Classic Cocktails in History: the Sidecar

photo by Alejandra Owens
photo by Alejandra Owens

New Orleans has a reputation. They are a hardy group, forged through years of battles with foreign invaders, diseases, and the weather. They have been part of France, Spain, and finally the United States, taking much of their culture from their first founders. They accepted the deported Acadians when the British chased them out of eastern Canada in the 18th century, adding the Cajun culture to The Crescent City.

Despite all of the hardships, or maybe because of them, there may be no city in the United States with a sunnier disposition or that loves a good party more than New Orleans. They are tied with Miami for hosting the most Super Bowls, and no one does the Mardi Gras celebration better than they do. The Big Easy was marching to a different beat, literally, as jazz began to emerge from a blending of European brass and African drums at the dawn of the 20th Century. All of these good times need, from time to time, some lubrication. Cocktails also have flowed out of this city, like the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Possibly with the same volume. The best known ones are the Hurricane and the Sazerac.

However, there is another icon of the cocktail world that has its roots in New Orleans, mixing a little French Cognac, a little Spanish curaçao, and a little American ingenuity into a single, sugar rimmed glass. The Sidecar is a well-balanced delight, the father of many cocktails and the child of one classic one.

Brandy Crusta at Arnaud's French 75, New Orleans, photo by Scott Gold
Brandy Crusta at Arnaud's French 75, New Orleans, photo by Scott Gold

The parent of the Sidecar is the Brandy Crusta, a cocktail that has its roots in New Orleans. In the 19th century, there was a very specific definition for what made a cocktail; it was a blend of spirits, water, sugar, and bitters. The innovative leap that was taken in the Crusta was two-fold; there was a fancy sugar rim (as noted by Jerry Thomas in How to Mix Drinks) and the addition of lemon to the glass. Citrus wasn’t commonly used in drinks in the mid-19th Century, unless you were a sailor trying to avoid scurvy. David Wondrich talks about the leap of citrus in Imbibe!, noting that adding lemon “kind of makes the drink a Punch.” This rule breaker went by the name of Santini, and the Crusta was thrust onto the big stage when it was added to Thomas’ book.

The Brandy Crusta – Jerry Thomas (1862)

  • 3 or 4 dashes of Gum syrup
  • 2 dashes of Bitters
  • 2 oz. (60 mL) Brandy
  • 1 or 2 dashes of Curaçao
  • 1 tsp. (5mL) Lemon juice
  • 1 Lemon peel, for garnish

First, rub the edge of a red wine glass with a lemon wedge. Dip the rim of the glass into pulverized white sugar. Pour the ingredients in a mixing tin over ice and stir. Strain into the prepared wine glass, and garnish with the large lemon peel. “Then smile.”

Like many cocktails from that book, the Crusta evolved. Successive bartenders took it and made it their own, playing with the balance, the ingredients, and the presentation. And, like any classic cocktail, the origins are disputed. Many believe it was created at the famous Harry’s Bar in Paris, requested by an Army Captain who rode up to the bar in the sidecar of a motorcycle. There is a strong possibility they were familiar with the recipe – it was mentioned in a cocktail book called Harry’s ABC of Mixing Drinks – which shares the namesake of the bar. However, in the book he mentioned the popularity of the drink in London. They lay claim to the cocktail just after the end of World War I with a similar story, substituting Harry’s Bar for the Buck’s Club, which is famous in its own right for the Buck’s Fizz cocktail. Dale DeGroff, in The Essential Cocktail, tends to look for the name of the drink from a more bartender-friendly perspective. “The word sidecar means something totally different in the world of the cocktail: if the bartender misses his mark on ingredient quantities so when he strains the drink into the serving glass there’s a bit left over in the shaker, he pours out that little extra into a shot glass on the side – that little glass is called a sidecar.”

Wherever the name came from, the recipe simplified into three ingredients: Cognac, curaçao, and lemon. David Embury’s book The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks is the most referenced title when discussing the Sidecar, though it was mentioned in earlier books, including The Savoy Cocktail Book.

The Sidecar – David Embury (1948)

  • 2 oz. (60 mL) Brandy
  • .5 oz (15 mL) Lemon juice
  • .25 oz (8 mL) Cointreau

Shake with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.

As the drink continued to evolve, being a favorite during Prohibition and never really losing its popularity, the brandy eventually disappeared and was replaced with cognac. The Sidecar started to establish itself as a cocktail of some repute, and the ingredients improved, and stabilized, to reflect that. Curaçao was hard to find and often erratically made orange liqueur. It was made from the oils pressed out of the peels of bitter, inedible oranges from the isle of Curaçao, which was owned by Spain. It was substituted for the emerging Cointreau, an orange liqueur with a much better pedigree. Cognac was substituted for brandy for similar reasons. Brandy, while much of it can be very high end and delicious, varies like the wine it is created from. It can be dry, sweet, fruity, or any other way you would describe a fine wine. Depending on the brandy, you would have to adjust the other ingredients accordingly. Cognac does have variations, but they are not nearly as wide as you would see with brandy. There is less of a need to adjust the taste, making Cognac a much sturdier platform with which to build. The evolution of the cocktail settled into Cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice in a roughly 2:1:1 ratio.

photo by Culinary Geek
photo by Culinary Geek

The Sidecar – Modern Version

  • 2 oz. (60 mL) Cognac
  • 1 oz. (30 mL) Cointreau
  • 1 oz. (30 mL) Lemon juice

Pour the ingredients into a mixing tin. Stir well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The variations on this are many, and not always in that ratio. Some will add more Cointreau. Some will add more lemon juice. Some will dilute the Cointreau with simple syrup, keeping the sweetness but reducing the orange flavor. They may change the ratios all together. Every bar and book has a slight variation, but the above recipe is a good place to start.

There is one last variable left to discuss, that of the sugar rimmed glass. It depends on how you wish to present the cocktail. If you want to create an air of vintage elegance, adding the sugared rim on a coupe or wine glass will do that nicely. A more modern, sleeker look can be achieved by leaving the rim off, or creating it so it is delicately positioned but not covering the whole rim. There is no real consensus, so it is left up to each individual bartender to put their own stamp on it. A twist of orange, though, is an excellent addition no matter what look you are going for.

From a simple inspiration of adding citrus juice to a traditional cocktail, the Sidecar changed the way bartenders looked at what a cocktail can be. Its trip to European bars refined it, taking it from a little known regional delight to an international sensation. Premium ingredients and beautifully balanced flavors have kept this drink on the radar, even when bartending was in the Dark Ages of Prohibition and the 1970s and 80s. Now is the time to sit down and enjoy one, lounging on a balcony in the French Quarter and taking in all the sights and sounds of a warm New Orleans evening.