issue 02: the champagne cocktail

“There comes a time in every woman’s life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne.” – Bette Davis


(For Ivan)

A good friend was saying to me recently that he wished he could walk into a bar a la Victor Laszlo in Casablanca and just blindly order “two champagne cocktails” with absolute confidence, swagger, and total disregard as to whether or not it’s actually on the menu – or perhaps with total certainty that there was a time of such civility that a bar wouldn’t dare to exist without having a champagne cocktail on the menu.


Who doesn’t wish they walked with the strength, the gravitas, of Victor Laszlo? Of course, being the active leader of a World War II resistance movement has got to help, and having Ingrid Bergman on your arm as you take your table has got to help even more. And while I can’t guarantee that a steady diet of champagne cocktails is going to help in any way… hell, a man has to believe in something.


It’s hard for me to drink a champagne cocktail in colour. There’s something about my introduction to them that just begs for everything to be in luscious black and white. It could be in Paris, or in Key West, or in Berlin – the setting isn’t particularly important. It’s the attitude that counts. In the perfect world you’re wearing a worn-in suit. The waiter doesn’t question anything after the words “Two champagne cocktails” cross your lips, he just runs off to get them. There’s jazz playing, either Sam’s on the piano over beside the bar or there’s an old radio that only gets one station and that one station never has any ads on it. There’s a beautiful woman. She’s either with or or she wants to be with you or she will be with you if you can just order enough champagne cocktails. And Ugarte is somewhere close by, sneaking or skulking or melting into the shadows. Hank Quinlan is gambling in the corner with Harry Jones and Sam Spade’s not interested in that or anything else. Over on the other side there’s Nora Charles being served before she’s even asked. And Johnny Clay wanders in in a daze, he looks around the room, sees who he can trust, and then sits down at the bar and orders…?


All of this conjured up by just two words: champagne cocktail (three words if you’re polite like me and go with champagne cocktail, please).

There is a classic champagne cocktail recipe, it dates back to 1862 and Jerry Thomas and his Bar-Tender’s Guide. I’ll include that one, but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to expand the definition to include any cocktail that has champagne for anything other than just “topping up”. I looked for a bit of variety, a bit of whimsy, and a lot of champagne.


There are two schools of thought in terms of quality of champagne you should be using for these. Some people believe that you should never drink anything other than the best champagne you can afford. If I was as rich as I’d like to be I’d be more inclined to subscribe to that school of thought as well. But as I’m but a lowly civil servant I’m leaning more towards the “this is a great place to use your lesser champagne” camp. I’m not saying you should rush out and pick up the wickedest bottle of cheap plonk you can find – no amount of masking, infusing, or mixing is going to save that. But if you’ve got a bottle that was given to you last Christmas that you’re a little embarrassed to pull out in front of your in-laws or your boss, then these are for you.



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