Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Champagne Cocktails

One of my favorite hedonistic indulgences lies in the art of mixology. In a former life I would have been an alchemist slaving away to make odd potions and distill interesting liquors. Today that translates into amassing a collection of odd liqueurs to mix, shake, stir, sip, and share. I love making a good cocktail as much as I love drinking one.

Death in Bohemia - Mata Hari Bohemian Absinthe and Brut Champagne

My recent adventure with Lucent Dossier and the classic Hemmingway “Death in the Afternoon” got me thinking about the possibilities of the champagne cocktail. I already quite fond of the “Bhura Peg, “ a champagne cocktail I stumbled upon in my favorite vintage cocktail book, the Gentleman’s Companion.

Here’s a copy I saw at the OC Fair, sadly my copy is a bit more worn from good use

The cocktail tail itself is simple, tasty, and quite beautiful. First dowse a sugar cube in bitters (I’ve come to prefer Peychaud for its color and brightness) and drop it into a champagne flute. Next add an ounce of cognac then top off with champagne. The cognac adds a delicious complexity to the champagne, and it’s a delight to watch the ruby tinted sugar cube slowly dissolve amidst the bubbles.

The only problem in experimenting with champagne as a medium is that once a bottle is open you pretty much have to use it up – and the sooner the better. Nobody wants flat champagne. That pretty much means, I won’t experiment much with champagne on my own. While I could probably drink a bottle, the addition of any other brandy or liqueur into the mix, quickly reduces my aesthetic sensibilities.

However, last weekend we had several people over for a “craft” day – sewing, knitting, writing, and in my case cocktailing. With such a group, I could easily conduct several champagne cocktail experiments and get some feedback as well.

First on the drawing board, I wanted to see if I could make a Champagne version of a rather potent aloha punch I made for a luau themed party earlier this year. My guests loved it, but it seemed a bit too potent and deceptively so. It relied heavily on rum and pineapple juice, so I started with that as a base thinking the champagne would lighten it up and just make it sparkle. Unfortunately the flavor seemed a bit muddy with just the rum, so I reach for a Heering Cherry to brighten it up.

Champagne Cocktail #2 - Cherry Heering, Pineapple Juice, Champagne & Peychaud Bitters

I’d never used this before, II searched rather unsuccessfully for it last year to make an authentic Singapore sling so when I recently came across a bottle I snatched it instantly. I was sort of expecting some sort of sweet bright cherry flavor, but this liqueur has a deep dark almost black color with a thick deep rich cherry flavor. Its addition dramatically improved the cocktail, providing a better depth and blending of flavor. Except now it became obvious that the problem with this drink was the rum. This lead immediately to my next experiment, Champagne Cocktail #2

This was a simple concoction of ½ oz Heering Cherry, 1 oz Pineapple Juice, Champagne and a dash of peychaud to dot the foam. The result, a perfect sweet summer cocktail, fruity and flavorful. This was definitely the favorite among the afternoon’s crafters. I poured everyone a round and kept refreshing this one throughout the day

My success with the cherry Liqueur lead me to try another fruit, some citrus perhaps? So I pulled out some limoncello. Now, I didn’t want to bury the lemon flavor in any other fruit juice, so I tried a ½ oz with just champagne, but the flavor was buried, so I bumped it to a full oz, but still the flavors were fighting. Perhaps if I had used a brighter, extra dry champagne it may have worked, but with the Brut I had it didn’t get better than mediocre. Frankly the combination did nothing for either the Champagne or the limoncello

Champagne Cocktail #3 - Even the color is mediocre

I decided to go back to tradition and go with a brandy variation and try some B&B. I figured the sweetness of the Bénédictine would alleviate the need for any sugar, so I tried just a straight oz of B&B followed with champagne. The result was rather good, the herbal flavors of the B&B added some depth to the champagne, complimenting it, playing off the champagne’s tartness. Champagne cocktail #2 was still the preferred drink our guests, but I had least one taker of this variation, and I added it to my book.

Champagne Cocktail #4 - B&B, Champagne & Bitters - One for the book

Now with plenty of open champagne and satisfied crafters around me, I decided to revisit my inspiration for this day and try a couple absinthe variations for a little death in the afternoon. 

I started with the Mata Hari for a bohemian death.  Mata Hari is a bohemian style absinthe – with less or no anis/fennel (the stuff that provides the licorice flavor) and more wormwood (the stuff that contains the once feared and maligned “psychoactive” thujone). Generally bohemian style absinthe is panned by most absinthe connoisseurs as a dumbed down variation, especially as it often lacks the “louche” (the milky transformation absinthe takes when water is added).  The Mata Hari produced a satisfying louche with the champagne and certainly was bitter, bitter yet refreshing.  I knew this would be a hard sell for many, but it set me contemplating that other bitter liqueur, Campari and the possibility of a sparkling negroni for future experimentation.

 la Mort Suisse - AKA "Death in the Afternoon"  Swiss Style
Sticking with absinthe though, I pulled out my more traditional Swiss absinthe, Kübler, for la Mort Suisse. I think this actually paired better – anis, fennel and all. The effervescence of the champagne perfumed the air around me with the scent of licorice, and the drink itself -  Like drinking sparkling Good & Plenty. Of course that conjured more thoughts of childhood than death, making the whole “death in the afternoon” appellation seem a bit overwrought. Still a treat to keep in mind for the non–licorice averse, but probably not the party beverage of choice.

All in all a successful afternoon with 2 new cocktails to add to my book, and some new ingredients to play with later.

So what cocktails have you been experimenting with? Have you had any luck working with Champagne? Do tell how your hedonistic pursuits are going.



  1. I always love champagne paired with gin drinks. A gin french 75 or my own beltane baiser with gin, rosemary, cucumber, ginger and champagne.

  2. I think you should start your own version of Crafty Cats and conduct a mixology class for those of us who love and appreciate the cocktail, but whose mixology skills are mostly untapped. I have learned the art of the Manhattan from my beloved mister, and I've taught myself to make an Old Fashioned we both enjoy. But we love to learn more and experiment, and I think we'd all have a blast mixing together. The Alchemists? The Hedonist's Apothecary?

    I love your recipes, your pictures, and that you keep a book. I think you might just write a Gentleman's Guide of your own some day, starting here.

  3. Mystical Man - Hmmm I'm thinking Gin will be the medium for my next set of experiments, a spirit much overlooked in these days of flavored vodkas.

    Audra - perhaps when a few more mixologists come to Long Beach, we can gather, share, and toast. I like the Alchemists - may have to steal that one.