Bubble trouble: Rethinking the champagne cocktail

Laura Foster

Laura Foster

19 July 2019

If there’s one area where most bars probably need to up their offering, it’s the champagne cocktail. Laura Foster goes beyond the French 75 to find out what you should – and shouldn’t – be doing to get the most out of an under-utilised classic


I was sat in the warm environs of the Bassoon Bar in the Corinthia Hotel last year when Marcis Dzelzainis of Sager + Wilde and Fare uttered something that really got me thinking.

‘Very few bartenders take champagne cocktails seriously,’ he declared as we sipped on the sumptuous Champagne on Toast, his drink celebrating the rich, yeasty notes of vintage champagne through a mix of champagne, sous vide brioche, cognac and burnt lactic sugar syrup.

So why does he think this is? ‘Champagne cocktails are quite complicated to get your head around. Most things hinge on an aromatic or acid-driven pivot, as David Embury wrote, and champagne cocktails don’t really sit within either. They’re their own group of drinks, which is why bartenders struggle with them,’ he said.

Champagne Cocktail
‘If you are going to use brut champagne [instead of demi-sec], I’d look at upping the sugar. In the end I got to 20ml sugar to 2 dashes bitters to 75ml Moët Brut NV over crushed ice,’ advises Stu Hudson.

Glass: Tumbler or rocks
Garnish: Lemon peel
Method: Mix ingredients gently over crushed ice.

15ml sugar syrup (1:1)
3 dashes Angostura Bitters
100ml demi-sec champagne

Stu Hudson of Forgotten Hospitality hesitantly agrees with Dzelzainis’ assessment of the lack of quality, but feels that things have come round as hospitality’s prosecco obsession has receded.
‘It did go through a bit of a lull a couple of years ago,’ he says.

‘People were switching champagne for prosecco, [but] they’re totally different flavour profiles. It’s like trying to make a Daiquiri with a big, punchy Jamaican rum. Bartenders need to think about sparkling wines like rum – there are so many flavour profiles out there.’

Bring bubbly back

‘For a long period, champagne cocktails seemed like an afterthought,’ Hudson continues. ‘The rise in champagne prices over the last 15 years made it prohibitive, but now brands are starting to talk about it.’ That seems to be having a knock-on effect.

‘Some of the best champagne cocktails that I’ve drunk have been in the last year or two,’ says Hudson. ‘You just have to experiment with it. Iain MacPherson does one with Ardbeg that’s delicious. The guys from Clumsies do one with wasabi tincture and peach, and it works beautifully.’

With its premium price tag and exclusive image, champagne, both neat and mixed, is often viewed as the preserve of the piano-soundtracked hotel bar. The high cost of champagne makes the inclusion of champagne cocktails in non-hotel bars more challenging for multiple reasons: the cost to develop a new cocktail by opening a bottle; and also the increased price on a menu are two key factors.

People were switching champagne for prosecco, but they're totally different flavours

Stu Hudson

Dzelzainis ensures there’s always at least one champagne cocktail on his menus, but does think that ‘people have some unrealistic expectations of how much things cost, so that’s why I think people are more amenable to spending money on a champagne cocktail in a hotel bar’.

One bartender who is trying to break down the barriers to this cocktail category is Joseph Hall at Satan’s Whiskers. The menu at the Bethnal Green bar is split into four categories: ‘cocktails’, for drinks in stemmed glassware; ‘shorts’ for anything served in, well, short glassware such as a rocks; ‘long and highball’; and ‘fizzy’, which incorporates anything carbonated.

‘Taking intimidation away from drinks categories is a big concern of mine here,’ Hall explains. ‘It’s important that everything on the menu is understandable. I’ll try to include at least one or two champagne drinks, which cost a tenner, whereas prosecco drinks are £9.50. We don’t use brand names.

We’ll have old-style classics such as the Cognac French 75, and then make an effort to include things with fresh pineapple juice or strawberries or something. It gets people drinking quality stuff, without having to think about it.’ To take a leaf out of Hall’s book and break down these barriers, turn over.

Made wrong, or just plain wrong?

Arguably the most famous mixed drink in the champagne canon, the Champagne Cocktail, in my opinion, is overrated. I’d argue that it does nothing to help further the public’s opinion of this category. As David A Embury says in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, ‘Why some people rave about the Champagne Cocktail is a complete mystery to me. The only known reason for regarding it as “ultra-ultra” is the fact that champagne is expensive. 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.’

Hudson, however, wants to defend the Champagne Cocktail’s honour. ‘Everyone’s making it wrong,’ he declares. ‘If you look at when this drink was prevalent, for the first seven years it existed it was served over crushed ice and made with a sweeter champagne [see recipe]. ‘A lot of champagne drinks were done over ice to mitigate the sweetness. I think the brandy arrived in the 30s or 40s from an amalgamation of Jerry Thomas’ Breck & Brace and the Champagne Cocktail. For the first 60 years the Champagne Cocktail didn’t contain brandy.’

