C is for Cocktail: Paris Overreacts to that “vile American mixed drink”

speakeasies in Paree!

This image is from the 1927 travel guide Paris With the Lid Lifted.

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Hemingway called Paris in the 1920s “one long binge,” and he was pretty much right.

Throughout Prohibition, millions of American tourists flocked to France to see the sights and sample the local brews. Author and editor Clifton Fadiman called Paris “the center of the American tourist’s universe…the Super Mecca of travelers.” “Travelers would begin drinking the moment their ships left New York Harbor and continued until the  boat train pulled into Paris,” wrote Harvey Levenstein in his book We’ll Always Have Paris: American Tourists in France Since 1930 (2004). Sidewalk cafes, boulevards, and bars were “packed with carousing Americans artists, writers, and musicians,” many of whom were smashed. Paris was equally popular among middle-class college students as well, who would be “herded through the major sights and galleries before being allowed to add their exuberant presence to the mobs of Americans in its bars and cafes.” With all of this free-flowing booze and high spirits, Paris was seen by visiting Americans as “a land that was free from American puritanism, where the pursuit of pleasure reigned supreme.” It was by far the most popular tourist destination for Americans at the time—and the quality booze was a big part of its appeal. This humorous fake itinerary from Bruce Reynolds’ Paris With the Lid Lifted, a tongue-in-cheek 1927 travel guide, illustrates this point pretty well:

Don’t Let Your Trip to Paris Be Like This:

WHAT YOU PLANNED TO DO.

June 4: Steamer Saponia Arrive Cherbourg. Spend night in Paris.

WHAT YOU ACTUALLY DID.

June 4: Saponia one day late. Spend night on tender, under pile of suitcases.

WHAT YOU PLANNED TO DO.

June 5: Notre Dame in morning. Louvre in afternoon. Look up cousin.

WHAT YOU ACTUALLY DID.

June 5: Spent day in Cherbourg. Got plastered at station. Paris at midnight.

WHAT YOU PLANNED TO DO.

June 6: Arrange finances at bank. Buy presents for people at home.

WHAT YOU ACTUALLY DID.

June 6: Slept all day. Sat at table on terrace at Cafe de la Paix and watched people go by.

WHAT YOU PLANNED TO DO.

June 7: Morning, visit tomb of Unknown Soldier. Afternoon, Tulleries Gardens.

WHAT YOU ACTUALLY DID.

June 7: Slept and sat at Cafe de la Paix and watched people go by.

WHAT YOU PLANNED TO DO.

June 8: Visit Napoleon’s Tomb, Eiffel Tower, Trocadero, Cluny Museum.

WHAT YOU ACTUALLY DID.

June 8: Changed from Cafe de la Paix to Harry’s New York Bar. Watched pink elephants go by.

WHAT YOU PLANNED TO DO.

June 9: Visit church of the Madeline, Palais de Justice, Arc de Triomphe, Pantheon.

WHAT YOU ACTUALLY DID.

June 9: Sat at Cafe de la Paix and watched people go by.

WHAT YOU PLANNED TO DO.

June 10: Spend day at Versailles, going through Palace.

WHAT YOU ACTUALLY DID.

June 10: Started to look up Cousin. Sat in Harry’s New York Bar and watched the entire Noah’s Ark go by.

WHAT YOU PLANNED TO DO.

June 11: Spend day at Palace of Fontainebleau. Through the beautiful Forest.

WHAT YOU ACTUALLY DID.

June 11: Got more money. Sat at Cafe de la Paix until it began to rain. Went to Harry’s New York Bar and got still wetter, inside.

WHAT YOU PLANNED TO DO.

June 12 to June 19: Visit Malmaison. Famous Picture Galleries and Art Studios in Latin Quarter.

WHAT YOU ACTUALLY DID.

June 12 to June 19: Went to Henry’s New York Bar. Henry’s Bar. Scribe Bar. Cintra Bar. Cafe de la Paix and watched—took nap.

WHAT YOU PLANNED TO DO.

June 20: Sail for home.

WHAT YOU ACTUALLY DID.

June 20: Missed boat.

bye bye boat hello booze!

What happened to a lot of drunk Americans, apparently. Image taken from Paris With the Lid Lifted.

