Vintage Books Tell the Story of Champagne Cocktails

Classic bubbly cocktails and ways to make your own variations

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All photos by LeNell Camacho Santa Ana. 

References to Champagne drinks abound in old newspapers, novels, and cocktail books. Champagne drinks containing brandy and orange liqueurs in the forms of punches and cups can even be found in old cookbook recipe collections, such as Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management first published in 1861. I’ve seen mentions of Champagne Cocktails in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle archives as far back as 1869. That same year Mark Twain mentions the drink in Innocents Abroad.

The first recipe citation that I know of for a Champagne Cocktail goes back the The Bar-Tenders Guide written by Jerry Thomas in 1862. Champagne during this time was generally much sweeter than today’s popular dry style labeled “Brut” which didn’t exist on a label until around 1876. Thomas’ 1862 book calls for shaking the ingredients, including the sparkling wine, which was surely a mistake since shaking carbonated drinks can get explosive. Here’s that recipe as written:

  • ½ tsp sugar
  • 1 or 2 dashes bitters
  • Piece of lemon peel
  • Fill tumbler 1/3 full broken ice.
  • Fill balance with wine.
  • Shake well and serve.

A later Thomas edition copyrighted in 1887 seems to correct this Champagne-shaking error with this recipe instruction:

  • Take 1 lump of sugar.
  • 1 or 2 dashes Angostura bitters.
  • 1 small lump of ice.
  • Fill the goblet with wine, stir up with a spoon, and serve with a thin piece of twisted lemon peel.

Some say a man named John Dougherty made this type of drink famous adding brandy to a Champagne cocktail and winning a New York cocktail competition in 1889. Mixing Champagne is a winner since various cocktail books from 1862 to present include some form of the classic Champagne Cocktail. Some rub the sugar cube with lemon peel first. Many add an ice cube. You may find a garnish of a citrus spiral, twist, or slice. This is one of the few drinks to stand the test of time despite the minor details of preparation.

Here’s a fun way to entertain your guests: Chill some Champagne or good less expensive alternative like Cava. Set out some spirits basics like brandy and gin (one of my favorites is the 2014 NY International Spirits Competition bronze award-winner Hendrick’s). I also like to offer absinthe, Campari, Chartreuse, Pama pomegranate liqueur, and a high quality orange liqueur like Bauchant, a 2014 silver award-winner in the NYISC. Basically offer your guests whatever tickles your fancy and pleases your budget. Buy sugar cubes, and lay out a spread of various types of aromatic cocktails bitters such as Angostura, Peychaud’s, Regans’ Orange, any of the Fee Brothers, or perhaps some of the Bitter Truth line. One of my favorites of all the modern small production crafty bitters is Scrappy’s lavender. Pick out a variety of flavors and allow guests to create their own Champagne Cocktail variations. Set out some lemons and oranges for wedges, twists, and spirals. Your guests will love it!

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Place sugar cube in bottom of chilled Champagne flute.

Dash some bitters on top of sugar cube.

Add in teaspoon to no more than ½ ounce (15 ml) chilled liquor or liqueur of choice. This may be shaken or stirred with ice or pre-chilled in an ice bucket or in the fridge. You can also just drop an ice cube into your glass like bartenders of yesteryear would do.

Pour a little chilled sparkling wine into the flute and let settle to prevent foam over before filling with more bubbly.

Garnish with citrus spirals, twists or wedges as desired.

Cheers!

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