No 'pagne no gain

From menus to margins, our experts tell you how to fine tune your fizz technique

The panel

MD – Marcis Dzelzainis, Sager + Wilde and Fare Bar + Canteen
PG – Pippa Guy, American Bar at the Savoy
JH – Joseph Hall, Satan’s Whiskers
SH – Stuart Hudson, drinks consultant

Which champagne?

‘People assume that all champagnes are created equal. Some are great by the glass, but won’t work in drinks. If you have something that’s too buttery or reductive, it’s not great to mix with. You want something acid-driven with balance and structure.’ – MD

‘Most standalone bars don’t have the space to have more than one champagne. For your by-the-glass option I’d look for a younger non-vintage with a nice blend of the three main grape varieties [Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier], which will provide complexity for mixing and by the glass.’ – SH

Creating cocktails

‘Keep it simple. If you throw too much at it you’re going to lose the intrinsic qualities of the champagne. It’s not just a lengthener, it’s also a main ingredient in the cocktail. Use no more than three or four ingredients and think more about delicate flavours. Saké works well with champagne, so does jasmine and lilac.’ – MD

‘Check your champagne to ensure it’s fresh and not flat before mixing with it.’ – JH

‘Be careful with acid – don’t put too much in there. And if you’re going to use citrus, make sure it’s fresh.’ – MD

‘Don’t be afraid to use ice. Surprisingly it doesn’t take out the bubbles, because it takes longer for the bubbles to fight their way out. In summer, a French 75 served long over ice is delicious.’ – SH

‘Size down your ratios in order to fit a glass. A flute is its own vessel. What I find when asking people to make me French 75s is that they’ll just make a Cognac Sour. They might be doing 20ml of lemon and sugar, then 50ml cognac, filling the glass up almost to the top, then topping up with the tiniest bit of champagne.’ – JH

‘Consider your glassware. We did the Black Velvet in a flute, coupe and wine glass, and how the aromas and flavour are received changes hugely.’ – SH

‘When it comes to garnishes, it depends on the style you’re doing. Spraying zest over a drink, especially with bubbles, creates a film that prevents the aroma carrying because the bubbles struggle to burst. Ask: does it add something to the drink, or does it just do something to make the drink look outlandish? It’s very hard to do something with a flute.’ – SH

Menus

‘Just having one really good champagne cocktail on the menu is enough. However, the widespread use of champagne syrup clearly indicates there’s a lot of champagne cocktail on the menu, make it something that is going to sell and have a lot of turnover.’ – MD

‘There’s no excuse for wasting any champagne. If you have an open bottle, put something like a National No 2 – a rum drink we make with Santa Teresa 1796, fresh pineapple juice, apricot, lime and champagne – on the menu. It reads great, and the champagne just goes away because people order it.’ – JH

‘When it comes to making drinks that people will order, mix something familiar with something unusual. If you pair elderflower and champagne, that’s quite obvious, but if you pair elderflower, champagne and liquorice, that’s still going to work, and it’s going to intrigue. Go for something safe and something interesting.’ – MD

Death in the Afternoon
Death in the Afternoon

Technique

‘Be careful how you’re pouring. I’ve always been taught to layer the champagne very slowly down the side of the glass with a spoon and carefully mix so that you don’t lose that effervescence.’ – MD

‘If you’re making something shaken – let’s take a French 75 – you are lengthening your drink after you shake it, so it doesn’t want that much dilution. It’s got to have a short shake. Enough to make it just a little bit cold, but you don’t want to dilute it too much.’ – JH

Pricing

‘A lot of bars, I don’t think they necessarily look at champagne cocktails the same way in terms of pouring deals and retros. If you’re smart you should be able to get some sort of stock retro to work it out. Charging 75% GP on champagne cocktails is going to price it out of your usual cocktail price band.’ – SH

‘Balancing GP [across a menu] is important. If you’re going to put something with champagne on, basically, it’s terrible for GP, but that means that you’ve also got to include a drink that’d be really good.’ – JH

Substitutions for champagne

‘I’m all for it but do your research and substitute with something that has a similar flavour profile and background. English sparkling wines are a fantastic substitution for champagne if the latter is not in your price range. In my book, Let’s Get Fizzical, there are two great sections that focus on this: ‘Which Fizz is Which’, and ‘Swap Your Sparkle’, outlining the differences between varieties of fizz and advising which are the best substitutes to use.’ – PG

‘A lot of bartenders will go for prosecco or cava, but there are some cocktails where you absolutely have to use champagne, such as the classic Champagne Cocktail; the French 75 as they make it in Arnauds in New Orleans, switching cognac in for gin; and the Death in the Afternoon.’ – MD


Images by Sean Ware Photography for Stu Hudson and Jane Ryan's upcoming book, Champagne & Cocktails – A guide to mixing with the world's most famous wine, due out this autumn

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