What Should a Sidecar Really Taste Like?

A bona fide Prohibition-era classic, the Sidecar has struggled to successfully re-emerge in an era bent on retooling old recipes. Robert Simonson on why a good version of the drink is so elusive, and whether there's a modern archetype to be found.

I don’t order Sidecars. Either too boozy, too tart or too sweet (abetted by that sugar rim), the Sidecar is to the cocktail canon what Beef Bourguignon or Chicken Kiev or Sauerbraten is to the food world: a menu item with a pedigree and a tremendous reputation for excellence, that, when you finally order it, does not even begin to live up to that reputation.

Most cocktail connoisseurs disagree with me, of course. But it’s my belief that every cocktail geek out there harbors a secret dislike for one of the classics. The Sidecar just happens to be mine.

Robert Hess, one of the early apostles from the cocktail revival’s Old Testament, told me a story of when he was putting together a cocktail book for the Museum of the American Cocktail. When he got to the Sidecar, he asked a collection of knowing bartenders and drink historians for their personal specifications.

“Everyone had a slightly different recipe for a Sidecar,” Hess recalled. “[But] they should taste different—they should be the same drink, but taste different. That’s where the culinary skill and taste comes in. It has to be a particular flavor.”

But what was that particular flavor?

“Well, here we have this old recipe made with French brandy. Therefore it should have this velvet flavor, rather than this sharp lemon flavor. I wanted something with more sophistication to it.” Hess called what he was after less a flavor profile, than “more of a mindset.” A mindset?

“It should taste like a Sidecar,” he summarized. A Sidecar should taste like a Sidecar? Deep.

In today’s over-exercised cocktail world, nearly every classic has been hoisted up the hydraulic, its insides given the thrice over by ardent bartenders intent on making the old jalopy hum again. And they’ve succeeded again and again. We are currently enjoying some of the most perfectly perfected Old-Fashioneds, Manhattans, Mai Tais and Daiquiris in history. But the Sidecar remains a bit of a clunker, a drink neglected enough that it’s managed to avoid the same exacting level of restoration in an era bent on it.

This is partly because of its status as an afterthought classic. Nobody makes this cocktail their calling card. You hear of plenty of bars renowned for their Martini or their Irish Coffee. These classic cocktails benefit from not only the loving touch of careful, concerned bartenders, but also dedicated drinkers who make those mixtures their usual. But the Sidecar drinker? Where is this unicorn? And further, could there be a perfect Sidecar lurking somewhere in New York? Surely “Best Sidecar in Town” is a claim that’s still up for grabs.

Once upon a time, in the Jazz Age, everyone knew where to get the best Sidecar in the world. That was Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, a top contender for having invented the drink. However, the recipe published by owner Harry McElhone in his wonderful 1927 book Barflies and Cocktails—one part each of brandy, lemon juice and Cointreau—is not what anyone would called the best Sidecar today. Bartenders don’t agree on much, Sidecar-wise, but they do come together in agreeing that the 1:1:1 spec, when made with current ingredients, is undrinkable.

Sidecar Cocktail

In an effort to see if the city held a version strong enough to bring me around to the drink’s charms, I went on the hunt. I started with the older hotel and restaurant bars—the standard bearers that, I reasoned, had never had time to forget the drink. The Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South is the home of Norman Bukofzer, who has been bartending as long as anyone in Manhattan. He wasn’t there the night I went, but the man on duty had some years on him, and I figured he adhered to Norman’s recipes.

Despite the bartender’s confidence in Sidecar correctitude (he insisted that there’s only one formula for the drink), he had to look the recipe up on his iPhone. What he gave me was two-and-a-half ounces Cognac, a three-quarter ounce of Cointreau, and a half ounce lemon juice. The bar usually did a sugar rim, he told me—a modern addition not called for in original recipes for the drink, and a touch that drives modern purists nuts. I asked him to take it back to a half rim. It was a big drink, as cocktails in old hotels usually are, and pretty good. But it was too boozy.

I moved on to iconic Bemelmans Bar, which is proudly stuck-in-the-mud just inside The Carlyle hotel. There the Sidecar is likewise nearly large enough to require two hands, but flabby and sickly sweet, owing to the triple sugar hit of Cointreau, simple syrup and a sugar rim. At the ‘21’ Club,  meanwhile, I got a tart Sidecar, the sort that makes you wince with each sip. The young bartender who made it said he usually followed a 2:1:1 spec. But he found the Cognac he was currently using, Bardinet, so aggressive, that he veered closer to 1:1:1. Was that the house spec? There wasn’t really a house spec, he said. Every bartender made the drink differently.

How could one expect to get a good Sidecar in such a cradle of feckless anarchy?

Surely, a bar named Sidecar treated the cocktail with more seriousness. The decade-old Park Slope saloon in question puts the drink up at the top of its menu, all by itself. The staff’s attitude toward the cocktail, then, was oddly cursory. “It’s just the standard recipe that everyone uses,” said the disinterested bartender. The main difference in their house recipe was the use of Combier orange liqueur instead of the most common Cointreau. Lautrec was the Cognac. Same old sugar rim. It had all the character of a Screwdriver.

Was it the Combier that marked the downfall of Sidecar’s Sidecar? Was it the Lautrec? Maybe. Part of the challenge of perfecting the Sidecar is that it’s easy to royally screw up every one of the three components. Make a Manhattan with basic bourbon and run-of-the-mill sweet vermouth and it’s still a pretty damn good drink. Take a step down in either of the two alcoholic ingredients in the Sidecar and the cocktail tumbles into the basement. It’s a drink that knows a diamond from a rhinestone.

Absolutely by chance, I learned that Joaquín Simó, as good a bartender as New York has to offer, was a Sidecar fan. So I visited his bar, Pouring Ribbons, in the East Village, and had him make me one. Here, finally, was the care of execution I had been looking for. The man even had a philosophy.

“With the Sidecar, it’s not so much about flavor for me as it is about mouth-feel,” he said. The orange liqueurs he knew were not sweet enough to balance out the lemon juice. “These do not cancel each other out. They are not equivalent in the way, say, simple syrup and lemon juice cancel each other out.” So he adds a barspoon of rich 2:1 demerara syrup to the drink, which otherwise contains two ounces of Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, a three-quarter ounce of Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao and a three-quarter ounce of lemon juice.

“I don’t want the drink to taste thin or watery half way through,” he continued, “so I bump up the sugar to give up a little more fat.”

It was the best Sidecar I had had since I’d started searching for one. It was a whole, not a poorly assembled brandy puzzle. It had a roundness that none of the other versions had possessed, and the sort of luxurious texture that Hess said he thought should mark the drink. All three elements were balanced. And the demerara did the trick the sugar rim was always meant to, but never did.

“The Sidecar is one of my favorite cocktails,” interjected Jason Cott, Simó’s partner at Pouring Ribbons. He had been listening to our conversation and was amused by my dissatisfaction with the drink. Could Jason be that elusive unicorn?

I asked him if he ordered Sidecars often. “All the time,” he said. And how often were they good? He smiled. “Never.”