Made Sweet or Dry, the cool and classy champagne cocktail is as popular now as it was 150 years ago.
It's dark. You stroll warily down 54th Street in Manhattan. You spot the door. Looking around, you see no cops. You figure it's safe. A couple of knocks on the door and it opens slowly, but not very wide. You're not going to get in here unless you know the password. You mutter the code and you're ushered into a world of flappers and bon vivants. Your Champagne cocktail is served to you in a mug—just in case the cops burst the door down. Is it 1929? No. Try 2000.
During the days of Prohibition, Flute Champagne Bar in New York City was Club Intime, a speakeasy owned by Mary Louise "Texas" Guinan, a silent movie star who had also worked in vaudeville and the circus. Today, owner Herve Rousseau and general manager Adrienne Etkin sometimes throw speakeasy parties, complete with servers in 1920s garb, and Champagne cocktails are the order of the day.
The original Champagne cocktail is made with an Angostura bitters-soaked sugar cube topped with Champagne and has been around for more than 150 years. In 1935 it was listed as one of the top drinks of the year, and it's still going strong in the 21st century. These days, however, all sorts of variations on the theme are springing up, and there's no more sophisticated way to get a party off the ground.
At Flute's speakeasy parties, your mug will be filled with Passoa, a passion fruit liqueur, and Piper-Heidsieck NV Brut Champagne, but at other times Flute's bartenders can whip up as many as ten innovative Champagne cocktails. One of our favorites is the Bellini Bucci, a drink created by Rousseau, which combines Champagne with strawberry-banana juice.
Because most Champagne cocktails contain a sweet ingredient, it's best to use a dry Champagne: Brut is the driest style, followed, in order of increasing sweetness, by extra-dry, sec and demi-sec. When making Champagne cocktails, it's good to be wary when you pour the Champagne onto the other ingredients. No matter what's in the glass, the Champagne will fizz up the sides at a rapid speed. To remedy this, pour just a tad at a time into each glass, then repeat the process until the drinks are full enough to serve. There are no set rules as to how much fruit juice, liqueur or liquor to add to the glass, but less is usually better than more, so that you can taste the Champagne component.
Just a few short years ago, down in Kentucky, Adam Seger, director of restaurants at Louisville's renowned Seelbach Hilton, reincarnated a drink that had been lost to the ages—and it caught on like wildfire. A recipe for this delightful Champagne cocktail was discovered in a box that had been lying dormant since 1917, but Seger had it on his cocktail menu within weeks of finding it. He uses Korbel Brut, an American sparkling wine, and Old Forester Bourbon mixed with a little triple sec, Angostura bitters, and Peychaud bitters, and the result is magnificent. Seger waxes poetic when he talks about the Seelbach Cocktail: "From the sultry amber hue of this sparkling elixir to its subtle Bourbon kick, this is truly a Champagne-cocktail drinker's Champagne cocktail."
In Providence, Rhode Island, any drink that contains Champagne can turn into a spectacle if Robert Burke, proprietor of a French bistro called Pot au Feu, decides to pull out his saber to lop the cork off the bottle. Burke is one of only 26 American members of Moët & Chandon's Club des Sabreurs, and these guys look for any opportunity to show off their deftness with a sword.
Instead of serving only sweet Champagne cocktails, Burke prefers to offer a drink known as a Pimm's Imperial. Pimm's Cup is a gin-based spirit flavored with fruit liqueurs and herbs, which could never be classified as sweet. At Pot au Feu, the Pimm's Imperial is made with Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial Champagne, with a splash of Pimm's and a fresh cucumber spear. "I wish I could say that I invented the drink, but I didn't," says Burke. "However, it's still my favorite Champagne cocktail."
In So Red the Nose, or Breath in the Afternoon, a 1935 book that's filled with recipes from famous authors, Ernest Hemingway's contribution was a mixture of Champagne and absinthe called, appropriately, Death in the Afternoon. He instructs the reader to slowly drink three to five of these cocktails, while the editor notes that "after six of these cocktails The Sun Also Rises."
The sun rises high in Las Vegas on a regular basis, and there you'll find Bellagio, one of Vegas's most luxurious hotel/casinos, and home to beverage specialist Tony Abou-Ganim, the man who created the Bellagio Cocktail. Abou-Ganim won't part with his recipe for this sparkling cocktail; all he will say is that it's made with Alizé Red Passion, a potion made from Cognac, passion fruit and cranberries; Rotari, an Italian sparkling wine; and "exotic" fresh fruit purée.
"We use Italian sparkling wines in our cocktails because they are in keeping with our Italian theme," says Abou-Ganim, who did give us the recipe for another of the hotel's bubbly beverages, the Frizzantino (see page 76). That drink, which contains Campari and orange curaçao, was created by barman Paul Pasillico.
Although the Champagne cocktail is probably an American invention, this celebratory drink is popular all over the world, and an appropriately elegant place to sip one is the bar at London's Claridge Hotel. There, Niall Cowan, the hotel's head barman, will make you a delightful mixture of strawberries blended with crème de cassis, and topped with the finest Champagne. It's called the Flapper.
"The drink is popular because it is a refreshing, unsweet take on traditional Champagne cocktails, which usually add a cube of sugar to the glass. It tastes and feels healthy, even after two of them," notes Paolo Loureiro, Claridge's bar manager.
Now that's living.
Many people think that only inexpensive champagne should be used when making a champagne cocktail, but that's not the case. While using cheap bubbly is a good way to use up a bottle of inferior wine, champagne cocktails are akin to vintage automobiles: if you fill them with low-grade fuel, don't expect performance to be magnificent.
The Seelbach Cocktail
From the Seelbach Hilton Hotel, Louisville, Kentucky
1 ounce Old Forester Bourbon
1/2 ounce triple sec
7 dashes Angostura bitters
7 dashes Peychaud bitters
5 ounces chilled Korbel NV Brut, or another sparkling wine or Champagne
Combine the Bourbon, triple sec, and bitters in a Champagne flute; stir briefly. Pour in the Champagne. Twist the orange peel and rub it around the rim of the glass; drop the twist into the cocktail and serve.
The Flapper Champagne Cocktail
From the Claridge Hotel, London
7 plump, juicy strawberries, six of them stemmed
1/2 ounce crème de cassis
2 ice cubes
Champagne of your choice
Place the six stemmed strawberries, crème de cassis, and ice cubes into a blender. Blend thoroughly until puréed. Pour into a Champagne flute, and top with the Champagne. Stir briefly. Garnish with the remaining strawberry and serve.
From the Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada
1 sugar cube soaked in orange curaçao
3/4 ounce Campari
Chilled Asti, or other Italina sparkling wine
Place the sugar cube at the bottom of a Champagne flute. Pour in the Campari. Top with the Asti or another Italian sparkler and serve.
Passion Fruit Champagne Cocktail
From Gotham Bar and Grill, New York
2 ripe passion fruits, halved
8 drops Rémy Martin V.S.O.P. Fine Champagne Cognac, or other Cognac
Nicolas Feuillatte NV Premier Cru Brut, or other Champagne
Place the pulp of the passion fruits into a blender, and blend thoroughly until puréed. Pour the purée into four Champagne flutes until it reaches one-third of the way up each flute. Add 2 drops of Cognac to each glass and top with the Champagne. Makes 4 cocktails.