The Champagne Cocktail — how could you say no? Champagne is amazing and cocktails are amazing, so together, you might reason, it would be even better. It’s up there with “Tuscan villa” or “bacon wrapped”—some combinations of words are so inherently appealing, it’s hard to even imagine saying no. “Oh, you’re offering Ferrari Caviar Orgasms? None for me, thanks.” Please.
There is, however, a distinction between a champagne cocktail—any mixed drink featuring sparkling wine—and the Champagne Cocktail, which is a very specific thing. In fact, as you drill down on the classic Champagne Cocktail, it simultaneously becomes both more defined and less clear. We know exactly what it is. It’s the why that gets a little hazy.
The Champagne Cocktail appears in the first drink recipe book ever written, Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks: The Bon Vivant’s Companion, published in 1862. Today, the word “cocktail” means any mixed alcoholic beverage, but at the time, a cocktail was a specific recipe: It was a spirit of any kind, with sugar, bitters and ice. So a Whiskey Cocktail, for example, is whiskey, sugar, bitters and ice. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because we recognize this today as an Old Fashioned (indeed, the name is short for Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail).
The Champagne Cocktail is that same treatment, just with the wine instead of the spirit. Thomas’s original had ice as well, but we tend to omit that these days. Nevertheless, there it is, clear as the ink on the page: The Champagne Cocktail is champagne, sugar and bitters.
Less clear is the why, as in, “Why would someone make this?” With an Old Fashioned, the bitters add spice and the sugar takes the edge off, as many find whiskey difficult to drink on its own. Champagne, on the other hand—at least, the actual French Champagne—is already a finished product, and a pretty close to perfect one at that. It’s like if you took Aretha Franklin’s greatest hits and put them through an autotune: Adulterations are not only unnecessary, but everything you’re doing is making it worse.
“Why some people rave about the Champagne Cocktail is a complete mystery to me,” wrote David Embury in his 1948 book “Fine Art of Making Drinks.” “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.” Embury could be tedious and pretentious and was often wrong, but he represents a school of thought here that is common. If you’re going to make one, he posits, use something “cheap.”
Embury seems to have stumbled sideways into a good point. It’s not that Champagne is so sacred that it’s a crime to mix it—try your French 75 with Champagne just to see what you’ve been missing—but that the bitters and sugar of the Champagne Cocktail rebel against the bready complexity of a Brut Champagne. In other words, not only is it more expensive to use Champagne, but in my opinion, it also isn’t nearly as good. In my many tests, anything bottle fermented—Champagne, Crémant, Cava, Franciacorta—didn’t work particularly well. Much better is a Prosecco, fresh and fruity and eager to please, that accepts the sweetness and spice of the Champagne Cocktail. Also decently successful was bottom shelf American sparkling wines like André, but let’s be honest—if you’re buying André, your plans probably involve Tropicana more than Angostura.
So why would you make a Champagne Cocktail? Because it’s a Champagne Cocktail. Do it because it’s New Year’s Eve. Do it to dress up nice and offer one to your guests like you’re Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Great Gatsby.” Do it because celebrations are more about what’s in your head than they are what’s in your glass. Just don’t call it a “Prosecco Cocktail.” It doesn’t have nearly the same ring to it.
- 1 sugar cube
- 1-2 dashes of bitters
- 5-6oz Prosecco, or other Sparkling Wine
Saturate the sugar cube with bitters, about 1 or 2 dashes. Place bitters-soaked sugar cube in a coupe, fill with sparkling wine and garnish with a lemon peel.
Notes On Ingredients:
Wine: This is probably the only time I’ve ever said this, but I strongly prefer Prosecco to Champagne in this drink. Champagne, usually the gold standard of sparkling wine for both sipping and cocktails, just doesn’t come together here the way that Prosecco does. Prosecco is also many times less expensive, so bully for us.
Sugar: The Champagne Cocktail is again unique: This calls not for simple syrup but for sugar, or specifically, a sugar cube. They’re not expensive, and if you’re building a night around Champagne Cocktails, pick some up. Absent that, use 1 tsp of sugar, which is just a hair bigger than a cube, but works acceptably.
The sugar won’t all dissolve. That’s fine, it’s not supposed to. What it does is provides nucleation sites for bubble formation, fizzing away and offering some fun pyrotechnics in the glass. It’ll cost you carbonation, but it’s worth the show. Without it—just using simple syrup, say—makes the drink less celebratory and honestly pretty dull.
Bitters: Angostura Bitters is classic, and has a heavy baking spice note that, again, clashes with Champagne but seems to better complement Prosecco. Other bitters—orange bitters, lavender bitters, yuzu bitters, etc.—will work, in many cases better, but it strays from the classic. Experiment as you will.
Glassware: Instincts tell you to reach for a flute, and flutes are fine, but if you have one, I’d suggest a coupe. The more the sugar moves around, the quicker it will dissolve, and coupes help that. In some flutes the sugar cube will break apart into a small pile of sugar that just sits there at the bottom until the glass is empty.
Other Ingredients: Some recipes call for spiking the whole project with an ounce of brandy. I do not recommend this. The Champagne Cocktail relies on its simplicity—the addition of spirits seems to me to invite even more additions. You add brandy and take a sip and think, “a squeeze of lemon would be great!” and then take another sip next and think, “this would be better without bitters”—and before you know it, you’ve just invented a French 75. If it’s going to stay a Champagne Cocktail, keep the spirits out of it.