Friday, January 11, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Sidecar

Claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy. In the first place, brandy is most grateful to the palate; and then brandy will do soonest for a man what drinking can do for him. There are, indeed, few who are able to drink brandy. That is a power rather to be wished for than attained. – Samuel Johnson

And no cocktail showcases brandy, specifically cognac, better than the Sidecar. Imagine my chagrin to discover I’d neglected it up to now. I mean, it’s one of the six basic cocktails in David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. It turns up on a 1936 list of the western world’s fifteen most popular cocktails. What was I thinking?

I know what I was thinking. Much as I enjoy a good Sidecar, I don’t typically make them at home for a reason that will be revealed in due time.

With a drink as durable as this one, it comes as little surprise that there are multiple origin stories. Embury claims to have been friends with its creator, a World War I-era military man ferried via motorcycle sidecar to the Paris bar (apparently Harry’s New York) where the drink was made to his specifications. I’m inclined to believe him, as the scrupulous Embury was not given to idle boasts. Kingsley Amis repeats this version, calling the sidecar “the ideal vehicle for a soak when he’s been soaking – he can forget about the driver and snore away in peace.” Several other Continental establishments purport to be where the Sidecar was first poured. Embury also called the cocktail “the most perfect example I know of a magnificent drink gone wrong” because it swelled to a half-dozen or more ingredients from the original three. (I say four, finding that a small amount of simple syrup binds the other flavors together.) Any formulae in which the essential trio are served in equal parts is to be ignored. The drink calls for brandy, but that is always read as cognac or Armagnac.

One element not present in any of the early recipes is now the Sidecar’s signature feature: the sugared rim of the glass in which it is served. Cocktail expert Ted Haigh discovered that the drink bears a marked resemblance to the 1860s New Orleans concoction the Brandy Crusta, which features the same ingredients plus bitters and half a lemon peel – all in a glass with sugar on the rim.

Bringing us to my problem. My technique on this critical step is, shall we say, subpar. It’s easy enough in theory: you moisten the rim by rubbing the exterior with a wedge of the appropriate citrus fruit (here, lemon), then hold the glass parallel to the table and rotate it in a dish of the dry ingredient (sugar in this case, salt for the Sidecar’s spiritual descendant the Margarita). The goal is not to add anything unnecessary to the drink itself, keeping the sugar or salt on the outside of the glass. I prefer putting sugar on only half the rim because I add simple syrup to the Sidecar.

But my approach leaves something to be desired. I offer the attached photograph as evidence. I either get too much of the dry ingredient or not enough, which is why I tend to leave this trick to the professionals. Still, the Sidecar is too marvelous a drink not to have in the home repertoire, and practice makes perfect. For that reason I’ve been frequenting busy commercial strips and telling passersby that I’ll sugar their rims for them. Just remember: if you ask if they’re cops, they have to tell you.1

The Sidecar

2 oz. Cognac
¾ oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. lemon juice
¼ oz. simple syrup

Shake. Strain. Pour into a glass with a sugared rim. No garnish.

1Caution: not legally true.