Friday, February 08, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Champagne Cocktail

It’s always a difficult moment, when a devoted student realizes he disagrees with a favorite teacher. I gaze at such a Rubicon today. Its waters are not placid, friends. They roil with bubbles.

I have referred time and again to David A. Embury’s essential book The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. In this book Mr. Embury describes the Champagne Cocktail, which I like, as an “incongruous mess” and worse, “a decidedly inferior drink ... no true champagne lover would ever commit the sacrilege of polluting a real vintage champagne by dunking even plain sugar – much less bitters – in it.”

Hoo. I’m going to need a minute here.

This would be the time to point out that in his infinite wisdom Mr. Embury allowed for differences of opinion; he regularly encouraged readers to “roll your own.” This might also be the time to acknowledge that I am perhaps not a true champagne lover. Given the choice between straight champers and a French 75 I will almost always opt for the latter.

And maybe opinions have changed since Embury first published his book in 1948. What about a contemporary cocktail guru I regularly refer to like, say, the Washington Post’s Jason Wilson? Where does he come down on this particular drink?

“It is simply a terrible cocktail ... I can think of two reasons why the champagne cocktail exists in this world: 1) to cover up rotgut sparkling wine, and 2) to reinvigorate the remainder of a bottle that has been sitting around for a day or two.”

OK, I may be in over my head here.

While the Champagne Cocktail might not exactly have an amen corner, it possesses something better: longevity. Any cocktail that can trace its existence back to the 1850s clearly has its ardent admirers. A recipe appears in Jerry Thomas’ The Bar-Tender’s Guide (1862). Thomas disciple David Wondrich calls it “the first evolved cocktail on record.” Its target demographic can certainly be pinpointed; it was nicknamed “chorus girl’s milk,” and a cocktail guide/ladies’ companion published in the 1940s offered multiple variations with names like She Couldn’t Say No and Her Sarong Slipped.

The drink itself could not be simpler. Take a sugar cube, soak it in bitters, cover it with champagne. An early modification calls for the addition of a small amount of brandy, specifically cognac, and it’s this variety that has won me over. (While most recipes specify Angostura bitters, Wondrich suggests using Peychaud’s if adding cognac.) To begin with, it is a beautiful drink to look at, the champagne’s bubbles effortlessly dismantling the sugar cube and carrying the taste throughout the glass. And bitters and cognac always work in combination, even with carbonation.

It wasn’t just chorus girls who liked a little sweetness and sharpness with their bubbly. Charles H. Baker, Jr., in his Gentleman’s Companion, served up no fewer than five variations on the Champagne Cocktail, most including cognac. One, the Jimmie Roosevelt, which features a float of green chartreuse, is “cooling, refreshing, invigorating, a delight to eye and palate.” In his book Bitters: A Spirited History, Brad Thomas Parsons enshrines the drink sans brandy in the Bitters Hall of Fame, noting that “while Champagne is wonderful on its own, adding a sugary, bitters-soaked kiss to the equation elevates the experience tenfold.”

So I’m not in the minority after all. Thus proving a larger point: when forced to choose sides, always go where the chorus girls are.

The Champagne Cocktail

several ozs. Champagne
1 sugar cube
several dashes of bitters
½ oz. Cognac

Pour champagne into flute. Add cognac. Soak the sugar cube in bitters and drop into the glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.