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The best French cocktails

The who, when, what and where of great French mixology

Cocktails have a murky past; there seems to be no single eureka moment. Apparently nobody tipped a few alcoholic ingredients into a glass, added some extras and declared it a ‘cocktail’. Definitions come and go, fast and loose, and although early mixed drinks were clearly being clumsily made and consumed during the 19thcentury it wasn’t until 1917 that the first cocktail party was documented in Missouri. 

From then on, with Prohibition, the accessibility of long established but essentially local drinks, the arrival of fancy global drink brands and an audience thirsting for new combinations and taste sensations (and ever crazier names), the cocktail world never looked back.

And in France, with its range of wines, liqueurs, botanicals, spirits and tinctures, the cocktail mixer (or today’s modern mixologist) has always had plenty of inspiration at hand.

Celebrate with a cocktail

Whether celebrating with family and friends on the white stone terrace of a French château hotel, or in an oh-so-French hostelry in Bordeaux, Lyon, Nice or Lille, you might be looking for something suitably, well, French to fill your glasses.

Equally, you might have completed a pleasant day’s walk on a Belle France holiday and fancy an authentically French cocktail to tickle the taste buds before dinner. 

Then again, you might find yourself in Paris, the home of insouciant style, the gallic shrug and simmering chic and feel the moment calls for a cocktail with a soupçon of je ne sais quoi. 

Cocktail bars of Paris

As you might expect, Paris has no shortage of establishments offering a fine cocktail. Le Mary Celeste in the Marais has the bar centre-stage and serves oysters and light bites, while the quirky, slightly left-field, bohemian venue Little Red Door also in the Marais, will not disappoint with its little red door which is not actually a door but a one-way mirror. Those inside can enjoy the confusion of people trying to enter before they realise the wall adjacent actually houses the door. 

The Little Red Door which isn't actually a door at all!
The Little Red Door which isn't actually a door at all!

Le Fleur Bleu near the Jardin de Luxembourg is the type of place you stumble upon after dinner, while heading back to your hotel. It does offer food but also a short but well thought out selection of cocktails, mostly in the modern style.

Arbane on St Germain-Des-Près offers craft cocktails with plenty of imagination, lots of theatre and a pleasantly, relaxed, cosy atmosphere.

The Prescription Cocktail Club, also on St Germain-Des-Près, is thoroughly modern and hip, but draws on old school flavours as well as up to the minute mixology influences.

The Lounge Bar View Rooftop sits on top of the Novotel Vaugirard in Montparnasse and, frankly, it’s about the views across the city to the Eiffel Tower that make the whole cocktail experience so exceptional. Sacré-Coeur can also be seen illuminated at night.

The ever-classic Bloody Mary with a spicy twist
The ever-classic Bloody Mary with a spicy twist

Classic French cocktails

Any number of cocktails have emanated from France, the 1789, the Rose, the Mimosa and the Bloody Mary among them. The latter was created by Ferdinand Petiot of Harry’s Bar in Paris who came across the newly available canned tomato juice from America and added it to vodka – names like ‘Bucket of Blood’ and ‘Red Snapper’ came and went before it was named after the Tudor Queen Mary and her bloody rule. 

Festive Kir Royale with cranberries
Festive Kir Royale with cranberries

▲ Kir Royale

A cocktail for the masses, it’s not clear how this cocktail originated: whether to be an accessible, easy to make cocktail for the Everyman or a clever concoction to promote the wines of Burgundy, the origins are lost in the mists of time. Either way it was invented by Felix Kir, the mayor of Dijon, who invented the Kir Cassis cocktail, or ‘blanc-cassis’ as it is often known. 

This is simplicity itself, with blackcurrant liqueur (crème de cassis) added to Aligoté dry white wine to create a delicious, refreshing, highly drinkable aperitif. Somewhere along the line the drink was modified to employing champagne to create the ultimate festive fizz with a little extra va-va-voom. Of course, any sparkling wine - Prosecco, Saumur, Cava – can be used with more or less the same result. 

Twist on a classic - Elderflower French 75
Twist on a classic - Elderflower French 75

▲ French 75

Best served extremely cold, preferably in a chilled champagne flute, and in the confines of an upscale Parisian bar with early 20thcentury credentials. Ideally with a smouldering femme fatale somewhere at the bar delicately puffing on an elongated cigarette holder too. 

First mixed in the New York bar in Paris in 1915, this cocktail was surely a quick way to forget some of the wartime horrors whilst at the same time giving an alcoholic ‘up yours’ to sensitivities of the time. Harry MacElhone the creator felt his creation had “such a kick that it felt like being shelled with the powerful French 75mm field gun”. To call it a champagne cocktail is perhaps deceptive; it includes gin, champagne, lemon juice and syrup.

The definition of sophisticated - the French Negroni
The definition of sophisticated - the French Negroni

▲ French Negroni

A sophisticated cocktail with a sophisticated mix of flavours. Based on the Italian Negroni (using Campari), this requires Lillet – a blend of Bordeaux wine with a touch of citrus liqueurs to provide sweetness and a delicate citrus note. Lillet is added to equal measures of gin and sweet red vermouth. Unmistakeably French.

A product of the roaring twenties - the Sidecar
A product of the roaring twenties - the Sidecar

▲ The Sidecar

Simple but effective, this 1920s classic combines equal measures of cognac and Cointreau (or other orange liqueur like Grand Marnier) with lemon juice to create a beautifully balanced cocktail, sometimes served slightly on the sour side with a sugar rim on the glass.

A classic combination - The Lumière
A classic combination - The Lumière

▲ The Lumière

A cocktail with a hint of the Alpine meadows. It requires gin and St Germain, to which is added green Chartreuse with its distinctive medicinal, herbal notes (130 different herbs and plants are used by the monks to create their secret recipe). Lime juice is added and a dash of bitters for a hint of bitter sweetness.  

Subtle floral notes - The French Blonde
Subtle floral notes - The French Blonde

▲ The French Blonde

Another ‘summer special’ this floral cocktail takes elderflower liqueur, adds Lillet wine, gin and grapefruit juice to create a very dainty looking drink that packs a punch.

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