I’ve Never Met Napoleon, but I plan to Find the Time: The Napoleon Cocktail


The fist time I saw Abel Gance’s 1927 silent film “Napoleon,” I was not thinking much about cocktails that bore his name.  Cocktails, beyond a gin and tonic or a Long Island Iced Tea, were not much on people’s minds.

The film, lovingly restored by British film historian, Kevin Brownlow, came to Washington, DC with a live orchestra performing the soundtrack. I missed it. I thought, well, now I’ll never see it. A few years later, it played at a small art house cinema near the university I was attending. No live orchestra, to be sure, but I would at least be able to see it with the recorded music score. My best friend and I bought our tickets and anxiously waited in the lobby where they were serving cheap white wine and brie on crackers. We got to our seats and wondered what it would be like. There probably were not fifnapoleon vladimir_roudenkoty people in that stuffy little theater, but I didn’t care.  The screen was small, the seats were uncomfortable, and the floor was sticky, but with the opening scene of school boys having a snowball fight, the screen seemed as big as life itself, and I forgot my numb buttocks. When young Bonaparte’s pet eagle returns to comfort him after he is cast out in the snow for fighting with the boys who had released his pet, I felt a little tear in the corner of my eye. It was all very French and very fictitious and supremely captivating. The experience was only heightened by the French woman who happened to be seated behind us offering the occasional exclamation of “Ah, merveilleux!” or “Oh, Déchirant” or “Splendide!” And when Napoleon, escaping from Corsica in a small boat during a storm, unfurls the French tricolor flag he had seized from the reigning anti-French government and uses it as a sail, I thought the woman was going to have a conniption. “Vive la France!”

From the first scenes of Napoleon as a boy cadet to the final triptych of Napoleon’s triumphant march into Italy, I sat enraptured (despite the fact that I had a couple of champagnes at intermission and desperately needed to pee for the last half hour of the film).  It is not an occasion I am likely to forget (the film, of course, not the sprint to the restroom afterwards).

So what sort of cocktail would be suitable for the most famous figure in French history?  Something with Cognac, perhaps? Champagne? We know he liked Chambertin wines from Bourgogne and his coffee piping hot, but that doesn’t help overly much.  Actually, there are quinapoleon1te a few cocktails out there called the Napoleon which include such things as Fernet Branca, champagne, peach schnapps. The cocktail I finally settled on was much simpler, more in keeping with Bonaparte’s casual habits of eating and dress.

2 oz Gin

½ oz Dubonnet Rouge

½ oz Grand Marnier

1 dash Orange Bitters

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  No garnish.

It is a simple and easy drinking cocktail and now every time I have one, I’ll think of that little, stuffy theater and the most splendid cinema experience I’ve ever had.