Dec 29, 200912:00 AM
All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans
Mixing with Stars
Because champagne and sparkling wines are complicated on their own, cocktails using either one can be delightful and complex without being difficult to make.
Every year at this time I manage to work myself into a frazzle with all manner of holiday activities and responsibilities, and I usually take the predictable path with my writing, going into the intricacies of champagne and sparkling wines, explaining their origins, the manufacturing process and their complexities to all of you, who probably know a lot more than I do.
This year, we’ll take a different route to this festive beverage with bubbles and gas (now that sounds romantic, doesn’t it?) and suggest that you combine two of your favorite things in life, wine and cocktail ingredients.
You can, of course, create great cocktail concoctions at home. No doubt during the holiday season you are blessed with a superabundance of kitchen counter space and all manner of room in the refrigerator. If so, I think I can send you legions of friends who could use –– and would be happy with –– even an additional modicum of either one.
So, look, try a few cocktails at home. But then move on to any of the amazing bars our community provides, completely as a public service.
Check out Bar Uncommon, Cure, French 75, Carousel, Hermes, Iris, Jeremy Davenport’s in the Ritz, Swizzle Stick, Whiskey Blue and the many other excellent stop-off points where making drinks is not a taken-for-granted activity but rather a passion by the talented bar-chefs who have brought New Orleans to the forefront of the cocktail culture.
OK, why do champagne and sparkling wine cocktails work so well?
To begin, the bubbles awaken the palate as no other ingredient can. They announce their arrival on your nose, literally coating the nostril with fresh-popping aromatics that are enticing. Before the drink even enters your mouth, it’s entering your sensory system.
On the palate, the bubbles continue to dance. There is no denying that bubbles on the palate are enjoyable. Your mouth is not coated with alcohol, like a normal drink, but rather refreshed with sugars, minerals and activity.
What also adds to the fun is the versatility of wine with bubbles. Mixologists find joy making a drink not with the usual high alcohol still spirit but a drink that dances and possesses lower alcohol, usually around 12 percent. This charming circumstance provides a whole new opportunity for creativity. Ingredients that don’t work so well with vodka take on a new dimension with champagne and sparkling wine. The Bellini recipe below is simple proof of that.
And just because we are adding ingredients to the wine, it does not mean the wine will not shine through. Most recipes built around sparkling wines have as their main ingredient the wine itself. The wine is a delicate base for the cocktail and could easily be overwhelmed by the additions.
In making a champagne or sparkling wine cocktail, the wine is the final, and by volume the largest, ingredient added. You do not begin with the wine and then add the cocktail ingredients. In the preparations, you will want to assure that the other ingredients are combined well prior to the addition of the wine. You cannot and should not stir a champagne drink. The results will not be pretty.
Also keep in mind that in a cocktail with bubbles, there is a good bit of sugar occurring from all, or most all, the ingredients. In other cocktails, many ingredients are used for savory flavors or bitter flavors, and they contain little or no sugar.
The wine itself is rated at the level of sugar it possesses. From brut to extra dry, there are significant differences in sugar levels, even though in real measurement the differences are quite small. The human palate can detect those varying levels of sugar very well, and the sugars are obvious on the palate.
In most champagne cocktails, brut is the preferred style. You have to remember that a low-cost brut wine from a domestic producer will have more sugar than a brut wine from a higher-end producer. Prosecco will have higher sugar levels than champagne. It’s important that you understand how sweet the wine really is because you may be creating a sugar-bomb rather than a savory concoction.
The Bellini was created at Harry’s Bar in Venice and named for Giovanni Bellini, an Italian Renaissance painter known for his peach-colored hues on the canvas.
1 small ripe white peach, sliced and yielding 2 ounces of puree
5 ounces of prosecco, brut
In a blender, puree the peach, adding, if necessary, a splash of prosecco to liquefy the peach. Add 2 ounces of the peach puree to a flute-style glass, and top with prosecco.
A variation on this drink substitutes strawberries for the peach. White peaches can be difficult to obtain. Note that peach schnapps or other peach additives are not used in this drink.
This classic cocktail using sparkling wine dates back to the mid-1800s.
3-4 drops of Angostura or Peychaud’s bitters
1 sugar cube
6 ounces brut champagne
Lemon twist for garnish
Sprinkle the bitters onto the sugar cube. Drop into a champagne flute. Top with the chilled champagne. Garnish.
A variation on this drink could be the use of orange bitters or peach bitters instead of the Angostura or Peychaud’s bitters.
Named for a French army gun with a 75 mm bore, this drink was especially popular during World War I and lately has seen a resurgence in popularity.
1 ounce gin
1/2 ounce homemade sour mix (recipe follows)
4-5 ounces brut champagne
1 brandy-soaked cherry for garnish
Sour mix: Boil 1 cup of water and 1 cup sugar together. Let the syrup cool slightly, and then add 1 cup of fresh lime and lemon juice combined. Let the mixture cool completely, and then pour into a sterilized bottle, and store in the refrigerator.
Add the gin and the sour mix to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake until well-chilled, which is when the outside of the shaker becomes frosty. Strain into a champagne flute, fill with champagne, and garnish by dropping the cherry into the flute.
This traditional French cocktail was named for the Mayor of Dijon, Felix Kir, who was a popular figure in the French Resistance movement.
1/2 ounce crème de cassis
5-6 ounces brut champagne
Lemon twist, for garnish
Pour the crème de cassis into a champagne flute, and top with champagne. Garnish.
I hope you have noted one trait all the drinks have in common: simplicity. Champagne and sparkling wines are complicated beverages, thereby allowing you, the cocktail maker, to skate a bit on ingredients and procedures.
Want to know about cocktails built around wines with bubbles? Two excellent volumes have plenty of recipes and background information: The Bubbly Bar by Maria C. Hunt (Clarkson Potter) and Drinkology by James Waller (Stewart, Tabori and Chang).
Have a great holiday season.