Words by: Simon Difford
One of the oldest cocktails, dating back to at least the mid-1800s, the Champagne Cocktail consists of a sugar cube douched in aromatic bitters dropped into the base of a glass, over which is poured a small measure of cognac before the glass is topped up with champagne.
The origins of the Champagne Cocktail are lost in the mists of bartending time with cocktail historian, David Wondrich saying it "dates from the Iron Age of American mixology - that final prehistoric period between the invention of the cocktail, whenever that was, and 1862, when the first cocktail book was published."
The first written mention of the Champagne Cocktail appears in the 'Panama in 1855. An Account of the Panama Rail-road, of the cities of Panama and Aspinwall with sketches of life and characters on the Isthmus by Robert Tomes'. Published 1855 in New York by Harper & Brothers.
On page 61, Tomes writes, "I profess the belief that drinking Champagne cock-tails[sic] before breakfast, and smoking forty cigars daily, to be an immoderate enjoyment of the good things of this world. On the following page he handily goes on to describe in some detail how a Champagne Cocktail is made:
"What shall I drink?" I asked a friend at my side. "A Champagne cock-tail - the most delicious thing in the world - let me make you one", was his response; and he suited the action to the word. A bottle of prime, sparkling 'Mumm' was brought, a refreshing plateful of crystal ice, fresh from Rockland by the last steamer, and rather a medical looking bottle, upon which was written a direct, brief terms, 'Bitters'. My friend, whose benevolent eyes expressed pity for my sufferings, while his lips were eloquent of prospective alleviation to my-self, and of consciousness, the result of long experience, of his own anticipated enjoyment, pounded the crystal ice, with a series of quick, successive blows, pattered it into the tumblers like a shower of hail, dropping in the bitters, which diffused a glow like that of early sunrise, dashed in the sugar, which somewhat clouded the beautiful prospect, and gave what the artists call a dead tint to the mixture; then out popped the eager 'Mum', and the Champagne cock-tail, thus was perfected, went whirling, roaring, foaming, and flowing down mine and the friendly concocter's thirsty throats.
The above account is interesting as it not only proves that Champagne Cocktails were being made before 1855, but also shows that the drink was originally served in a tumbler over crushed ice, and made with aromatic bitters, sugar syrup and champagne. Interestingly there is no mention of brandy - cognac or otherwise.
In the world's first cocktail book, How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant's Companion published in 1862, Jerry Thomas also omits the brandy, commonly used in today's recipes. He also serves in a tumbler over broken (crushed) ice. I don't take the instruction to "Shake well" literally and presume he meant stir.
Jerry Thomas' 1862 Champagne Cocktail
"(One bottle of wine to every six large glasses.)
½ teaspoon of sugar
1 or 2 dashes of bitters
1 piece of lemon peel
Fill tumbler one-third full of broken ice, and fill balance with wine. Shake well and serve."
By the time Thomas wrote the 1887 edition of his book fashion and the Champagne Cocktail had obviously moved on. He calls for a goblet rather than a tumbler, and the "broken ice" has been replaced with a "small lump of ice", and the use of a sugar is introduced - much closer the modern day Champagne Cocktail.
Jerry Thomas' 1887 Champagne Cocktail
"(Pint bottle of wine for three goblets.)
Take 1 lump of sugar
1 or 2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 small lump of ice
Fill the goblet with wine, stir up with a spoon, and serve with a thin piece of twisted lemon peel.
A quart bottle of wine will make six cocktails."
The other illustrious vintage cocktail books below also omit brandy.
The World's Drinks and How to Mix Them by Wm. T. Boothby (1908)
"A LA 'BOB' LARIUS, CAPE NOME, ALASKA.
Saturate a cube of sugar with five or six drops of Angostura bitters, place the sugar in a champagne glass with sugar tongs, fill the glass with cold champagne, and serve. Never stir or decorate this beverage. "
The Ideal Bartender by Tom Bullock (1917)
"1 lump Sugar in tall, thin glass.
1 small piece Ice.
2 dashes Angostura Bitters.
1 piece twisted Lemon Peel.
Fill up with Champagne.
Stir and serve."
The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock (1930)
"Put into a wine glass one lump of Sugar, and saturate it with Angostura Bitters. Having added to this 1 lump of Ice, fill the glass with Champagne, squeeze on top a piece of lemon peel, and serve with a slice of orange."
The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book by Albert Stevens Crockett (1935)
"One lump Sugar
Two dashes Angostura Bitters
One piece Lemon Peel, twisted
Fill glass with chilled Champagne"
Cafe Royal Cocktail Book by W. J. Tarling (1937)
"Put into a wine glass 1 lump of Sugar, and saturate it with Angostura Bitters. Having added to this 1 lump of Ice and ½ slice of orange, fill the glass with Champagne, squeeze on top a piece of Lemon Peel. A dash of brandy as required."
The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks by David Embury (1948)
"This drink should be served in a pre-chilled saucer champagne glass. Place a medium-sized loaf of sugar in the glass and saturate it with Angostura bitters - about 2 dashes. Fill with thoroughly chilled champagne. Add a twist of lemon or orange peel, or both."
Embury also added his personal opinion of the drink:
"From every point of view, other than cost, this cocktail is a decidedly inferior drink, and no true champagne lover would ever commit the sacrilege of polluting a real vintage champagne by dunking even plain sugar - much less bitters - in it.
So if you must... serve this incongruous mess just for the sake of 'putting on the dog,' then, in the name of all that a true lover of the grape holds sacred, use a cheap domestic champagne or even an artificially carbonated white wine."
Words of wisdom from David Wondrich
"Don't use loose sugar or try to crush the cube - the whole point isn't so much to sweeten the drink as to create bubbles, which the cube will do as it slowly dissolves.
"Some prefer an ice cube in theirs, which will (to state the bleeding obvious) prolong the chill at the cost of a certain dilution.
"Or you can replace the bitters with absinthe and float a tablespoon or so of cognac (good cognac) on top. That's called a Casino Cocktail.