Classic Champagne Cocktail - recipes & history
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. It remains one of the most popular champagne cocktails.
How to make
Back in the 1940s my hero, David Embury, an American attorney and amateur bartender, wrote the most succinct instruction on how to make a Classic Champagne Cocktail in his The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks:
"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 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."
Despite Embury's protestations "this incongruous mess" of a drink remains, some 70 years later, one of the most popular champagne cocktails, and one of the most enduring of all classic cocktails. So it can't be that bad! Like most cocktails, even the simplest, it's all about the quality of ingredients used and how you use them. Follows 8 tips to making a perfect Classic Champagne Cocktail:
1. Be sure to use a well-chilled, clean glass taken straight from the freezer. A flute gives a better drinking experience but a saucer looks more decadent.
2. As cocktail historian, David Wondrich says, "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." I prefer a rustic looking brown sugar cube.
3. Place a small napkin (bevnap) over the top of the glass and place the cube on top of the napkin. Dash the bitters over the cube to soak the surface thoroughly. The napkin handily absorbs excess bitters and then works, with some dexterous finger work, to act as a stylish chute to direct the soaked cube into the glass.
4. Use good quality (min V.S.O.P.) cognac and store in the refrigerator or even the freezer prior to use. Consider decanting some into a small bottle for such occasions. Pour a measure of the chilled cognac into the glass over the sugar cube. Room temperature cognac acts as a heat bomb to wreck this drink. Cognac and indeed this cocktail are meant to be luxurious, so use the best cognac you can afford. And remember you'll get 23+ of these drinks from each bottle.
5. "Some prefer an ice cube in theirs, which will (to state the bleeding obvious) prolong the chill at the cost of a certain dilution," again, to quote Wondrich. Ice is not necessary if the champagne, cognac and glass are well chilled.
6. The dry biscuity and citrus flavour of a good brut champagne is integral to this cocktail. Perhaps vintage is a tad OTT but prosecco won't do. Tip the glass at a slight angle and pour the chilled champagne down the inside of the glass, before straightening glass to finish pour, so as to create as little foam as possible. The cube will continuously generate bubbles so a careful pour will retain CO2 in the drink and add to the drinking experience.
7. As Embury says, "Add a twist of lemon or orange peel, or both." Discard twist(s) after expressing citrus oils.
8. Enjoy with friends. This is not a drink suited to solo consumption and lends itself to a crowd. Depending on the size of your glasses, expect 6 - 8 serves per bottle of champagne, or stretch to 10 if you're a tightwad.
The origins of the Champagne Cocktail are lost in the mists of bartending time with 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.
Jerry Thomas' 1862 & 1887 recipes
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
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 to the modern-day Champagne Cocktail.
Jerry Thomas' 1887 Champagne Cocktail (over 2 pages)
Other vintage recipes
The other illustrious vintage cocktail books below also omit brandy.
The World's Drinks and How to Mix Them by William 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."
A bartender named John Dougherty won an 1899 New York cocktail competition with a drink named Business Brace that is very similar to a Champagne Cocktail, the only difference being the addition of a splash of sparkling water with the champagne. His win was recorded in an article in the Kansas City Star and is said to have helped drive the popularity of the Champagne Cocktail.
If you replace the bitters with absinthe and float a barspoon of cognac on top of the drink then the Champagne Cocktail becomes a Casino Cocktail.
Prince of Wales Cocktail
A Prince of Wales cocktail is made in the same way as a Champagne Cocktail but with equal parts Cognac and Grand Marnier liqueur.
A Chicago Cocktail is made in the same way as the Prince of Wales Cocktail above but with equal parts Cognac and triple sec liqueur.