Champagne cocktails are a wonderful edition to any drinks menu, from sharp classics like a French 75 to herbaceous creations like a Champagne Julep.
As such an expensive, luxurious product, champagne’s role in mixed drinks, where it rapidly loses the spotlight to the likes of gin and citrus, may seem a little strange. Yet one of its first encounters with cocktails were in the very earliest form – the punch.
The French, cocktail-historian David Wondrich says, were among the first nation to taste punch, yet they weren’t quickly won over. They looked on the stuff with the same amount of suspicion they used for its inventors, the English. And what they really couldn’t understand was eau-de-vie, or spirits, being used for the base. Clearly they hadn’t yet understood England’s weakness for a sharp drink and a quick stagger home. Not to worry, 300 years later and it’s pretty well known the Brits love their booze.
So while the English were happily quaffing their strong punches, the French stuck to their local wines and peeped over the Channel with a perplexed bemusement. Les rosbifs...
Finally however the merriment seeped over and at the end of the 1700s punch finally started to be enjoyed in cafes across France, and in particular Paris. But, as Louis-Sebastian Mercier noted in his Tableau de Paris in 1788, Parisian women weren’t a fan of the strong breath the spirit punches left. “The solution,” writes David Wondrich, “was to make punch not with spirits but with ‘vin de Champagne’.”
But before we can credit the gastronomic country to France with giving us delicious champagne punches it’s worth noting the original ones were all hot punches. Hot sparkling wine? No thank you, or rather thank goodness there was someone in history to get it wrong before it all went so very right. Years later, in 1866, a French pamphlet on punch-making summed up the practice perfectly by writing “do not speak to me of people who would heat sparkling wines. In every age there have been idiots and blasphemers.”
By the time Marie Antoinette met Madame la Guillotine in 1793 champagne punch was drunk cold and much loved in France, proving to lighten and improve even the more hearty punches.
At the same time, over in America where cocktail culture was evolving, champagne started to be used in individual drinks. “The record is silent,” writes Wondrich in Imbibe, “as to who came up with the idea of replacing the spirits in a cocktail with champagne, but whoever it was, he knows how to step high, wide and handsome.”
The traditional Champagne Cocktail neatly follows the very first definition we have for the word cocktail – spirits, sugar, bitters and water – expect of course here the spirit is swapped for sparkling wine.
Once invented the Champagne Cocktail was a favourite of the rich and wealthy, costing up to four times that of a Whiskey Cocktail. But my goodness did the who’s who of the 1800s get through them, guzzeling down bottles of Veuve Clicquot, Moet & Chandon and Roederer. It wasn’t called the gilded age for no reason.
One champagne had found its place on the bar it managed to hop across several drink categories, finding a neat place in cobblers and juleps and eventually was treated like any other cocktail ingredient – even being reduced into syrups and vinegars. Add a splash of champagne on to any cocktail these days and it becomes an instant royale.
It turns out cocktails are a great liquid leveller, taking a status symbol and a mark of fine living, and turning it into tasty drinks ordered the world over.