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When Mr & Mrs Smith asked me to do a column about making cocktails on airplanes, it was a no-brainer. To be frank, I never thought that my career as a full-time journalist and part-time lush would bring me to this juncture, but alas, here I am in business class on a flight to London with a freshly shaken French 75 in my hand and my cabin-bound neighbours gawking in either disbelief or disapproval. Things could be worse.

Let’s rewind. I arrive at JFK at 7.45am this morning for a 10am flight, so I’ve got some time on my hands to forage all the necessary ingredients for my planeside cocktail. Earlier this morning, I’d filled an empty Cherry Heering mini bottle with H by Hine, which is a) one of my favourite cognacs of all time and b) happens to be made by the very distillery that exclusively supplies cognac to the Queen of England, and since I’m headed across the pond to stay in the ever-so-regal Blakes Hotel, I found this very apropos. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, ‘Wait… aren’t French 75s made with gin?’ This may be the case today, but history says otherwise. The drink actually originated on the battlefields of France during World War I and was made with cognac and champagne for very obvious reasons. I’m half French (and a cocktail purist), so I’m partial, but I genuinely think that it’s an overall better cocktail when made with cognac versus gin. Moving on.

I begin to wander around the terminal in search of lemons and sugar. It’s looking pretty bleak. The woman at Hudson News looks at me with confusion and disapproval when I ask for a whole lemon, but then I see from the corner of my eye a green beacon of light down the hall: Starbucks. I ask for lemons again… no dice, but the barista lets me steal a few brown sugar packets, sending me off after suggesting that I check with McDonald’s next door for my elusive lemons. So close, yet so far away.

McDonald’s comes to the rescue (never thought I’d say that) with four wedges, which they pack up for me in a plastic cup with a lid. They’re looking a bit sad and crusty, but they’ll have to do. I decide also that the cup will make a most useful shaker.

French 75

Right, so now I’m sitting in a glorious cabin in business class, which affords me some serious space for my makeshift bar. I set up shop with my little bottle of cognac, the lemon wedges, three sugar packets, and my favourite jigger from my friends at Montanya Distillers in Colorado (maybe I’ll go there next). The flight attendant comes by with a darling little glass of champagne (SCORE!) and I ask for some hot water and a cup of ice. His facial expression demands to know what the hell I’m up to. I divulge and promise not to make too much of a scene.

First order of business: simple syrup. I pour two sugar packets into one end of my jigger, adding approximately an equal amount of hot water and stirring vigorously with a little plastic coffee straw to dissolve. I empty the McCafé cup, pouring in the syrup and squeezing three lemon wedges into it. I take the fourth wedge and remove the flesh of the fruit, leaving the zest for my garnish and set it aside, after which I empty the nice champagne glass into another empty glass to free it up for my cocktail. Finally, the cognac comes into play: I pour all but a few drops of the 50ml (aiming for about 1.5oz) into the ‘shaker,’ dropping in a handful of ice as the very last step before shaking. As a rule of thumb, when mixing or shaking, you’ll want to add the ice as late as possible so as to avoid overdilution – especially in the case of airplane cocktailing, when the difficulty and duration of each step is amplified.

After shaking the drink vigorously with my index finger plugging the straw hole, I then remove my finger and use the opening as a makeshift strainer, pouring the cocktail into the champagne glass. Lastly, I top the glass off with champagne and express the oils of the lemon zest around the rim of the cup, dropping it in as my garnish. Et voilà – my OG French 75 awaits just in time for the first course to be served. Time to recline and dine while staring deeply into Matthew McConaughey’s beard.

(Modified from Chris Hannah’s French 75 recipe, Arnaud’s, New Orleans)

– 0.25oz simple syrup (1:1 sugar:water)
– 0.25oz fresh lemon juice (four wedges – three for juice, one for garnish)
– 1.5oz H by Hine (Hannah’s recipe calls for 1.25oz, but since we’re working with 50ml bottles which equal out to 1.6oz total, it’s easier to eyeball this measurement if you don’t have a jigger)
– Cold brut champagne

METHOD Add simple syrup, lemon, and cognac in a plastic cup. Add a handful of ice and secure lid. Shake vigorously for a few seconds while covering hole on top of lid with either a finger or a napkin; release and puncture hole to make it a bit wider. Turn shaker over carefully and strain through hole into empty champagne glass. Top with champagne and express oils of lemon zest around rim, then use as garnish.

Stay tuned for the next installment of the Mile High Cocktail Club, featuring a Four Roses old fashioned made en route to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.

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