Relearning the Classic Champagne Cocktail

2nd March 2017


The classic Champagne Cocktail develops in the glass. You don’t, to quote Harry Craddock, ‘drink it quickly while it’s still laughing at you’ like other cocktails. You sip it slowly because the nuances change from first to last. But then the classic Champagne Cocktail isn’t a mere topping-up with expensive bubbles, but a cocktail whose base is Champagne and which first and last tastes of Champagne… Or of the sparkling wine? Yes, providing it has good varietal character and acidity and goes beyond a single, simple dimension.

As such it has been around for 150 years and counting. And it has always been popular – with consumers if not with mixologists who have failed to develop it fully, and the modern Champagne and Cognac `Establishments` who fear it doesn’t do enough honour to their products.

The surprising thing about it is that it exists in two, maybe three, historic forms. And nobody seems to have noticed. The two obvious ones are With Brandy and No Brandy. The latter was the 20th century standard until the 1950s when With Brandy took over. Nobody much noticed that either. It coincided with big movies all being made in Technicolor, the two developments probably being connected, because `With` cocktails looked unappealing in monochrome. Both forms actually taste much the same.

What the Brandy was never there to do was slow the dissolving of the sugar which, melts very slowly in cold alcohol anyway. Sweetness wasn’t needed: until the early 20th century standard Champagne had 22-66 grams of sugar per litre, akin to modern demi-sec (32-50 gpl) not Brut. So why the Brandy at all? Simply because a cocktail back then wouldn`t have been a cocktail without spirits, but also because Brandy like Champagne was supposed to be Good For You. As was sugar.

Back to the future
But what about that `maybe` third basic model?

Even before Jerry Thomas’s version, Mrs Beeton had published a recipe for a Champagne Cup. Diluted with soda and served from a bowl, but a party drink, where Jerry Thomas`s effort looks decidedly medicinal. Mrs B. gave makers a choice: an ounce of ‘Brandy or Curacao’ she says.

Today that`s puzzling. If the Champers was sweet already and sugar was there too, why add Curacao? The explanation is that though the only available colour of modern Curacao is blue, formerly it came in red, orange, purple, green – and yes, blue. Swapping Curacao for Brandy touched your cocktail with any colour you liked.

We don’t have rainbow Curacaos any more. But we do have something Mrs B. and Jerrry Thomas didn`t. Colourless Brandy in the form of Armagnac Blanche. As it happens, even most standard Armagnac works better in cocktails than most Cognac, being less likely to reveal trace oxidation and caramel in a mix. But the Blanche potentially opens up the spectrum to us again.

Jerry Thomas, 1862

1 Lump of sugar in glass
1-2 Dashes Angostura on sugar
1 Small lump ice
Champagne to fill
Stir. Serve with a lemon or orange twist


Coat inside of glass with 1 teaspoon of liqueur,
emptying surplus
1 Sugar cube saturated with liqueur
20 ml Blanche Armagnac
Twist of orange peel
Fill gently with brut or demi sec Champagne. Stir
gently once. Garnish with orange slice

Adapted from Robert Vermeire, 1922

20 ml Brandy
20 ml Apricot Brandy
10 ml Triple Sec/ Curacao
Shake and strain into flute glass. Fill with Brut
Champagne. Stir. Orange twist garnish

Bernard Barbuk

After a career as a business journalist, he wrote on drinks subjects for almost every extant drinks publication. He now divides his time between refining his database of 2,000-plus classic recipes & finishing a book on ‘the 18 Families of the classic cocktail’.