The first cocktail arrived at the table without a sugar rim. Half the people seated there were disappointed. The other half were relieved.
“I hate having any kind of rim on a cocktail,” said Chloe Frechette, senior editor at PUNCH. “I don’t know how to drink it.”
Jelani Johnson, a bartender at Clover Club in Brooklyn, differed. “It depends on the spec itself,” he said, noting that if the sugar is included, the drink should lean drier to maintain balance. “I do kind of miss it. I like the rim overall. Without the crusta, it’s a different drink.”
Falling somewhere between the two was Toby Cecchini, owner of The Long Island Bar. “I hate having rims on drinks, too, but the Sidecar’s a thing where I think you’re just being a spoilsport if you don’t have it. That’s part of the fun of the drink.”
And so the blind tasting for the ultimate Sidecar began, proving yet again that classic cocktails, however simple they may seem in theory, continue to inspire debate. On a recent afternoon at The Long Island Bar in Brooklyn, a panel of judges tasted through 10 examples of the drink, drawn from bartenders across the country (though New York was heavily represented—not surprising, given the city’s ingrained taste for the classics). Joining Johnson, Cecchini and Frechette as judges was William Elliott, of Maison Premiere and Sauvage in Brooklyn.
Among the panelists, there was at least one Sidecar fanatic. Cecchini called the cocktail one of his “go-to” drinks, saying he ordered it frequently in bars. And, in contrast to certain hard-to-please cocktail writers, he maintained he was satisfied with most of the Sidecars he’d been served in his barhopping. “I think it’s a very hard drink to screw up,” he said, “though they’re often sweeter than I like.”
The Sidecar has long been associated with the early 20th-century expatriate scene in Europe, during the years Prohibition was in effect in the United States. The drink is frequently mentioned in connection to Harry’s Bar in Paris, whose owner, Harry McElhone, included it in his 1922 book Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails. Early recipes called for equal proportions of Cognac, lemon juice and orange liqueur, typically Cointreau. Today’s bartenders, however, almost never go for the 1:1:1 recipes. Or, as Johnson put it: “Fuck, no!” Instead, a heftier measurement of brandy is used, typically 1 ½ ounces to 2 ounces. It is usually paired with ¾ ounce lemon juice and ¾ to 1 once of orange liqueur. The sugar rim, meanwhile, was not part of the early recipes. It’s an accouterment that the cocktail picked up at some point and has never been able to shake. (A widely printed 1980 AP article asserted that the sugar rim was an American innovation. According to the French bartender Fernando Castellon, who has made a study of the Sidecar, the earliest mention of a sugar rim comes in the 1932 American cocktail book Wet Drinks for Dry People.)
Cecchini compared the drink to a Daiquiri, in that every component of the recipe is vital to its success and must be carefully considered. “Everything is important,” he said. “There’s nothing to hide behind.”
That included the garnish (which the judges said could be an orange twist or lemon twist), necessary to provide the drink with some harmonious aromatics, even if the twist was discarded after its oils were expressed.
That the brandy base be Cognac was a no-brainer for the panel (though one competing drink did call for the American brandy Sacred Bond). In terms of liqueur, the judges were a bit more flexible, though Cointreau was the fallback choice. “Cointreau just jumps out at you,” said Cecchini. “It’s clean, super orangey, not cloying.” Johnson agreed, while saying that he found Pierre Ferrand’s dry Curaçao equally suited to the task.
Most of the competitors stuck close to the classic Sidecar model. Some specimens were on the dry side, some on the sweet; a few opted for the sugar rim, or half rim; and many kept the twist as a garnish. The most common departure from tradition across the recipes was the addition of a small measure of simple syrup—with only one recipe forgoing this modern addition—thus boosting the body and sweetness of the cocktail. The panelists approved of this move. “I don’t think any drink that’s sweetened can just rely on liqueur alone,” said Johnson.
A surprisingly high proportion of the drinks found favor with the judges, with four running neck and neck in the rankings up until the very finish. In the end, however, the Sidecar of Chip Tyndale, of Dutch Kills in Queens, won out. The traditional spec asked for 2 ounces of Rémy Martin VSOP, ¾ ounce each of lemon juice and Cointreau, a teaspoon of 2:1 demerara syrup, and an orange twist. The cocktail delighted the panel immediately. “It leaves you with that taste in the back of throat that makes you want to go back for another sip,” said Elliott.
Second place went to bartender Franky Marshall, one of the only contestants to split her brandy base, using 1 ounce Pierre Ferrand 1840 and 1 ounce H by Hine. For the orange liqueur, she opted for ¾ ounce of Grand Marnier, a Cognac-based modifier. Completing the recipe was ¾ ounce of lemon juice and ¼ ounce of demerara syrup.
Coming in third was Joaquín Simó, of Pouring Ribbons in New York’s East Village. His formula was identical to Tyndale’s, aside from the Cognac and orange liqueur brands. Simó opted for Pierre Ferrand 1840 and Pierre Ferrand dry Curaçao. The panel thought it a balanced and “iconic Sidecar” in flavor. None of the top three featured a sugar rim.
Also liked, and just missing out on medal status, was the Sidecar of St. John Frizell of Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance. His blend included 1 ½ ounces H by Hine VSOP, ¾ ounces Combier Liqueur d’Orange, ¾ ounce lemon juice and a scant ¼ ounce of simple syrup. The mix was topped with a flamed orange twist and adorned with a half sugar rim.
As often happens with the PUNCH “ultimate” tastings, the survey left some of the judges questioning their previously held prejudices. Even the Sidecar nut was moved.
“This tasting,” said Cecchini, “has made me rethink the sugar rim.”