“The French 75 were a troupe of traveling circus performers, a sort of Vaudeville-era Cirque du Soleil who toured the Americas extensively by train in the 1930s.”
If you’ve ever wondered about the name of this exquisite cocktail, wonder no more. T. Cole Newton has the answer for you in his new book, Cocktail Dive Bar. Yes, I’m aware you may have heard elsewhere that the drink was named after French military artillery, a gun famed for its smooth but powerful action. Or that this drink was served to American doughboys in World War I before they went into battle.
But you have to agree Newton’s story is more entertaining—I mean, who doesn’t love a traveling circus troupe? It has the added benefit of sparing us thoughts of war while drinking.
Of course, Newton’s circus origin story is utter piffle—he made it up from whole cloth. (The drink is probably a nod to French artillery, but that’s another debate.) And that’s true for a lot of his other entertaining accounts of drink history—that the Aviation cocktail was invented by Orville Wright while piloting his inaugural flight in 1903; or that the Sazerac was somehow connected to an aristocracy of mole people descended from Atlantis.
A sound argument could be constructed that we don’t need another cocktail book—so many have been published in the past decade, and so many republish recipes for the same classic drinks over and over. But Newton’s book is an original. Not because of what’s patently fake, but because of what’s all-too-real.
But let’s start with the fake.
One of the things I’ve missed during the Great Bar Drought of ’20-’21 is bullshit at bars—especially dive bars. When the environment is right, and the drinks are flowing at the right pace, you’re either delivering bullshit, or receiving it, or both. Or possibly just eavesdropping on it—which may be the most fun of all.
I have no interest in joining the endless and fruitless debate over what defines a dive bar. I suspect that each of us has our own definition, and that’s how it should be. But here’s an indicator for me. If you tell the person on the stool next to you that the Aviation was invented by Orville Wright, and the bartender leans in and says in a soothing way, “sir, I’m going to have to correct you on that,” then you’re in a craft cocktail bar. If the bartender pipes up and says, “of course, you know Wilbur was running methamphetamines in his plane, right?”, then you’re in a dive bar.
Newton opened Twelve Mile Limit in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans in 2010. (He opened a second bar, The Domino, in the city’s Bywater neighborhood in 2019.) When he acquired it, the place was a gritty neighborhood joint in terminal disrepair, and at imminent risk of being demolished. (It took on six feet of floodwater during Katrina.) Newton bought it, kept much of the ambience and spruced up the cocktail list. It was one of the earlier hybrid dives—a place where duct tape was part of decor, but you could also count on a well-made, not-overpriced Manhattan. “We sell fancy cocktails,” Newton writes, “but we’re not all fancy about it.”
The drinks featured in Cocktail Dive Bar run the gamut. He’s included all the drinks that have appeared at his bar since he opened, along with some classics regularly requested and a handful of other drinks that Newton made working at bars prior to opening Twelve Mile Limit. (He got his bartending start at Commander’s Palace, among New Orleans’s more notable restaurants.)
So like a good hybrid dive, the book features mainstays like the Sazerac, the Mai Tai, and the Boulevardier. But you’ve also got a Flaming Dr. Pepper, and drinks that call for Jarritos Tamarind Soda, Catdaddy Spiced Moonshine and Capri Sun Tropical Punch (“1 pouch”). “You know what’s wrong with ordering a Long Island Iced Tea?” Newton writes. “Nothing.”
In reading the book, I started out considering the cocktails, as one often does at a bar, but stuck around for the intriguing and unexpected conversation. The best bars are rarely memorable for the drinks alone, but more so for the conversations that unspool in unexpected ways with strangers seated nearby. Especially if those conversations take a sudden turn toward the unusual or difficult.
Newton’s book follows that path. The subtitle is “Real Drinks, Fake History & Questionable Advice,” and between the drink recipes (fancy and not) he’s penned a handful of essays about running a bar. In these essays—which generally run a few pages—I came across lines I don’t recall seeing in any of the bountiful crop of recipe guides written lately by bar owners and tenders at craft cocktail bars. Such as: “Money is power. Use it.” “Then I blacked out.” The last quote was by way of acknowledging that he was on the cusp of having a serious drinking problem—not uncommon among those working behind bars and one not much publicly mentioned—and so Newton all but gave up drinking after that night.
The essays are part reflection, part how-to. They look at the bar-owner’s responsibility with day-to-day operations—starting with ensuring that everyone feels safe, especially women who’ve attracted the attention of questionable dudes. And also in terms of the community at large. In the longest essay—10 pages—he works through his role in gentrifying what was once a predominantly Black neighborhood and admits that he’s an agent of (possibly unwelcome) change. He writes with humility about the efforts he’s made to address that, even when he feels he’s been just partially successful. “Everyone is the hero of their own story,” he admits, “and I cannot deny the negative consequences of my choices.”
Who should buy this book? If you like to make drinks at home, by all means get it for the drink recipes. He includes one of my all-time favorite modern cocktails—The Baudin, named after the street the bar sits on, and made with bourbon, honey syrup, lemon, and Tabasco. (Hey, it’s Louisiana.) Buy Cocktail Dive Bar for the sheer joy it conveys in the enterprise of drinking in public—aided in large part by the illustrations by Bazil Zerinsky and Laura Sanders.
And by all means buy it if you’re giving consideration to opening your own bar. Newton serves up a lot of good practical bar-owning advice—“Don’t name a drink something that people are embarrassed to say out loud”—but also gets into those more difficult questions that you might not consider before signing the lease. Like, how do you be nice to people who you know for sure to be assholes? And how do you kick out a belligerent whom you actually like? (Newton goes into glorious detail about this in his essay on the “delicate art of the bum’s rush,” in which he notes the critical importance of the natural timbre of your voice.)
I love craft cocktail bars—the reserved and attentive service, the wide-ranging artistry in drink. Each time I step into one, it’s as if I’ve entered a genial clubhouse, a sort of 21st century version of the Bertie Wooster-era private club. I can choose to be challenged or comforted in my selection of drink. Those inside tend to look like me (though younger), speak the same language and know many of the same people I do.
Yet a steady diet of such places can feel constricting. Stepping into a dive bar is more like stepping into a distilled-down version of the real world, with the attendant highs and lows and all in between, with dim lighting, low ceilings and vaguely musty aromas. What I’ve missed about dive bars during the pandemic is that they’re the natural habitat for extraordinary randomness and extremes. Newton’s book captures that essence well. The fiction is outlandish. The real talk is real.
And, frankly, sometimes I’d just rather hear a story about a dubious circus troupe than get drawn into yet another debate over whether gin or brandy was the original spirit in the French 75.