basing the cocktail and adding a touch of this and a touch of that is a technique (if we can call it that) that we find all across Europe through the 20s and the 30s. A point might be made that France was Europe’s leading cocktail power and its mores may have influenced the rest of the continent’s bartenders. A counterpoint might be that much of French mixing wasn’t actually French. So, yes, I struggle to define the French cocktail based on this drink. Except, obviously, that the presence of Pernod feels French, of course.

For background info on the drink, the creator here is meant to be Suzette O’Nil (née Suzanne Waroquiez), a minor celebrity of the time. This is one of the numerous cocktails in the book Cocktails de Paris that were created by ‘artists’ for an amateur comp they entered. This one was organized in 1929. Another one was organized in 1928 at the Claridge. The photos below were taken and that latter one. I think quite a few of the “artists’ recipes” were actually lifted off their favourite bars.


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I think we used Beefeater and either J&B or Johnnie Walker Red, Pernod, and an unlabeled grenadine of unknown provenance. I think no question that brand-to-brand nuances will color this drink, particularly choice of scotch. I will revisit the drink again, once I beat this horrid cold I picked up on my way home.

Thank you for all this fascinating information! And pictures!

Perhaps one of the defining characteristics of French mixology are the kinds of drinks they generally disregarded or rejected?

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Fantastic photos! I’d never seen those.

I’m actually taking the opportunity to (slowly) read Les Cocktails de Paris. So far, the multiple opening texts seems to be describing Frenchness (as with many things French) as more of an attitude and less a specific technique or list of proprietary ingredients. How that is actually communicated in the drink is anyone’s guess. I’m guessing a fair bit of it is just naming and branding and the well-worn trope in western culture (that the French themselves have been pushing since Louis XIV) that things French are just somehow… different.

Anyone who was a teen in 1980s absolutely had to have French designer blue jeans. Did the French invent them? No. But they were compelled to improve them for their own tastes. They lowered the waistline, made them tighter, declared them sexy and boom! Français! By the time the style arrived in America, the only specifically identifiable French-y parts were the names and the ads. Sasson, Bonjour, Jordache (all American companies, btw).

Martin, I wonder if the cocktail was just named “Water of the Nile” and found in a different, non-French book, would you have had the same reaction?

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For certain, I would not.

I’m revisiting the drink, now, but with a different gin (Tanqueray) and a different scotch (Monkey Shoulder) and a different grenadine (homemade). My drink isn’t pink enough, because my grenadine isn’t artificial enough. The result is still nice, but it’s different from what I had on the boat, mainly because (1) my Tanqueray is higher proof, and (2) Monkey Shoulder is quite honeyed. I guess my take away is that 2:1 gin:blended scotch is a useful template for a bone dry kick in the teeth. It’s sort of like the Bamboo’s rough and burly—yet surprisingly sophisticated—cousin. Your choice of gin and scotch will significantly color the drink.

Update: seems possible the drink was named for this film:

For what it’s worth my recent co-invention, the Saffron Finch, is built on that template with Strega and curacao thrown in. Not so “bone dry” there because I was less parsimonious with the liqueurs (but of course one can adjust to taste).

As an aside, trying to comprehend a consistent “French touch” in anything is nearly impossible.

Suzette O’Nil was an actress born as Suzanne Waroquiez. Her choice to keep the O’Neil of her ex-husband is quite French. They used to use Ô themselves, but that’s more of an Oh! exclamation at the beginning of a phrase and not as part of a patronymic name. Nevertheless, for some reason, the French have adopted and love the O’ and add it to anything they can.

And if you had any curiosity about what refined and subtle qualities define the French style of O’Tacos… well…

uhhh… yup.

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That film was released 4 months after the cocktail competition for which the drink was purportedly created. It might have been named after the source novel, by novelist Pierre Frondaie, though. It was published in 1926. I have no idea if the novel was successful enough to inspire a cocktail 3 years later, but it was published right after L’homme à l’hispano, which was a huge success, and Frondaie, a mostly forgotten writer (not one of his novels is easily available today), was one of the defining writers of French années folles. And obviously, it’s a wordplay on the creator’s artistic name.

We’re veering off topic here, but the ‘O’ here stands if for ‘au’ (meaning ‘at’) and is mainly used in order to be able to register the brand (You cannot register “Au marché” as it’s an everyday expression, so you switch to “O’ Marché” which is phonetically similar but can be registered).
In the 60s and 70s, by the way, it was quite common to play on phonetics with business names. I still fondly remember a bar in Brussels’ Lombardie Street. It was called “Au Long Bar, dit”, which is pronounced exactly the same way but means something like “say, what a long bar…”.

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