While this is a bit of an exaggeration, you get the general idea: Americans were coming to Paris almost exclusively to drink. Bars and cafes all over Paris were crammed with American tourists waving around wads of cash and clamoring for booze, and not just any booze: they wanted cocktails! Sensing a mint, Paris’ citizens hastened to supply them. According to a 1928 Chicago Tribune article, at one point there was even a fleet of buses tricked out with bars for visiting American tourists when they got off the boats. That way, they could “be served their favorite cocktails” and get an early start on their drinking while heading to Paris. The bartender even doubled as a tour guide along the way, pointing out “interesting sites along the route.” How convenient! 😉

How Americans drank in Paris bars---according to Paris With the Lid Lifted, anyway. ;)

How Americans drank in Paris bars—according to Paris With the Lid Lifted, anyway. 😉

Cocktails technically existed in France during the Great War, but they were nothing to write home about. As a 1917 Chicago Tribune article on the drink choices of American soldiers noted: “France also has a cocktail (pronounced ‘cocked eye’), but we predict a run in the opposite direction. We have sampled the ‘cocked eye.’ Never again!” By the 1920s, however, things had gotten a lot better thanks to ex-American bartenders like Harry MacElhone of Harry’s New York Bar. Harry and other enterprising expat bartenders brought the art of the American cocktail to France and created hundreds of new classic drinks in the process, whipping up everything from the Bloody Mary to the Sidecar. By 1929, the cocktail was a staple in French bars—but even then it was still seen as “authentically American.” Even the French themselves, says reporter Alex Small of the Chicago Tribune, were unable to make them properly without American guidance: “If left to themselves they never know how to mix them; the result is a nauseating concoction hovering in taste between rosewater and coal tar.”***

That didn’t stop the French from embracing them, however. Some of the strongest proponents of the American cocktail were young native Parisians, particularly those in the upper class. The cocktail became the hip thing to drink among “the people who aspire to be anybody who is anybody,” symbolizing—according to reporter Alex Small, anyway—how dominant American culture and values had become in Europe at the time: “the young French, at least the up and coming ones, gurgle this strange importation to show how ‘American’ they have become. And, being young, they have an idolatrous concept of what being an American is. It represents power and money and ruthlessness . . . we are the wondrous people who have made all life move more smoothly. What could be more admirable than to imitate us even in our dissipation?”

All imperialist/cultural hegemony talk aside, the cocktail wasn’t the only American concept to make it to French shores: cocktail parties were a big hit, too. An older French writer, M. Paul Reboux, bemoaned these “parties” in a Chicago Tribune article as the ruin of French women and conventional society: “This new cocktail fashion…pushing five o’clock tea out of its time honored place in fashionable circles, is disastrous. People alcoholize[sic] themselves so well between 5 and 8 o’clock that young and old soon look like ‘slatterns of Whitechapel.'” He went on to describe the cocktail as “the most abject of human creations since the invention of gunpowder” and saw its effect on young women as less than desirable: “these respectable ladies, after absorbing several cocktails, go home more or less intoxicated, and can hardly find their way.”

Such blatant public drunkenness scandalized the older folks of Paris. Where most older Europeans would partake of “softer” alcoholic beverages like wine, savoring the drink on its own merits over, say, the course of a meal, the younger set were experimenting with the new way of American drinking: guzzling the hard stuff with the goal of getting drunk as fast as possible. While one could argue that this attitude was a natural outcome in Prohibition era America, where the awful 90% proof homemade crap you had on hand would hardly be something you’d want to spend time savoring, it was seen as unnecessary and gauche behavior among Europeans, particularly considering France’s ancient traditions regarding fine wine. Such erratic behavior worried the older folks, who thought their youth were losing their ability to appreciate a fine glass of wine.

