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Cocktails

Bring Back the Cocktail Royale

February 22, 2022

Story: Al Culliton

photo: Amber Fouts

Cocktails

Bring Back the Cocktail Royale

February 22, 2022

Story: Al Culliton

photo: Amber Fouts

A stirred drink topped with sparkling wine was once ubiquitous in American-style bars abroad. Zac Overman offers three takes on the forgotten format.

During the Golden Age of cocktails at the end of the 19th century, iteration on the foundational spirit-sugar-bitters formula was at an all-time high. So-called “fancy” and “improved” versions, which added dimension through various liqueurs and absinthe, were on the rise. Around the same time, another, lesser-known cocktail style emerged, one that has gone largely unnoticed by modern practitioners: the cocktail royale.

Though the term “royale” was more commonly used in reference to punch that was made sparkling by the addition of Champagne, tacked onto cocktails it conveys the trappings of the style—a stirred, spirit-based cocktail complemented by a restrained topper of the French sparkling wine. 

According to Elizabeth Gabay in The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails, the trend toward using Champagne in individual drinks was closely linked with the invention of the “Champagne tap,” an apparatus that allowed bartenders to preserve the wine’s carbonation when doling out small amounts. Unsurprisingly, Champagne-based versions of the cocktail, cobbler and julep all emerged during the 19th century. But it wasn’t until 1882 that pioneering barman Harry Johnson turned the concept on its head—rather than replace the base of his Fancy Brandy Cocktail with Champagne, he simply added a splash on top. In this first recorded cocktail royale, a base of Cognac, Curaçao, gum syrup and Angostura bitters is elevated—and dried out—by the effervescent wine. 

As the 20th century got underway, few new examples of the cocktail royale entered the bar world ranks. A notable exception was the Boothby, from the 1910s, a signature Manhattan with a Champagne float by the famed barman of the same name. Indeed, as Gilded Age trends fell out of vogue, the ghost of phylloxera and the First World War choked the supply chain of both Champagne and Cognac (a common royale base since the category’s inception). Looking solely at American sources, one might think they’d died out completely. But they hadn’t. Like so many Americans of the day, they had simply taken a steamer across the Atlantic.

Recipe

Saratoga

Normandy dry cider stands in for sparkling wine in this modern spin on the Saratoga.

Recipe

Colombe

L'Oursin's take on the Colombe cocktail highlights cherry flavor in three ways.

Recipe

I.B.F. Pick-Me-Up

A subtle update to the 1920s-era classic.

In Paris and London, the category exploded in the American-style bars that thrived overseas in the 1920s and ’30s. Among the many examples were the Champagne Pick-Me-Up, Olympia Gold Cup, Seewasser, Chicago Cocktail and Prince of Wales, all featuring the cocktail royale’s signature construction. Perhaps it was the easy access to Champagne, or maybe it was Europe’s strong cultural affinity for wine, but when the template took up residence abroad, it was as though it had come home.

Stateside, the royale has somehow managed to fly under the radar of the obscurity-obsessed bartenders of the cocktail revival. There is, however, at least one bartender in the United States who has taken up the cause, and it’s no surprise that he came to the cocktail royale through his obsession with France. At L’Oursin in Seattle, co-owner and beverage director Zac Overman has no fewer than three such drinks on offer. 

Overman saw the cocktail royale as an opportunity to use more wine behind the bar. “We’re as much a wine bar as we are a cocktail bar, and part of the ethos of this bar has always been to not cheap out on sparkling wine in cocktails.” Beyond that, though, he appreciates the effect Champagne can have on a strong, stirred base. “Using sparkling wine lengthens your drink; it takes the proof down a little bit and it can also bring out tertiary flavors from your base that you wouldn’t necessarily taste in a straight stirred, spirit-forward drink,” he says.

Among his trio of cocktails royale is the Saratoga, an 1880s recipe that features Cognac, pineapple syrup, maraschino liqueur, bitters and a squirt of Champagne. The Saratoga at L’Oursin brings together the pineapple (Overman skips the syrup in favor of infused Cognac) and maraschino from the original spec, but instead of sparkling wine, it’s topped with bone-dry cider from Normandy and is built over pebble ice. “The cider just has that weight to it and that rusticity that a sparkling wine does not.” And because it’s served over pebble ice, he says, “we wanted it to be a little bit chewier.”

In his Colombe cocktail, Overman reinterprets Paul Girault’s century-old recipe from Café de la Paix. The original was basically an improved, fortified Champagne Cocktail, with very small measures of Cognac, Cointreau and cherry liqueur topped with plenty of bubbly. The version at L’Oursin beefs up the base to nearly two ounces, with the expected Cointreau, Armagnac in place of Cognac, plus Maurin Quina, an aperitif wine that’s infused with sour cherries. After the drink gets its Crémant de Loire topper, the cherry notes are further bolstered by a float of kirschwasser and a brandied cherry sunk to the bottom of the flute.

Finally, there’s Overman’s interpretation of the I.B.F. Pick-Me-Up, a drink consisting of Cognac, Curaçao, Fernet and Champagne named for Harry MacElhone’s expat-driven society of International Bar Flies. This recipe appears all over the cocktail books written in Paris and London during the ’20s and ’30s and, Overman says, it didn’t need much work. After bumping up the orange liqueur and making sure the Fernet was in check, there was only one thing left to do—give the presentation a bit of panache. If you order an I.B.F. at L’Oursin, the drink will appear in a Nick & Nora glass, along with a miniature chien chaud, a half-size steamed hot dog complete with Cognac mustard. It’s a cheeky garnish that mirrors Champagne’s ability to take a staid, strong cocktail and make it fun. Adds Overman: “It also tickles your nose, and it’s just fucking delightful.”

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