If you're into thinkin' and drinkin'

Episode 14: Tasting the Stars – Champagne Cocktail

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In this episode we dive into the history of champagne. We’ve had champagne in cocktails before, though not often, but this is the first drink that features champagne specifically by name. What better cocktail to discuss the background of the bubbly.

Champagne comes from the Champagne region in France. The wine is fermented and bottled but then the weather turns cold and prematurely stops the fermentation. Once the weather warms up again, the fermentation kicks in again in the bottle. It’s this on again off again fermentation activity that that traps carbon dioxide in the bottle or cask and otherwise makes the beverage fizzy. Initially this was a problem as the bottles and casks would explode under pressure of the accumulating gas. In 1668 Dom Perignon became the master vintner of his order and made it his mission to produce the best quality wine, including stopping the fizzy contamination that kept occurring in their bottles. But once the taste of this happy accident became popular in the French court in the early 18th century, vintners started to actively produce it and so they had to find ways to safely store it. From this necessity came bottle innovations like thicker glass, stronger shapes and the cork and eventually because of these changes champagne was even able to travel the world and make its way into American markets.

Another aspect of the champagne story is wealth and privilege. In the podcast we discuss this factor often as it defined much of history a hundred years ago as it does today. But in this case, the cocktail itself was defined by the wealth of the paying customer. The champagne cocktail is old and can be found in the very first bartenders’ manual by Jerry Thomas, but even before then drinks were being mixed with champagne…specifically punches. The very earliest versions of the champagne cocktail were mixed as a single drink with wine, not champagne. Why were punches mixed with champagne and the champagne cocktail mixed with wine? The difference was that an entire bottle would be poured into a punch bowl whereas a cocktail would be used for only one glass.

The cost of champagne at the time was significant. Bartenders couldn’t afford to let a half consumed bottle of champagne go flat, so unless the entire bottle was to be purchased, we presumed that they would refuse to pop a new bottle of champagne for one drink. Back in the 1870s, for the champagne cocktail, wine would suffice.

Of course, as travel became faster and champagne became more available, those costs dissolved. For us, several stale open bottles of champagne casually left here and there are to be expected the following morning after any good New Year’s Eve bash.

The champagne cocktail is:

  • A sugar cube
  • 4 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • champagne

Michael at the Brixton in Chicago prepared us four different champagne cocktails featuring different bitters and different sparkling wines. Something we learned through experiencing this cocktail is that much of its presence is the preparation. The bitters drizzled sugar cube, the fizzing action of the champagne on the sugar, the taste and color change in the glass as the sugar slowly dissolves…this drink is telling a story. Aside from this though…it lacked the complexity I was hoping the bitters would have provided. It was mostly just champagne. Something to note, however, for those who do wish to try this…if you like sweet drinks, give this one time and let the sugar dissolve…if you’re not a fan of sweet drinks, hit this one early before too much of the sugar is gone.

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Transition music: Cephalopod by Kevin MacLeod
Closing Music: Champagne Ardennes by Misiaczek

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