I have a confession to make: I don't like champagne. This is particularly problematic during the holidays, when parties are awash in champagne and other sparkling wines to toast the season.
Now, before you tell me to put a cork in it, let me explain. To my arguably overstimulated palate, it's boring. Maybe it's an effect of all those years of rich sauces, chili peppers, high-alcohol whiskeys and high-sugar liqueurs, but sparkling wines just don't do it for me.
Someone is bound to shout me down as a heathen (or a victim of cheap champers), but honestly, I'm happy to pass on the champagne.
That is, unless it's part of a cocktail. In fact, I'm obsessed with the French 75 cocktail, said to be named after the powerful 75mm howitzer cannon used during World War I. The standard is made with brandy or cognac (though gin is a popular substitute) mixed with lemon juice and sugar, then topped with brut champagne. Gussied up thus, I'm happy to swill champagne until the new year rings in.
One of the things I love about the French 75 is its versatility. How could anyone be bored when so many clever variations exist? With just a few tweaks of the basic cocktail building blocks (sparkle, spirit, sour and sweet), the drink takes on seemingly endless new variations. I know of one bartender who attempted to make 75 French 75s, each one a fresh twist on the classic formula.
He's not the only one to see the drink's potential for riffing. Bars and restaurants all over the country have customized the French 75 to fit a cuisine, theme or flavor profile. For example, the popular Italian 75 swaps prosecco for champagne. At San Francisco's Tres Agaves, a Mexican 75 is made with blanco tequila, agave nectar and lime juice, and topped with sparkling wine — perhaps the only tequila drink I've ever seen served in a champagne flute.
About The Author
Kara Newman is the author of Spice & Ice: 60 Tongue-Tingling Cocktails. Learn more at the Spice & Ice blog.
Other times, one or more of the building blocks are infused with seasonal or local flavors. One of my favorites is the Fig 75 served at New York's Gramercy Tavern (with fig-infused cognac, allspice dram, Lillet and sparkling wine). Meanwhile, at Midi, also in San Francisco, the Lavender French 75 is a popular option (gin, lavender-infused syrup, lemon juice and sparkling wine).
Of course, the French 75 isn't the only sparkling cocktail out there. In addition to the silver-screen classic champagne cocktail (a straightforward mix of bubbles poured over a sugar cube soaked with Angostura bitters), mixologists continue to bring us a wide range of sparkling cocktails. I often create my own drink recipes, using my favorite French 75 as a template for creating the drink. With the sparkle-spirit-sour-sweet building blocks in mind, a new cocktail comes easily. The hard part? Coming up with an appropriately bubbly toast.
The Cadillac of champagne-based cocktails. Although this drink traditionally is served long (in a tall glass with ice), it's also festive stirred together with ice and strained into a flute glass or wine glass.
Makes 1 drink
2 ounces cognac (gin may be substituted, if preferred)
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
1/2 ounce lemon juice
5 ounces brut champagne
In a cocktail shaker, combine cognac, sugar, lemon juice and ice, and shake well. Strain into a chilled collins glass half filled with ice. Top off with champagne. Serve with a straw.
A daisy is a classic juice-based cocktail sweetened with grenadine or a red liqueur, often topped with sparkling wine. Here, the bright spice of ginger plays against a backdrop of bubbles for a festive holiday sparkler. If you feel like gilding the lily, try one or both of the optional special touches. The recipe is adapted from my book Spice & Ice: 60 Tongue-Tingling Cocktails (Chronicle Books 2009).
Combine the gin, ginger liqueur, lemon juice and grenadine in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir until well chilled and strain into a champagne flute. Top with champagne.
1. Rim the flute with sparkling sugar (a specialty baking product — sugar crystals colored with food-grade carnauba wax — available in the baking aisle of many supermarkets) before pouring in the drink.
This cocktail, served at New York bar Employees Only, is a riff on the classic champagne cocktail. Cava rose from Spain is recommended as the effervescent element for its body and dryness. Meanwhile, Campari, an Italian aperitivo liqueur, adds a pleasing bitter note. Try this one paired with tapas or seafood appetizers. The recipe is adapted from Speakeasy: Classic Cocktails Reimagined, from New York's Employees Only Bar by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric (Ten Speed Press 2010).
John Kernick/Courtesy of Ten Speed Press
Makes 1 drink
5 ounces cava brut rose, divided
1 raw brown sugar cube
4 or 5 dashes Angostura bitters
3/4 ounce Campari
1 lemon twist
Pour 1 1/2 ounces of the sparkling wine into a champagne flute. Place the sugar cube on a bar spoon and saturate it with the bitters. Carefully place the sugar cube in the flute. Let it rest for a moment. Pour in the rest of the sparkling wine. Add the Campari. Twist the lemon peel over the drink, then discard.
I love the idea of infusing a drink with fir trees — it seems like the ultimate holiday cocktail. And gin, with its botanical backbone, is the perfect spirit to infuse with fragrant fir essence. Seattle-based mixologist Kathy Casey uses bark and needles from her own Douglas fir tree in making bitters and other cocktail ingredients. This is adapted from her recipe. Serve alongside a cheese plate for holiday cheer.
Makes 1 drink
1 1/2 ounces Douglas fir-infused gin (recipe follows)
3/4 ounce white cranberry juice
3/4 ounce lemon juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup
Splash of brut champagne or dry sparkling wine
Tiny sprig of Douglas fir, for garnish
1 fresh or frozen cranberry
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the infused gin, cranberry juice, lemon juice and simple syrup. Cap and shake vigorously. Strain into a martini glass and top with a splash of champagne. Garnish with a fir sprig and float a cranberry in the drink for a mistletoe-like effect.
Douglas Fir-Infused Gin
Makes enough for about 16 drinks
1 (5- to 6-inch) sprig fresh-picked Douglas fir branch, rinsed
1 (750 ml) bottle gin
Put the fir branch into the gin bottle, cap and let sit 24 hours. (Do not let it infuse for more than 24 hours.) Remove the branch and discard. The infused gin can be stored at room temperature for up to 1 year.