Jeffrey Morgenthaler is Food Republic’s contributing cocktail editor and the author of the column Easy Drinking. He currently manages the bars Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.
It’s the time of year for celebratory holiday cocktails; you know, the kind with champagne in them. All over the world, people just like you are gathering, shopping, brunching, and pouring crappy cocktails made with cheap sparkling wine down their throats.
I am, as anyone remotely familiar with me would surmise, very opinionated about cocktails. And, as one might suspect, I have some pretty strong opinions about cocktails made with sparkling wine. And from where I sit, there are three families of champagne cocktails. If you must make one of them, please make it the right way.
The Champagne Cocktail
Talking about champagne cocktails is really confusing, because on one hand there’s the whole world of cocktails that contain champagne, and we tend to refer to those as “champagne cocktails.” On the other hand, there’s already a cocktail named the Champagne Cocktail, which leads to all sorts of confusion at the bar.
Customer: “I’d like a champagne cocktail, please.”
Bartender: “Sure! Quick question, though, are you looking for some sort of cocktail that contains sparkling wine, or are you looking for the drink called a Champagne Cocktail?”
It’s the same sort of bartending challenge we all faced in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the word “martini.” Fortunately, the martini is mostly back to being a cocktail made from gin or vodka and dry vermouth, while a champagne cocktail is still a boring — and not that delicious — mixture of sparkling wine, bitters and a sugar cube.
Mixing Tip: If you insist on serving this dreck, make sure you soak the sugar cube in bitters first, rather than just splashing Angostura in the glass before adding sparkling wine. The resulting brown foam looks like raw sewage.
I can’t think of a better way to describe the iconic mimosa than as a champagne highball served without ice. It covers most of the brunch-time drinks you’re bound to see, such as the mimosa, the currently popular grapefruit mimosa, the poinsettia (champagne and cranberry juice), the Bellini and even that old classic that nobody orders any more, the Black Velvet (champagne and Guinness).
Champagne highballs are basically the vanilla latte of cocktails: We all drink them from time to time, but none of us feels particularly respectable while we’re having one. It’s about as low-impact as you can get, which is fine for day drinking.
Mixing Tip: Pour your fruit juice into the glass first, and then top with sparkling wine. You’re much less likely to witness the volcano effect. And for the love of all that is holy, please squeeze your juice fresh. Nobody is interested in your orange juice from a carton or, shudder, a can. But mad props to those of you who made a white peach puree last summer and tossed it in the freezer for the holidays.
The Champagne Collins
This is the pinnacle of champagne cocktails. Suddenly you’ve got everything: a spirit, some fresh citrus, a little sugar and plenty of bubbles. Sure, a collins made with champagne requires quite a bit more skill to prepare than the drinks in either of those other families, but aren’t you interested in impressing your guests just a little?
The mother of all champagne collinses would be the French 75. And I can’t think of a drink I’d rather have at brunch, holidays or not. And the beauty of the formula is that it’s extensible. Try silver tequila. Try brut rosé. Add a teaspoon of orange marmalade to the recipe and suddenly you’re doing holiday mornings in style. Just skip the stuff with a plastic cork.
1 ounce London dry gin
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce 2:1 simple syrup
2 ounces chilled champagne
Combine all ingredients but champagne in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until ingredients are combined and chilled, and add champagne to shaker. Pour over fresh ice in a tall glass and garnish with a lemon peel.