Where Did the Cocktail Sidecar Come From?

The practice of offering a "sidecar" alongside a cocktail is spreading in popularity amongst New York bars, for reasons both practical and aesthetic. Chloe Frechette on its origins, and how it's being used today.

Harry Craddock, the Prohibition-era bartender and author of the The Savoy Cocktail Book, was once asked how a cocktail should be consumed, to which he famously replied, “Quickly, while it’s still laughing at you.” Today, in an era of drink consumption defined by a less rabid kind of relish, his answer might instead be something like, “Slowly, with a sidecar.”

According to Dale DeGroff, the sidecar—that single-serve carafe served on ice as drink’s, well, sidecar—originated in the 1940s with Joseph Drown, founder and then-owner of the Hotel Bel-Air. Like all seasoned Martini drinkers, Drown was adamant about applying an individual touch to his variation of choice: the Valencia Martini, a gin-based version of the drink that replaced vermouth with La Ina fino sherry (not to be confused with the Valencia cocktail, much too sweet for any respectable Martini aficionado).

No mere matter of garnish, Drown demanded a whole new service: Into a chilled glass, the bartender was instructed to pour only a small amount of the drink, while the remainder was to rest in a four-ounce carafe neatly nestled in a bed of ice, at the ready to refresh his glass.

For Dale DeGroff—who served Drown at the Bel-Air in the late 1970s at the start of his bartending career—the sidecar became a civilized solution to the demand of midtown drinkers for large, 12-ounce steakhouse cocktails in the ‘90s.

“It is bad for the guest because the drink dies in that glass, and it is bad for the bottom line because bartenders will fill the glass you give them,” explains DeGroff, of his decision to implement sidecar service when opening his former midtown bar, Blackbird, in 1999.

The use of the sidecar has since evolved into a standard service designed to accommodate the particularities of a range of drinks.

At Clover Club, perhaps the most famous proponent of the service today, “Temperature is very important to us,” Julie Reiner explains. Since opening eight years ago, the bar has used sidecar service for Martinis, Manhattans and other stirred drinks to ensure that the second pour is as ice-cold as the first.

Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere has developed its own in-house variation of the sidecar service. In what has since been decreed the “MP way,” sidecars are used to offer guests the option of traditional garnishes, a lemon twist or three olives, without compromising the integrity of the drink. “We would never want to displace the ounce or two of cocktail should olives be placed in the drink,” says bar director Will Elliott, who implemented the sidecar not long after Maison Premiere’s opening five years ago as part of their tableside Martini service.

Though it signals serious attention to quality, the sidecar is not itself always serious. At East Village neighborhood spot, Goodnight Sonny, bartender and General Manager, Pete Canny, simply liked the look and feel of the baby carafe. “We like the aspect that the guests get to be involved a little bit and top themselves off as they feel,” says Canny.

Meanwhile, around the corner at Death & Co., Tyson Buhler recently put the sidecar to use as a means of adding a playful visual component to the Tsukemono, a Japanese inspired riff on the Martini. “By using the ‘single-serve’ sake glass as the vessel holding the sidecar,” explains Buhler, “it reinforces the flavor of the sake and the overall theme of the cocktail.” Plus, crucially, “it has little pandas on it and, really, what’s more adorable than that?”