Friday Happy Hour: Champagne Cocktails

We bartenders love to talk about the drinks we loathe to make–mojitos, dirty martinis (my personal nemesis)–but we rarely talk about the drinks we really enjoy making. For every drink that makes me cringe when it’s ordered, there are a dozen that I will always volunteer to make, no matter how busy I am. These drinks never follow any rhyme or reason; sometimes it’s because they’re simple (chartreuse, splash of soda, my unyielding respect) and sometimes not so much. Not sure why, but I love to make Old Fashioneds, maybe there’s some kind of zen in taking the time to muddle the sugar cube and slowly stir the whiskey that mentally takes me out of the weeds for a precious minute. One of my all time favorite drinks to make behind the bar, for all the right reasons, is a Champagne Cocktail. It’s timeless, it’s classy, it’s quick to make, and it’s one of the sexist drinks ever. That wild effervescence from the sugar cube, that luscious pink color from the bitters, that dry, sweet taste like your mouth after you’ve just been kissed; sorry Cosmos, Slippery Nipples, and Sex On The Beach, this cool classic blows you all away.

The Champagne Cocktail is so stupidly simple I’m still surprised by just how perfect it is. Possibly the easiest cocktail recipe ever, all you need to do is fill a champagne flute, add a dash of aromatic bitters like Angostura, and drop in a sugar cube. No fancy technique, no esoteric ingredients, no chilling or stirring or shaking required. Simple, easy, tastes great, and–the best part–it’s infinitely customizable. Try grapefruit bitters for a citrusy take or sparkling rosé for something more modern. The variation I see the most is to add ½ to 1 ounce of a base spirit. With a bit of gin you’ve got something like a French 75. Leaving out the sugar cube and adding bourbon, a bit of Cointreau, and a few heavy dashes of Angostura and Peychaud’s, and you’ve got a Seelbach. An ounce of absinthe and a dash of Peychaud’s and you’ve got a Death in the Afternoon, the best hangover cure out there. But variations aren’t strictly necessary, this drink shines on its own.

Unlike most other drinks, the Champagne Cocktail emphasizes scent rather than flavor. Or more preciously, how scent can affect flavor. Whether it’s an absinthe rinse, a lemon zest garnish, or a spritz of Laphroaig, scent is a neat little trick to play with how your body perceives the way something tastes. Most drinks use scent as a way to enhance the flavors inherent in the actual drink, but unlike a garnish or a rinse, the entire physiology of a Champagne Cocktail is meant to enhance scent. Once you drop in the sugar cube, the champagne will start to bubble and fizz rapidly as the crystal structure of the sugar agitates the carbonation, which will literally float the aromatic compounds to the surface and stimulate your olfactory flavor sensors.

Since this drink is so aromatically stimulating I prefer to keep my variations focused more on the scent rather than flavor and use scant measures like dashes and drops to make sure it isn’t too overwhelming.

The Belle
Barspoon rye whiskey
Dash rose water
Dash Peychaud’s Bitters
Sparkling wine*, to fill
Sugar cube

Add the whiskey, rose water, and bitters to a champagne flute and fill with sparkling wine. If I’m at home entertaining guests I like to fill the flute to the brim with sparkling wine and then drop in the sugar cube, the agitation should cause the sparkling wine to bubble over and make a bit of a mess. It’s just suggestive enough that everyone will get a kick out of it. Behind the bar though, I very neatly fill the glass and leave a bit of room to allow for the sparkling wine to become agitated without causing a mess. An inexpensive sparkling wine works just fine as long as your pair it with a flavorful, aromatic whiskey with a high rye content like Redemption or (one of my new favorites) Riverboat Unfiltered Rye. I don’t bother with a garnish unless a pretty lady orders this, then I’m garnishing it with a marriage proposal.

*If you want to get fancy, you can “sparkle” your own wine at home. If you have a Sodastream or an iSi Soda Siphon you can force carbonate wine and create a sparkling version of anything. A word of caution, carbonation does affect flavor, so results might not be exactly what you’d expect. But don’t let that stop you from experimenting, go forth and carbonate (and blow away your friends with a DIY carbonated dry riesling).

Paul Allen

While having only recently relocated to DC, Paul has been a long time fan of DC’s cocktail culture. In his short career he has tended bar for GQ, Bombay Sapphire, Campari, and Nikka Whisky in London. Currently you can find him behind the stick at Firefly. When not working, he’s likely vociferously advocating for the DC Craft Bartender’s Guild or trying to brew the perfect cup of tea. Though he misses his native Rhode Island’s beaches and beautiful fall weather, Paul is proud to live, work, and–most importantly–drink in DC.


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