This recipe is another example of how building one successful cocktail often helps you discover (or rediscover) many more great drinks along the way. In this case, we were playing with cocktails using French Brandy (Cognac or Armagnac) and found the May Daisy. But as we did our research (reading books, cruising the web and trying drinks- a tough gig) we also found a note on the Champagne cocktail that piqued our interest.
Now almost all Champagne cocktail recipes include Champagne (or good sparking wine), sugar, Angostura bitters and a lemon twist. But it turns out that many recipes for the Champagne cocktail include anywhere from 1/4 to 3/4 of an ounce of brandy, usually Cognac. These recipes also note that while you can use “OK” Champagne, you need good brandy to make a successful drink. And since we had a good, but affordable, Napoleon Armagnac, we were in business.
And while we already like a basic Champagne cocktail, this version with good brandy was something altogether different, and very much better. The aroma, with the combination of citrus from the twist, the tart yeasty note of the champagne, spice from the bitters and sweet floral / fruity notes of the Armagnac is outstanding. You will be happy simply smelling this drink. And magically, as the Champagne bubbles keep the drink “active”, the aroma persists from beginning to end. This cocktail is a reminder that adding a twist to a drink can be very, very important to the result. As for flavor, the Champagne still rules the drink, but with much more depth of flavor and just a touch of pleasant heat from the brandy. We love this drink, it is good anytime / anywhere.
As for the ingredients, as we noted earlier, good brandy (VSOP or XO) is the way to go, but you can be more flexible on the Champagne or sparking wine. We use California sparkling wine in cocktails, our favorite brand is Gloria Ferrer, who makes great wine in the $15 - $20 per bottle range that is available in most liquor and grocery stores. Both the Brut and Brut Rose are worth seeking out. But if you have a bottle that you like, and it’s not too expensive, use it. The amount of brandy in the recipes varied, but we found 1/2 ounce to supply good flavor without drowning out the other players or being to boozy. For the bitters we use Angostura, some recipes suggest adding orange bitters, but we found this added more sweetness than we needed (but by all means try it if you like orange bitters). For sugar, most recipes suggest soaking a sugar cube in 3 dashes of the bitters and adding it to the drink. This will add some sweetness and extra bubbles. But if you don’t have sugar cubes (most of us don’t anymore), 1/4 of an ounce of simple syrup can replace the sugar cube. Lastly, a big, fresh lemon twist is essential to this cocktail. Many photos show long thin twists in the drink, but you need the oil from the twist in the drink. We cut a half-dollar size piece of the lemon zest and give it a good working-over above the drink and then add it in. You will pick up the aroma of the drink immediately, and it will be good.
A last note on the lineage of this drink. We got our inspiration from a minor aside by Gary Regan in one of his syndicated cocktail columns. He mentioned this version was quite good, and he was right. But oddly, the “provenance” of this cocktail is still a question. Regan did not specify if adding Cognac was “classic” or an “improved / new” version of the Champagne Cocktail. Some resources like DrinksMixer think brandy was in the classic, others like David Wondrich think adding Cognac makes it a new drink altogether, and no one seems to have a definitive stance. This is somewhat odd in the world of cocktails, where mixologists usually geek-up on such minutiae and often have very strong opinions. But regardless of its history, a Champagne Cocktail with a touch of good quality brandy is as good as a cocktail gets. Next time you order or make a Champagne cocktail, try to add a dash of brandy and enjoy the magic.
The Classic Champagne Cocktail:
- 1 sugar cube or 1/4 oz. simple syrup
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1/2 oz. quality Cognac or Armagnac
- 4 oz. Champagne or sparking wine
- 1 large lemon twist (half-dollar size)
- If using sugar cube, soak the cube with 3 dashes of bitters and place in the bottom of a Champagne flute.
- Add the brandy into a cocktail shaker with ice (if using simple syrup, add it and the bitters to the shaker). Stir until chilled and strain into the Champagne flute.
- Slowly add the Champagne or sparkling wine to the flute. Thoroughly squeeze lemon twist over the top of the drink. serve.