I like cocktails; that much should be clear from this blog. I also quite like the occasional glass of Champagne. The thing is I don’t actually like Champagne cocktails all that much. There are exceptions to every rule of course and drinks such as the French 75 or even the classic Champagne Cocktail are fine drinks, but other than these two I generally find that most contain flavours that are too overpowering and leave me wishing that I’d simply had either a cocktail or a glass of fizz.
That being said, since a fantastic Champagne tasting hosted by Ruinart at London’s Callooh Callay, I’ve had it at the back of my mind that I should really pay some attention to this category of drinks and try to get to grips with them. My first thought was that as with all cocktails you need to know and respect the base ingredient, usually a spirit, but in this case a sparkling wine, and as such, it seemed that a slightly more restrained approach would be needed for Champagne cocktails, than simply throwing ingredients at it.
When I see Champagne cocktails listed on menus it always surprises me how often bartenders add fruit purees or strongly flavoured liqueurs to them, which from my experience usually serves to drown out the flavour of the champagne. A drink such as the Kir Royale for example is often so sweet and strongly flavoured by the cassis that the subtleties of the Champagne are lost almost completely. Another drink that has a similar ability to make me shudder is the Bucks Fizz; overwhelming the Champagne by adding orange juice just seems like a sin to me. I understand that it might make your OJ taste better, but it ruins a perfectly fine glass of bubbly in the process!
WHY EVEN BOTHER WITH CHAMPAGNE COCKTAILS?
So now you’re probably wondering why you should even bother with champagne cocktails at all? Why not simply chill it, open it, pour it and enjoy? As you can tell I have a few thoughts on the subject, but my inspiration for writing about Champagne cocktails today comes from a common issue I have when popping open a bottle at home: I enjoy a glass of Champagne, I really do, but when sharing it between two people I find I don’t always want three glasses of it, so I’m invariably tempted to start off with a Champagne cocktail before enjoying the rest of the bottle as the French intended.
The dilemma of course is what drink to make with it that wont disrespect the Champagne, or overpower my palate with such strong flavours that I can’t enjoy the rest of the bottle to its fullest potential. So below are a few cocktails, both classics and new twists, that I hope will offer the opportunity to celebrate all that is good about Champagne, and provide some ideas for those wanting to add an extra dimension to the experience of popping the cork on a bottle of bubbly.
To start with I gave some thought to the Champagne. When ordering Champagne cocktails in a bar it is standard to receive the ‘house’ Champagne as this is inexpensive (generally speaking), but for home drinking it is a different matter. When opening a bottle at home you’re celebrating or at least spoiling yourself a little, so actually you want a good quality bottle that you can savour and enjoy. Now I’m not suggesting that you chill down a bottle of Krug or Belle Époque just to mix up a round of cocktails with, but finding a Champagne that is beautiful to enjoy on its own, but affordable enough that you’re happy to experiment with it, seems like a good balance.
So for the purpose of this experiment I needed Champagne that offered really good quality, without breaking the bank, and having tasted the Ruinart range recently I knew that the Brut, Rose and Blanc de Blancs were sound choices. I found them fantastic to drink on their own, but importantly, I also found flavours that I wanted to celebrate and accentuate in a cocktail. So with a bottle of each chilled-down and awaiting experimentation, I set my mind to the task of making cocktails and drinking glasses of bubbly… I know, it’s a tough life right?
SOMETHING OLD SOMETHING NEW
As I said at the beginning there are of course some damned fine Champagne cocktails to be had already, and one of my favourites is the French 75 created by Harry MacElhone in 1915 at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. This is one of the few Champagne cocktails where citrus juice works effectively to create a crisp refreshing drink that is accentuated by the Champagne. When properly made this is a fine and refreshing drinks and the classic recipe works a treat every time. Just for fun though I’ve included a citrus free twist inspired by the French 75 that is lighter and really celebrates the champagne by supporting it with floral and herbal notes from gin and elderflower liqueur.
