Though I usually eschew them, I am sticking with a theme this week. Either that or I am stuck in a rut, it is often hard to tell the difference. I guess it’s all going to come down to the marketing, so a bubble filled theme it is as we continue with yet another sparkling wine classic. Not just a classic, but perhaps the classic, as in the original bubbly concoction that inspired this entire class of drinks, putting them on the gustatorial map, so to speak. So, without further ado, won’t you join me now as we stand and make the classic Champagne Cocktail.
This is one of those drinks that I have never been terribly fond of, but it definitely deserves its place in the lexicon of iconic cocktails. This is an early drink, first appearing in print in Robert Tomes, succinctly titled “Panama in 1855: An Account of the Panama Rail-road, of the Cities of Panama and Aspinwall, with Sketches of Life and Character on the Isthmus” where its construction is described in surprising detail as a part of the narrative. Jerry Thomas gave it, and most every other elder cocktail, its formal introduction to the world in his 1862 “How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion” and it has graced the pages of most every cocktail book written ever since.
I was first introduced to this drink in the film Casablanca, one of my favorites to this day. I always found it surprising to see these tough guys and beautiful gals sharing what seems like such a lightweight drink. I had the same issue with the surprisingly potent Pink Lady‘s from Topper. What can I say, I was still trying to figure out who I was going to be and traditional gender roles and expectations had a strong grip on my teenaged mind. It’s fair to say that over repeated viewings of this film, I found some decent role models. Before I started building parts of my personality for myself, I cobbled together some pieces of Rick, Lazlo and even Louie to try to be a decent sort of fellow, civilized but with some rough edges and a sense of honor and duty, but practical enough to get things accomplished. On closer examination, maybe I haven’t grown that much. I have, however, watched that film hundreds of times and I discover something new about it on each viewing. So, when faced with all of the options when it came to making this “classic” cocktail, I chose to use the Casablanca method and make it with Cognac, just like Sascha would.
You can decide later whether or not to include the cognac, the drink works both ways, but since this one is built in the glass, you must go ahead and decide how you wish to serve your drink. Some insist this should be made in a flute, others are equally vehement that a chilled coupe is the proper glass and others pour it up in a Nick & Nora and enjoy it just as much. I am going with the chilled coupe, partially because that’s how they served them at Rick’s and more likely because I like drinking champagne from coupes, even though they are no longer in favor and I love the oft disproven, but still interesting tale that this glass shape was modeled on a woman’s breast, Marie Antoinette’s in some stories, Helen of Troy in others. Alas this is not true, however, if you visit the Mayfair Hotel in London you can pop into 34 to enjoy a drink served in a coupe modeled from Kate Moss‘ left breast, if you go in for that sort of thing. Clearly, I do to the point that I do not care if the drinks effervescence would be better preserved in a flute.
So with your chalice of choice in hand, turn on some appropriate music, Dooley Wilson singing “As Time Goes By” should do nicely. Now, grab a sugar cube and place it on a saucer. I was all out of Domino so I went with one of my Absinthe cubes, which has no absinthe in it at all and is not even a cube, but more of a rectangle. The next step is to soak this cube in bitters, many choose Angostura for this, but I am sticking with the old school methods and using the recreated Bogart’s Bitters from Bitter Truth. Once the cube is well saturated with bitters, place it in the bottom of your chilled coupe and pour 1 ounce of ice cold cognac directly on the cube. I chose Hennessy that I had stored in the freezer overnight. One of the keys to this drink is that everything be served very cold, so don’t cheat yourself by not chilling the coupe or using room temperature cognac. With all of that prep done, slowly top your coupe by tilting the glass a little and pouring a nice dry brut champagne slowly down the side so that it fizzes as little as possible. I chose Burlwood Cellars Brut because I am fond of its flavor and price point, with the full understanding that this is technically a sparkling wine and not a champagne because it grew up in California instead of the Champagne region of France. When filled, express a lemon peel over the top, before discarding and serve without stirring. The sugar cube should continue to generate bubbles as you drink the cocktail and this is part of the charm, plus the longer you drink, the sweeter it becomes.
This drink is truly lovely. It really is. I did not get it, but now I understand its incredible longevity. Let’s be honest, when someone pops a cork, things feel more festive, so why not enjoy your champagne with a little more flavor and, frankly, a little more kick. I tried this one with and without the cognac and with is much more interesting. The cognacless version is really just a glass of champagne with a sugar cube and a stab of bitters in it, why go to the bother? When you add that spirit though it really makes this one special. The drink opens up the possibilities and makes things much more fun in much the same way the French 75 does. A drink, allegedly, named for the French 75 mm cannons used in the first world war, not to be confused with the German 77’s, Elsa compared to her heart pounding, the last time she saw Rick in Paris, which they will always have, obviously.
I misjudged this drink and that is a shame, because I missed out on enjoying and serving this one for too long. That’s how things go when you make assumptions about what you might or might not like without trying them. It’s funny for a fella who is all about freedom and experimentation to discover just how many tings I have passed over so far in life. Trust me, I have been diligently working to try most everything, there just has not been enough time yet, but I am working on it. Maybe I would get farther, if I were not so insistent on enjoying the things I discover, over and over. I am not sure, I think I will enjoy another cocktail and watch Casablanca again, while I ponder that. You stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.