The French Cocktail You Should be Mixing Up this Spring
Inspired by a recent trip to Paris, our columnist delves deep into the history of the Rose cocktail.
I spent a chunk of the first day of Spring this year sitting on a bench in the Jardin des Plantes, the botanical garden in Paris. Normally, I’m not much of a park bench-sitter, but my hotel room wasn’t going to be ready until the afternoon and if I spent the time in a café I’d just get overcaffeinated and jittery. Besides, it was a lovely morning, bright and balmy, and the Jardin was just over the bridge. Why not relax in the sunshine and gaze at the flowers working their hustles and the Parisians working theirs?
Eventually, sitting there on the bench, my fancy turned to cocktails. That wasn’t the first place it turned, of course, or even the tenth, but it got there eventually, and when it did it found the Rose Cocktail waiting for it, a drink that is not only from right there in Paris, but is also quite possibly the finest Spring cocktail of all time.
Spring cocktails are always a bit tricky. It feels rather starchy, if that’s the word I want, to stick with the same dark, fortifying drinks that carried you through the winter; the Old-Fashioneds, Manhattans, Rob Roys, Penicillins and such. At the same time, the big thirst-quenchers—the Palomas; the Collinses; the Spritzes—seem like overshooting the mark. After all, one likes to have another gear to whang into when the simmer and the swelter really set in.
One could steer a middle path and go with the Daiquiris and Pegu Clubs and other light Sours, but even those do their best work when the weather is warmer. What the season really calls for is something light and bright but maybe with an extra layer to it; something that will give the illusion of refreshment while still helping to blunt the effects of the cutting winds and chilling showers that spring delights in periodically uncorking on us.
One of the more vermouth-heavy iterations of the Martini, Dry or otherwise, will do the trick, although there are those for whom the Martini, as a year-round nostrum to be taken as indicated, is exempt from seasonal considerations. (I might be one of that those.) If you’re a Negroni person, you can monkey with the drink’s presentation—up, on the rocks, on the rocks with soda—to mark the various seasons, but switching from cocktail glass to rocks glass seems like paying too little tribute to the miracle that is the rebirth of life after the freezing sterility of winter.
Or you can go French. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Paris has a cocktail culture that is about as old as the city of San Francisco, and just as lively. By 1900, cocktail bars in the city had moved on from offering American bartenders making drinks “just like the ones back home” to European bartenders mixing drinks of their own, creations that followed the fundamentals of American practice while working in ingredients and flavor combinations that were purely French.
One of those drinks was the Rose, a light, fresh and yet intriguingly complex mix of dry vermouth with a slug of kirshwasser and a splash of something sweet and red that comes out a lovely shade of translucent rose-pink. The earliest known appearance of this drink, for a time Paris’s signature cocktail, is in April, 1910, in an edition of Le Figaro, one of the main Parisian newspapers. By then, it had already spread around town from its home bar, which was widely acknowledged as the one at the Chatham Hotel on Rue Daunou, near the Opéra.
The Chatham drew a very sporty crowd, mostly American and mostly rich and mostly interested in the mysterious vagaries of equine locomotion, said interest being chiefly financial. Presiding over the bar was Giovanni “Johnny” Mitta, a diminutive Italian with a talent for mixing Martinis and other drinks, an uncanny ability to weigh the reliability of prognostications regarding those mysterious vagaries, a willingness to share the ones he deemed reliable, not always pro bono, and a puckish sense of humor that manages to shine through the scattered and fragmentary sources from which one must put together a bartender’s biography.
According to both Harry McElhone, proprietor of Harry’s New York Bar, just down Rue Daunou from the Chatham, and Frank Meier, head barman at the nearby Ritz, the Rose was Johnny’s invention; the veteran Belgian barman Robert Vermière confirmed the attribution in 1938, deeming it “incontrovertable.” The details of Mitta’s career are unusually sparse, considering that he was something of a celebrity in Paris. He seems to have taken the helm at the Chatham some time between 1893, when someone else was in charge, and 1898, when he is thanked in the press for a tip on a horse. He was first linked to the Rose in 1912, when the Paris correspondent for the Sporting Times of London found it remarkable that the author Maurice Maeterlinck could pop into the Chatham bar without having Johnny mix him one.
I don’t know when “Giovannino,” as he called himself (that’s Italian for “Little John,” or, if you stretch it slightly, “Johnny”) left the Chatham, why, or what happened to him after he did, but the last time he can be definitely placed there is 1916. Perhaps he was still there in 1922, when McElhone included the Rose, with attribution, in his ABC of Mixing Cocktails, published just before McElhone came from London to take over the New York Bar. If not, at least he was still remembered there.
By the late 1920s, though, as my colleague Phil Greene points out in A Drinkable Feast, his book on Parisian tippling in the 1920s and 1930s, people were attributing the Rose to other bartenders at the Chatham, so it’s likely that Little John was no longer around to defend his paternity claim. Or, for that matter, to provide the drink’s correct recipe.
That recipe had by then begun to suffer from serious drift. Gin (cheap) had crept in to replace some or all of the kirschwasser (not cheap). Proportions wandered: Mitta’s original used twice as much vermouth as liquor, but some recast the drink as a booze-heavy bracer while others cut the high-proof stuff down even further to a splash or a spoonful. The red and sweet component could be anything. According to Vermiere, it was originally sirop de groseille, the French red-currant syrup, which some early versions supplement with a dash of cherry brandy as well. Later, it’s all cherry brandy, or raspberry syrup, or crème de cassis, or some unholy mixture of those or any other damn thing that’s red and sticky. Grenadine. Sloe gin. Whatever. As Vermière wrote in 1938, “this cocktail has a truly exceptional particularity, in that it is never made the same way anywhere.”
That confusion persisted and when French barmen tried to fit the pieces of their world back together after World War II one of the fragments they left behind was the Rose, which had become just another outdated Martini variation. That’s a shame, because Mitta’s original version is truly unique. Kirschwasser is not a drink that is used much in modern mixology, or for that matter in classic mixology either. It’s a clear spirit, but when it is good—which is to say French or German, and fairly expensive—it has the rich texture that pot distillation brings and a restrained arborial funk that is both delicate and ineradicably deep. Like its cousin maraschino liqueur, if you use too much of it that’s all you’ll taste. Here, it’s restrained by a lot of vermouth, which dilutes it without watering it down or hiding it. And even if you’re paying $50 a bottle for it, that will make you a double dozen of Roses.
For the vermouth, it’s best to go with one of the lighter, subtler ones, so as not to muddy up the flavor of the kirsch. Noilly Prat Extra Dry works best, I find. For the something red, since sirop de groseille is almost impossible to find here (and not so easy even in France), I recommend raspberry syrup, although an additional splash of cherry brandy is not a bad addition; look for the French Cartron brand, if you can find it, or the Italian Luxardo one. Thus armed, the drink is simple.
- 2 oz Dry vermouth
- 1 oz Imported kirschwasser
- 1 teaspoon Raspberry syrup
- 1 teaspoon French cherry brandy (optional)
- Glass: Cocktail
- Garnish: Imported maraschino cherry
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with cracked ice. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an imported maraschino cherry and let a thousand flowers bloom.
I never did get that Rose Cocktail, by the way. After I got tired of sitting, I went to a café of the sort that could no more make a Rose Cocktail than they could make a thermonuclear bomb.
I had a Picon Bière, which they could make, but that’s another column. I was fine, though: I was still in Paris, and it was Spring, and that’s a combination that’s tough to beat.