FRENCH 75 – adapted from The Savoy cocktail book
40ml gin (we like Plymouth with this one)
20ml lemon juice
Ruinart Brut Champagne to top
Shake all ingredients with cubed ice and strain into a large Champagne flute (the original was served over ice in a tall glass but we prefer it without ice as long as the glass and all the ingredients are well chilled); top with Champagne. I’ve opted not to over sweeten this drink as sugar sweetness can often fight with the dry champagne but this is a matter of preference. If you want to add a splash of colour to this drink drop in a cocktail cherry to garnish. As Harry Craddock noted in the Savoy cocktail book, this drink ‘hits with remarkable precision’.
Inspired by the French 75 I set about trying to come up with something that would perhaps let the Champagne shine through even more. After a couple of experiments I decided to remove the lemon juice and use the oils from the lemon peel instead and added both citrus and floral notes by using St Germain elderflower liqueur. These flavours combine with Plymouth gin cried out for a crisp Champagne full of white and orchard fruit notes, which is exactly what I found in Ruinart blanc de blancs
20ml Plymouth Gin
10ml St Germain elderflower liqueur
Ruinart blanc de blancs Champagne
2 lemon twists
Express the oils from one lemon twist directly into a Champagne saucer and discard before adding the gin and St Germain and stirring to mix. Top the glass off with well-chilled Ruinart blanc de blancs champagne and finish off with a second lemon twist. The blanc de blancs offers such wonderful citrus and floral notes on the aroma that it is the perfect choice for this cocktail. The other ingredients serve to accentuate it perfectly without getting in the way of the Champagne, which remains the star of the show.
The classic Champagne Cocktail is a fine drink consisting of a sugar cube soaked in Angostura bitters dropped into a flute and covered in cognac (about 20ml is plenty) and then topped with Champagne. Both the good and the bad thing about this drink is the bitters soaked sugar, because as it dissolves the drink gets sweeter and more of the herbal bitters notes come through. While it is intriguing to taste the drink developing it does mean that some sips taste better than others. Inspired by the flavours but wanting a more stable drinking experience I decided to play with similar ingredients but maybe add some more fruit notes to round it out and bind the flavours together.
PEACH STONE FIZZ
10ml Merlet crème de peche
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Ruinart rose champagne
Combine all ingredients in a Champagne glass and top with well chilled Ruinart rose Champagne before garnishing with a slice of ripe peach. The Ruinart rose offers a bouquet of fresh summer fruits and berries, which work perfectly with the peach liqueur. The Armagnac adds and almost savoury nutty note as well as rich toffee flavours that bind it all together and compliment the delicate spice which I picked up on the nose of the Champagne. Obviously with the use of peach there is nod towards our Italian friends and the Bellini (which uses peach and prosecco) but twisted more towards the classic style.
The only thing left for me to try and tackle was the Bucks Fizz, which as I mentioned earlier is a drink that makes me cringe! The idea of orange and Champagne makes sense to me, but not orange juice as it overpowers the Champagne completely. I turned to marmalade for its bitter orange notes and Grand Marnier to add sweetness, intensify the orange and add depth to the drink. The results when combined with Ruinart blanc de blancs is a drink that I would be happy to start any day with!
1 heaped barspoon of marmalade
5ml Grand Marnier
Ruinart blanc de blancs Champagne
Combine the marmalade and Grand Marnier in a champagne flute and stir to break up the marmalade. Fill glass half full with Ruinart blanc de blancs and give a gentle stir again before filling with more Champagne. This one needs no garnish as the drink looks perfect with the orange rind from the marmalade to add colour. This simple drink just cries out to be sipped with a warm croissant while sat outside a Parisian café on a sunny morning.
Of course if none of these cocktails appeal, you can always resort to simply enjoying a glass of Champagne just as it is, but I know that the next time I have cause to pop the cork on a bottle of bubbly I have some other options. Champagne can be a fantastic ingredient in cocktails, but please, please, don’t hide it behind too many flavours; it deserves to shine as the star ingredient. Vive la France!