Sometimes, in life, you make happy little mistakes. One of those is how I ended up trying the Champagne Cocktail for the first time.
A month or two ago I had the opportunity to bartend for a private party for the first time. One of the drinks I planned to make was a French 75, in order to showcase our Dispatch Gin from the Fire Station. Being new to the whole ‘private party’ thing, I was a little worried about how much champagne (here used to refer to sparkling white wine in general) to get. One bottle certainly wasn’t enough.. two was probably right but to be on the safe side, lets get three.
Since I was buying from BevMo and the one I picked was on their 5 cent wine sale, so I ended up getting four bottles. Obviously, way too much. Well, we used about half a bottle and since I got to keep the leftover stuff I could either return it or drink it. Ostensibly I had $60 worth of alcohol, but if I returned it I would only get $20 back, so the choice was obvious to me. That’s how I ended up with three bottles of Canals & Nubiola Cava in a house where we have never once thought to ourselves, “Damn, I wish we had champagne right now!” Saga /fin.
Naturally, I could have used it in French 75’s at home but they are only topped with champagne and at that rate (if I’m the only one drinking them) I’d likely be quite drunk by the end of the bottle. I needed something that required *lots* of bubbly. That combined with the fact that I’m currently delving further into classic cocktails left me with really only one logical choice: The Champagne Cocktail
Imbibe – recipe set forth by Jerry Thomas & David Wondrich
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 or 2 dashes of Bitters
1 piece of Lemon Peel
Fill Tumbler with broken ice, and fill balance with wine
IBA (International Bartenders Association) – official modern recipe
9 cl Chilled Champagne (3 oz)
1 cl Cognac (.34 oz)
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 sugar cube
Add dash of Angostura bitter onto sugar cube and drop it into champagne flute. Add cognac followed by pouring gently chilled champagne.
Garnish with orange slice and maraschino cherry.
I’m going to be 100% honest with you, I did not look at any recipes before I used two bottles to make my cocktails. I knew off the top of my head that the cocktail was made from bitters, sugar, and champagne. While I did know that it was normally served in a champagne flute, I live in Arizona (where 115 degrees is normal during the summer) so I opted to put it over ice. After all, I was intending to drink by the pool. Since I drank two bottles before I bothered to look at a recipe, we can infer that I enjoyed it very much. In the interest of entertainment, and not because it will help anyone make this cocktail at all, I want to walk everyone through what I was thinking as I read this recipe for the first time in David Wondrich’s book: Imbibe.
Book: “1/2 teaspoon of sugar”
Me: Wow, I’ve been putting in way more than that… like 2 tablespoons. I guess I’m just a sweet drink kind of girl…
Book: “1 or 2 dashes of bitters”
Me: That’s not enough! I’m using at least 6! Maybe I just want more flavor in general… weird.
Book: “One Bottle should make 6 cocktails”
Me: WHAT?! I’ve been getting 2 and a half! WTF kind of dinky, cheap bartender is using so little champ– Oh shit, wait, I’ve just been doubling the recipe every time….
Now that that little misunderstanding is out of the way, let’s talk about the drink itself!
Flavor wise, I would describe the champagne cocktail as everything that I’ve been searching for in hard cider and haven’t been able to find. It is slightly sweet, the bitters give it depth and character, it’s refreshing but not fruit-punch refreshing and the carbonation is just right. It’s what hard ciders want to be (and hopefully with the rise in craft ciders, will be soon).
Historically, the champagne that they were drinking when this drink was first concocted (1850ish), is much sweeter than what we are used to today. In the interest of historical accuracy, you should try to use a sweeter variety. In the interest of ease, maybe just put a little bit more sugar in it? The one I chose was described by BevMo as balanced, flavorful, refreshing, clean, and other wine buzzwords. This is not the time to bust out your anniversary gift, five star best bottle. Just get a real solid sparkling wine.
You might have noticed in the recipes above, there is a pretty big discrepancy. The biggest difference is the brandy, though the garnishes are not the same as well. This comes down to the history behind the drink and they are both correct as is often the case. When the Champagne Cocktail was first created, ‘cocktail’ was not the ubiquitous word we think of today. It referred to a very specific cocktail: Spirit, bitters, sugar, and maybe a strip of lemon or orange peel. When ordering a cocktail, you also had to specify your spirit of choice, usually brandy, whiskey, or gin depending on your taste (and era).
Inevitably, someone said something along the lines of “I like the cocktail, but it’s a little to hard for me right now. I need something softer so lets make it with champagne instead” (We get it, we’ve all had those mornings…) and thus was the Champagne Cocktail invented. At some point after that guy and before 1898 came the practice of adding a little bit of brandy. While we can’t be sure exactly when that happened, I like to believe it was almost immediately after, because for every drink that has been intended to be light there is always someone close behind saying “I like this but how can we make it more alcoholic?”.
From my perspective, if I wanted to order this drink without the brandy, I would ask for a Classic Champagne Cocktail as opposed to just “Champagne Cocktail”. On the other side of the bar, I would probably ask if they wanted it with the brandy no matter how they order because there is no unified bar-ordering theory and there never will be. Also, I would probably clarify that they are asking for the Cocktail named the Champagne Cocktail or if they were generally telling me they wanted some kind of cocktail with Champagne in it because yeah, that’s an option too. Woe is us bartenders.
In case you have made it to the bottom of this post and remain entertained, allow me to elaborate on my inspiration. This post was inspired by the question “What’s your favorite cocktail?” which is a perfectly reasonable question that I also hate. It’s along the same lines as “How do I start liking hard liquor?” Cocktails are my life and my passion. There are so many that are so utterly different that I couldn’t pick a favorite ever. Even more so if you factor in the fact that I have different moods and tastes depending on the day, time, weather, and location. Instead, I answer with the drink that I am most ‘into’ at that exact moment. For the last several weeks I have been most into the Champagne Cocktail. It absolutely earns it’s place as an IBA official cocktail and I hope to turn more people onto this drink for the hot days by the pool.