Paris elders found such drunken behavior particularly appalling among France’s young women, who one doctor considered “laudably immune” to alcohol’s ill effects prior to the arrival of American-style cocktails. One study claimed that not only were women enjoying more cocktails than their male counterparts, but they were doing so with much greater frequency. According to the Academy of Medicine, eighteen percent of women had greater liver damage than their male counterparts, who were as low as nine percent. Various reasons were offered for the cocktail’s growing popularity among young women. First off were the scandalous flappers: such women, it seems, would “naturally” take up male drinking habits in their general quest to “imitate the male” with “boyish” bobs, “masculine” cuts in clothes, and “readiness” to “take to cigarettes.” Other women came across it innocently enough via the need to “work like men” at co-ed jobs, where social drinking was part and parcel of the male work culture. Interestingly, Professor Achard of the Academy of Medicine saw it a vice unique to the working class: if they hadn’t been given so much “more time and money to waste in drink” thanks to those pesky new laws regarding eight-hour work days and wage increases, maybe they’d spend less time being drunk, he reasoned. He advocated for educating the working class in “the employment of their leisure time” so they could perhaps take up more” productive” and less “offensive” pastimes.

Over time the older generation’s fears of cocktails began to spiral out of control. By the end of the 1920s many had begun to fear that the entire fate of the upper class was at stake. Some sought to ban the drinks outright, much as the government had banned the consumption of absinthe in 1915 for the sake of public health. Cocktails, doctors claimed, led to a special kind of hidden alcoholism that was a direct threat to future generations. Professor Emile Sergent, a member of the French Academy of Medicine and the French White Cross society, an anti-alcohol league, painted these “new” alcoholics as potentially insane, much like earlier absinthe drinkers: “the modern alcoholic…after absorbing a dozen cocktails in one day because it has become the style, appears comparatively unaffected, but in reality becomes physically and nervously undermined and eventually a psychopathic if not completely insane.” Allowing cocktail drinking to run rampant, Sergent warned, would not only lead to “the disintegration of the highest intellectual social classes,” but would decimate France’s population: “France in ten years time may be faced with an army of degenerates, inebriates and half-wit children, and all this in what should be the nation’s best social strata.” Professor Guillian of the University of Paris echoed Sergent’s conclusions and took them even further, claiming that American cocktails were responsible not only for “a variety of nervous and gastro-intestinal” issues but also caused “epileptic attacks, neurasthenia, and surexcitation.” The worst off, however, were the children of these new crazy alcoholics: such children would be “stunted, mentally debilitated, subnormal, and even idiots” if their parents indulged excessively in cocktails.

Such cocktail-induced insanity among Paris’ elderly died down with the Great Depression and its subsequent impact on American tourism. Flashy, expensive hotels and posh bars found themselves deserted as tourists dried up. However, the changes American cocktails had wrought on Parisian culture—increased youthful drinking, not to mention a host of awesome new drinks—were there to stay. In the end, Paris and its cocktail infatuation was just another aspect of worldwide cultural and social changes brought about by the Roaring Twenties.

~*~

Don’t worry, though: you’re not going away empty-handed! Here’s a French cocktail recipe for you:

~*~


T H E   F R E N C H   7 5

French 75 cocktail

A French 75 cocktail.

Popular throughout WWI and Prohibition, this French cocktail was invented at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. It borrows its unusual name from a famous piece of quick-firing field artilliary equipment, the French 75mm Field Gun. Considered to be the first piece of modern artilliary in the world, it rained either shrapnel-filled shells OR explosive shells down on enemy troops at an impressive (at the time, anyway) round of 15 rounds per minute; an experienced crew could get it up to 30 a minute. The French 75 gun was instrumental to the French’s success at the Battle of the Marne and at Verdun, mostly for mowing down charging troops—its shells weren’t strong enough to destroy trench fortifications, but it could sure blow some big holes in the enemy troops. The gun was so reliable that French troops used it throughout WWII as well.

Like the weapon it was named for, the French 75 cocktail “hits with remarkable precision” wrote Harry Craddock in his seminal Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). While the drink’s mix of gin and champagne is “rather counter-intuitive” according to Tom Haigh, author of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, it goes down smooth and packs quite a wallop that can sneak up on you if you’re not careful.**** Its taste depends entirely on the quality of champagne you use to make it, but no matter what kind you use it’s still a strong drink. As the authors of The 12 Bottle Bar say, “consider yourself warned.”

Note how the sugar and booze ratios change over time. The modern day recipe below is another one from the Employees Only bar in New York.

