Champagne Cocktails, it seems, have something in common with the sugar cubes needed to make them: you know they’re available, but you rarely think of buying them.
In fact, neither of the bartender guest judges who gathered recently at the PUNCH offices in a search for the ultimate example of the drink—John deBary (Momofuku) and Tristan Willey (formerly of Booker and Dax and The Long Island Bar)—could remember filling many orders for the drink.
“When I get that rare guest who says, ‘I want something sweet,’ I’ll make one,” said Willey. “They usually like Champagne, see sugar and are happy.”
DeBary, meanwhile, said he had long regarded the drink as “the French Toast of cocktails”: “I always thought of the Champagne Cocktail as a recipe for reviving stale Champagne from a party two days before.”
Even PUNCH Assistant Editor Chloe Frechette, who helped organize the tasting, admitted, “I don’t know why I would order a Champagne Cocktail over a glass of Champagne.”
Perhaps because of this very attitude of ennui toward the cocktail, most of the 15 liquid submissions, solicited from top bartenders across the United States, veered far off the classic template of sugar cube, Angostura bitters and Champagne. Frechette supposed that some of the contestants went rogue out of boredom. “I guess they don’t get that order very often,” she surmised.
It wasn’t the first time the drink had undergone an overhaul. The Champagne Cocktail began life in clean, elemental fashion. It followed the original formula for the cocktail of spirit, sugar and bitters, only in this case the spirit was subbed out in favor of sparkling wine. A recipe appeared in Jerry Thomas’ seminal 1862 bartending manual. As the years went on, some bartenders, such at Harry Johnson, revved up the model, adding additional fruit to the mix. But by the early years of the 1900s, it had settled back into its current minimalist template.
Somewhere along the line, a lump of sugar, as opposed to a spoonful, became the accepted sweetener. Soaked in bitters and placed at the bottom of the glass, the fast-disintegrating cube lent the drink a built-in show, as fine bubbles stream to the surface until the sugar is dissolved.
Both deBary and Willey, as well as this writer, felt a cube was necessary if one was to call any version a classic Champagne Cocktail. All agreed, too, that a lemon twist was de rigueur.
The competitors, however, were unconcerned with being conventional. The entries were all over the place, with precious few suggesting anything that might be recognized by Victor Laszlo in Casablanca as a Champagne Cocktail.
Requested glassware ranged from coupes to Nick and Nora-style cocktail glasses to the flutes and wine glasses most commonly used for the drink. A good number of the entries did not feature the iconic sugar cube. And many bartenders slipped in a little spirit—from Cognac to Armagnac to rum to gin—into the drink. The judges all agreed that this pushed the cocktail too far into French-75 territory.
“When you add an ingredient to the Champagne Cocktail, it immediately becomes another cocktail that already exists,” said Willey. The competitors could not even concur that a Champagne Cocktail should contain Champagne. One recipe called for Cava; another suggested prosecco.
Overly complicated takes of the recipe did not fare well with the judges, who were looking for simplicity. After sipping one hopeful entry that, it turned out, included rum, Curaçao and lime juice, Willey declared, “It’s not minimal enough. You’re not trying to win Diageo World Class with a Champagne Cocktail.”
Given the diversity of the entries, we decided to divide the honors between those drinks that best exemplified the classic model and variations which, while not close enough to the pure ideal, were nonetheless excellent refreshments.
The victor in the classics category was the house Champagne Cocktail at Death & Co., the celebrated East Village cocktail bar. It was nothing more than an Angostura-soaked sugar cube and five ounces of Vilmart & Cie Grand Reserve Champagne. It was, in fact, the only standard Champagne Cocktail in the running. The runner-up was an almost-conventional version by Dan Sabo, of the Paligroup properties in Los Angeles. By the judges’ second tasting of the drink, they’d guessed that there was something extra lurking in the glass. Sure enough, it was a half-ounce of VSOP Hennessy Cognac. There were also a few dashes of orange bitters to compliment the Angostura.
Of the variations, the favorite was a mix of Dubonnet, an Angostura-soaked sugar cube and Champagne submitted by Erik Adkins of the Slanted Door Group in San Francisco. This, however, wasn’t even an original twist, but the Alfonso Cocktail, a drink found in the pages of Harry Craddock’s 1930 The Savoy Cocktail Book.
The judges also chose a thoroughly modern blend of Suze, Giffard passionfruit liqueur and sparkling wine (no sugar cube) offered by Natasha David of New York’s Nitecap. They identified the Suze immediately, and not just because the drink was blazing yellow.
Neither Willey nor deBary thought Adkins’ or David’s drinks counted as anything like a Champagne Cocktail (though Willey termed the Alfonso “borderline”). But both found them delicious nonetheless.
In the end, the tasting didn’t change anyone’s minds that the good-old Champagne Cocktail is a neglected drink in dire need of a revival. But it was a reminder of the cocktail’s simple appeal, and the enduring visual attraction of fizz streaming off of an eroding sugar cube.
“It looks fancy,” said Willey. “It says, ‘I want you to feel special. Happy birthday!’”