Friday, August 23, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The French Intervention

Yes, it’s my second consecutive tequila drink. Once I didn’t even like tequila. I’m expanding my comfort zone, trying new things. Stop inhibiting me!

This cocktail comes courtesy of Amy Stewart’s best-selling The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create The World’s Great Drinks. Her book is a fascinating exploration of the biology behind booze that features multiple recipes, including one for a cocktail that Stewart has called “a better tribute to the agave plant than a margarita is.” Both its name and its ingredients stem from a historical incident. I will now change one of those ingredients and wreck that symmetry completely.

The French Intervention refers to Napoleon III’s 1862 invasion of Mexico. Under President Benito Juárez, Mexico opted to stop paying its foreign creditors. Three of them – Spain, England and France – joined forces to make the debtor nation come across. But when the first two countries learned that France, hoping to forge a Catholic hegemony in the New World, had designs on taking all of Mexico, they stopped answering their phones and were all, like, What? Was that this weekend? We were at Jordan’s the whole time.

France eventually installed a Habsburg, Maximilian I, as emperor, because who better to rule Mexico than an Austrian? They’re two countries separated only by an ocean, a few other bodies of water, several mountain ranges, language, temperament, cuisine and culture. Maximilian’s reign lasted three years and ended with him losing Mexico and his head.

This global misadventure inspired numerous cocktails, including the Maximilian Affair and several drinks marching under the French Intervention banner. To honor its namesake, most variations have a base spirit from Mexico (tequila or mezcal) and a modifier from France such as elderflower liqueur. Stewart’s version incorporates Lillet Blanc.

Mine doesn’t. I have of late been substituting Cocchi Americano for Lillet in cocktails, and made no exception here even though it throws the narrative out of whack. Stewart at least prescribes a dash of green chartreuse, which is also French. And Cocchi Americano’s Italian origin also suits the tale, given that Pope Pius IX blessed Maximilian before he left for his ill-fated bid at monarchy. (One of Juárez’s first acts as President was to nationalize church property.) Later, when France was on the verge of abandoning Mexico, Maximilian’s wife Empress Carlota returned to Europe to plead their case and, paranoid, demanded to stay overnight in the Vatican, becoming the first woman to do so. Meaning that if anything, my take on this cocktail is more attuned to the subtleties of 19th century geopolitics.

The French Intervention buttresses Stewart’s belief that agave-based spirits play well in cocktails. The trace of chartreuse accentuates the tequila to salutary effect, with Cocchi Americano’s extra snap of cinchona a welcome addition. I wouldn’t rank it ahead of the margarita, but it’s still a drink both magnifico and formidable.

The French Intervention

Variation on a recipe by Amy Stewart

1 ½ oz. tequila (or mezcal)
¾ oz. Cocchi Americano (originally Lillet Blanc)
dash of green chartreuse

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a grapefruit twist.