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T H E   1 9 2 2   V E R S I O N :

Fill the shaker half full of broken ice and add:

2 dashes of Grenadine.

1 teaspoonful of Lemon Juice.

1/6 gill of Calvados.

2/6 gill of Dry Gin.

Shake well and strain into a cocktail-glass.

~*~

T H E   1 9 3 4   V E R S I O N :

2/3 Gin

1/3 Lemon Juice

1 Teaspoonful Powdered Sugar

Pour into tall glass containing cracked ice and fill up with champagne.

~*~

T H E   M O D E R N   V E R S I O N :

1 1/4 oz. Tanqueray No. 10 gin

1/2 oz. freshly squeeze lemon juice

3/4 oz. simple syrup

3 oz. Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut champagne

1 orange half-wheel, for garnish

Pour the gin, juice, and syrup into a mixing glass. Add large cold ice cubes and shake vigorously. Pour the champagne into a large wine goblet over large cold ice cubes and drop in the orange half-wheel. Strain the cocktail over it.

~*~

Want more French 75mm action? Check out this vintage video of a French 75mm being test fired back in 1914, courtesy of firstworldwar.com

~*~

Bruce Reynold’s Paris With the Lid Lifted is a strange and fascinating little slice of 1920s tourism. Written  in a bizarre Dan Runyonesque style, it’s an engaging and funny look at traveling in France at the time. If you’re interested, the entire text can be found here, complete with period illustrations.

~*~

*** Incidentally, this is EXACTLY the tasting experience I had while drinking a French 77, which is a variation on the classic French 75 cocktail. The St. Germain elderflower liqueur in it was godawful! Like drinking potpourri…ugh! Never again! >.<


Works Cited:

Reynolds, Bruce. 1927. Paris with the lid lifted. New York: G. Sully & company. Full text is found here: http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015037399568;view=1up;seq=1

“HAVE A DRINK? OUI, OUI!” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Jul 12, 1917. http://search.proquest.com/docview/174235849?accountid=3688

“FRENCH AUTO BUSSES FITTED UP WITH BARS FOR YANKEE TOURISTS.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Aug 12, 1928. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180962480?accountid=3688

Small, Alex. “ART OF DRINKING IN FRANCE IS NOW DICTATED BY U. S.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Mar 03, 1929. http://search.proquest.com/docview/181012387?accountid=3688

Levenstein, Harvey A. 2004. We’ll always have Paris American tourists in France since 1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10389564. Also available here at Google Books: https://books.google.com/books/about/We_ll_Always_Have_Paris.html?id=36xgYf4G8JoC

“FRENCH DOCTOR FLAYS MODERN COCKTAIL AS RUIN OF BEST MINDS.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Jun 09, 1930. http://search.proquest.com/docview/181116302?accountid=3688

Wales, Henry. “FRANCE WARNED AGAINST DANGERS OF U. S. COCKTAIL.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), May 01, 1929. http://search.proquest.com/docview/181006319?accountid=3688

“FRENCH ACADEMY FINDS WOMEN ARE BIGGER DRINKERS.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Jul 23, 1925. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180611108?accountid=3688

Duecy, Erica. 2013. Storied sips: evocative cocktails for everyday escapes, with fifty recipes.

Haigh, Ted. 2009. Vintage spirits and forgotten cocktails: from the alamagoozlum to the zombie and beyond : 100 rediscovered recipes and the stories behind them. Beverly, Mass: Quarry Books.

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About lupachi1927

My name's Megan. I'm a writer with an interest in history. While I might not be a real historian, I'm a very thorough researcher! :) This blog is my place to post about all the interesting historical tidbits I find that can't use in the novel I'm working on, which takes place in Chicago in 1927.
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3 Responses to C is for Cocktail: Paris Overreacts to that “vile American mixed drink”

  1. jazzfeathers says:

    Isn’t it strange how elders always worry about youngs for the same reasons?

    Thanks for sharing this. I didn’t know a big deal abotu France in the Twenties 🙂

    Like

  2. Pingback: C is for Cocktail: It’s National Daiquiri Day! :D | A Smile And A Gun

  3. Pingback: Bring on the Bubbly: Ring In The New Year, 1920s Style! | A Smile And A Gun

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