I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’m a bit of a history nerd – especially when it comes to my favourite branch of history: Cocktail History. I find it fascinating to delve into the mystery and legends surrounding the Golden Era of Cocktails. (And by “Golden Era” I, of course, mean prohibition era, whence all the best cocktails originated.) It’s always useful to have a few fun facts up my sleeve about what I’m serving, if only to pull out as a bit of small talk to liven up the conversation should it happen to run dry.
In the canon of classic cocktails, the Sidecar tends to get a bad rap or is simply overlooked as a stuffy libation lost in the smoke from bars of the past. I’m not sure why – maybe it’s because no one on Instagram has endeavored to make it “cool” again in the way they have the Negroni or the monotonous Margarita, but it seems to me that the Sidecar has been pushed to the side in favour of more socially lucrative drinks. Strange, because a drink with such an elegant blend of fine French liqueurs seems like it should warrant a little more “Insta-attention,” don’t you think?
Rumor has it, the Sidecar was invented at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris at the request of an American Army Captain celebrating the end of World War I. As today is Remembrance Day and Veteran’s Day, it could, theoretically, be the anniversary of the Sidecar, too, if this is true. It seems the Sidecar originated from the Brandy Crusta, which was popular in New Orleans in the years before the war. The story goes that, before his return home to New Orleans, the Captain, who may or may not have rode up to the bar on the sidecar of an Army motorcycle, ordered a Brandy Crusta. This being France, however, the brandy was replaced with Cognac and the Curaçao with Cointreau and a new drink was born. But here’s where the plot thickens – a similar drink emerged on the London bar scene at the very same time. No one knows for sure if the Sidecar we have today was named for the soldier’s vehicle in Paris or if the bartender in London accidentally mixed up more than the glass could hold and served the remainder in a shot glass along side the drink – which, in bar speak, is also called a sidecar. In any case, it seems like the perfect time to share my take on this classic French-American fusion.
When it comes to a drink with just three ingredients, balance is key and is almost as important as the quality of the ingredients. The drink should taste round and full, with a velvety texture that hasn’t been scuffed by the acidity of the lemon. Instead, the lemon, which could easily take over, should be tempered into submission by the Cointreau – a spirit which, in and of itself, is not terribly sweet to start with. Do you see where balance is so critical? I make my Sidecar with two parts Cognac (I love the smoothness of Hennessy) to one part Cointreau (do not substitute a lower quality variety of triple sec) to 2/3 part fresh squeezed lemon juice – as in straight from the lemon; never, ever from a jar or bottle. Now, on the next point cocktail purists will likely disagree, but I think that the glass must absolutely be rimmed with sugar. It’s nonnegotiable for a drink that’s sweetened only with a touch of Cointreau and nothing else. You know that I often skip this step when making other more haphazardly thrown together cocktails, but when it comes to the Sidecar, a meticulously lined rim is essential. As for which sugar to use, practical over pretty. I like extra-fine vanilla sugar. It forms a sturdy rim that’s easily dissolved with each sip however will last until the very end of the drink without flaking off onto your lap, the front of your dress, or worse, the corners of your lips. To give the sugar a citrus kick that ties it all together, I dampen the rim of the glass with the leftover lemon (from which I squeezed the juice) before dipping it in the sugar. Et voilà – a prohibition classic with a timeless feel that’s Instagramable enough for those of us who like our drinks with a sidecar history. Cheers!
1.5 oz. Cognac
0.75 oz. Cointreau
0.5 oz. fresh lemon juice
sugar for the rim (vanilla sugar if you’re feeling fancy)
a thin slice of Clementine or Mandarine orange to garnish
Juice the lemon through a fine mesh sieve (to strain out the pulp and seeds) and into a small bowl. Cut the remaining lemon into quarters so that it’s easy to rub on the edge of the glass. Place a little sugar on a small plate. Run the cut edge of the lemon around the rim of a coupe glass. Dip the rim in the sugar, making sure the sugar distribution is even around the entire rim of the glass. Set aside until the sugar dries.
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the Cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice. Shake quickly and vigorously until the cocktail is very cold. Strain into the prepared glass. Float a clementine slice in the drink and serve.