The history of the Champagne cocktail
It’s kind of a funny thing, the way Champagne cocktails are considered all girly and twee these days. Back when they were originally invented — arguably a harder-drinking era than our own — they were enjoyed by tough guys and sophisticates alike, and so lauded for their powerful kick, they were named for military weapons.
Today, though, you have celebrated bartenders such as Portland’s Jeffrey Morgenthaler tweeting: “Only old ladies and hookers drink Champagne cocktails.”
Well, not quite, especially at this festive time of year. But it’s true that Champagne cocktails are something of a fizzy throwback to a more stylish era. They evoke a time when both movies and geopolitics came in black and white. Champagne cocktails featured prominently in the movie Casablanca: freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) drank Champagne cocktails, while Rick (Humphrey Bogart) ordered a French 75. Detective socialite Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) in The Thin Man and playboy Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) in An Affair to Remember also worked hard to give Champagne cocktails fizz. It was the favourite cocktail of acerbic wit Dorothy Parker, who quipped, “Three be the things I shall never attain: envy, content, and sufficient Champagne.” The novelist Alec Waugh even described Champagne as “the most powerful drink in the world.”
Only old ladies and hookers drink Champagne cocktails.
Mind you, he wasn’t talking about the classic Champagne cocktail, that concoction of sugar, bitters and fizz first recorded in 1862’s How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion by the great Professor Jerry Thomas. What Waugh was talking about was the French 75, the greatest of all the bubbly drinks.
The French 75 is gin (or sometimes Cognac), sugar and lemon juice, shaken, strained into a flute, then topped with sparkling wine, preferably Champagne. If that sounds like a Tom Collins made with Champagne rather than soda water, well, that was the idea. It was reportedly created at Harry’s Bar in Paris back in 1915 (or possibly Buck’s Club in London). By the time proprietor Harry McElhone included the recipe in his 1919 edition of Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails, the drink had been named for the deadly accurate 75mm French field gun that many credited for winning the Allies the First World War.
But back up a little, and you’ll see that a similar drink was being enjoyed long before the Great War. A century or more before the French 75 came into being, a concoction called a Champagne Cup — basically, a citrusy Champagne punch — was already being widely enjoyed. By the 1860s, Britons were putting gin in their version, while Cognac was the preferred spirit in what was called the Maharajah’s Burra-Peg in India or the Napoleon in France.
Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, the bitters-and-bubbles Champagne cocktail was becoming hugely popular, especially among the rough and tumble prospectors of the California Gold Rush. It was considered a morning bracer, a lunch libation, an afternoon pick-me-up, a perfect partner for the evening’s entertainment and, as cocktail historian David Wondrich writes, the drink you would choose as “one more for the road and another to greet the dawn.”
And really, what’s not to like? Champagne — or, if you’re on a budget, sparkling wine — is crisp, dry, complex and effervescent. It’s low enough in alcohol to be a good session drink, and it is a perfect base for subtle flavours — a splash of citrus, a dash of bitters, just a touch of spirits or liqueur.
It’s a guaranteed party in a glass.
CIVILIZATION DAWNS: Cocktail historian David Wondrich describes the Champagne cocktail as, “The first evolved cocktail on record.”
Make these classic champagne cocktails:
Classic Champagne Cocktail
—by Joanne Sasvari