It’s been a long rough year for many of us. On a purely individual level, I have to say that my year has been stressful, but overall I have no rights to complain. After a lot of self-reflection and discussion, I left a position as a non-profit event manager this past fall to alleviate some stress and pursue more personal and creative projects (like this one). As I no longer needed to commute into New York City, we also moved out of Jersey City and our home state of New Jersey, choosing to settle in the more affordable and slower-paced suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware. While I certainly will miss many things about the area I’ve called home the last few years, I’m lucky to have the opportunity to explore what I want to do career-wise. This post, by the way, is the first one I’m making from our new apartment.
In the grander scheme of things though, 2016 hasn’t been kind to many. As a society, we’ve lost some great artists and role models, and right now there are some truly heartbreaking things going on in the world around us. I could understand if all of this would cause some to shy from the idea of celebration. For my part though, I think it’s all the more reason to host a simple shindig for ringing in the New Year, with hints of sophistication to signal a bit of hope for things to come. And what better way to celebrate than with two of my favorite cocktails – The Side Car and the French 75.
According to our ever-faithful friend Wikipedia, “retro” refers to “The desire to capture something from the past and evoke nostalgia…fueled by dissatisfaction with the present.” For something to be retro, it doesn’t have to be (and typically is not) historically accurate, but rather somehow calls to mind the nostalgia and feelings of the era it represents. And let’s face it – As much as I love the aesthetics of the Prohibition-era, it certainly had more than enough of its own problems. With this need to overcome the disappointment and malaise of the current year in mind, I’ve named this upcoming New Year’s Eve Feastory the Roaring Retro series. While it’s in no way a historical Prohibition-era party (I’m saving that much more detailed endeavor for a later date), I hope this soiree calls to mind some of the nostalgia and inventiveness of that period. In a few short posts, I will demonstrate how you can pull off a classy, modern twist on a 1920’s cocktail party for your upcoming holiday celebration – or at the very least, give you a few new recipes to try. So sit back with some gin and champagne, and enjoy the first installment of this series – a duo of classic cocktails.
Despite having different base liquors, the Side Car and the French 75 share a bright, citrus (dare I say, hopeful?) flavor profile, meaning you can easily serve them side by side. They even share the same lemon peel garnish, leaving you looking completely prepared but with only one set of prep work for both drinks. To keep you off full-time cocktail duty for the night, make a pitcher of Side Cars ahead of time and greet guests with a tray of pre-made French 75’s. Then, leave out the ingredients of the latter and a copy of the recipe for guests to make as the evening goes on. I find I still end up playing bartender more often than not when I do this, but if you make it easy enough to replicate, you’ll find no one minds chipping in and doing it themselves if you have your hands full at any point. Of course, if you are better at sitting down and enjoying your own parties than I am, you might not need this trick!
Simple Sours & the Traditional Side Car
Researching individual cocktails often feels like falling down a rabbit hole. When I first started looking into cocktail culture, I thought most recipes would be pretty straightforward – the cocktail is not that old of an invention after all compared to other things I’ve studied. While this is occasionally true, more often than not as you look into one, you are pulled into the history of another, see tweaks here and there, uncover long-held debates over the origin, and almost always find more than a few versions, each claiming to be the most true to the original recipe. It’s helpful to know that most cocktails belong to traditional “families” of drinks. Amusingly enough, it reminds of studying the history of various rituals and religious teachings, passed down from teacher to teacher. Like those practices, cocktails can be traced backwards along various lineage lines, some with more convoluted pathways than others.
The cocktail category of the “The Sour” is a perfect example of this, with the framework recipe consisting of a base liquor, lemon or lime juice, and a sweetener. Familiar examples include the Margarita, the Whiskey Sour, and, of course, the Side Car. The earliest published recipes for this particular drink can be traced to the early 1920’s, but it likely existed prior to actual publication. Whiskey Sours are close to my heart and something of a family tradition – so much so that we chose them as our signature drink at our wedding a few years ago. While the two are very similar and the whiskey version still ranks as my husband’s favorite, I’ve found myself preferring the Side Car as of late. At least, I’ve felt this way since I had an incredibly well-made one at the historic NYC Keen’s Steakhouse a few months back. I love how clean and simple it tastes, and the sugar rim makes it look completely elegant. Or maybe I just like brandy more than I realized? In any case, this drink will certainly elevate your menu with only a few simple ingredients. This is a great cocktail to make ahead of time in a large batch. Serve in sugar-rimmed coupe or high ball glasses for a stylish drink at your upcoming soiree.
The Traditional Side Car
- 1 1/2 ounce brandy
- 1 ounce Cointreau (or other orange liqueur)
- 1/2 ounce lemon juice
- Sugar and twists of lemon peel for garnish
- Take a wedge of lemon and use it to line the rims of your glasses with lemon juice - this will allow the sugar to stick to the edge. Put a tablespoon or two of sugar in a saucer, and gently press the glass into the sugar, spinning it to coat evenly. Set aside as many as you need.
- Combine the brandy, Cointreau, and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker with a few ice cubes. Shake until frosty, and pour into your prepared glasses. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.
The Classic French 75 (& her delicate cousin, the French 77)
Few things say New Year’s and the extravagance of the Roaring Twenties like a nice Champagne cascading over a pyramid of stacked coupe glasses. Since actual French Champagne is often expensive (and so are that many glasses), I’m all about using a less pricey sparkling wine or Italian-style Prosecco to ring in 2017 this year. If, like me, you don’t drink much of the stuff straight except for the occasional toast at weddings, I definitely suggest having the French 75 on hand as an alternative.
A traditional French 75, as described in the Harry Craddock’s 1930’s publication The Savoy Cocktail Book, consists of gin, lemon juice, and a spoonful of powdered sugar, all topped with Champagne. Various online resources list different proportions, but what I present below is rather standard. It substitutes simple syrup for the powdered sugar, which is easy to make and useful to have on hand if you plan to serve other cocktails as well. The configuration below is my preferred combination after a few tests. In my further efforts to play with the recipe, I inadvertently “invented” a recipe that already exists by adding some St. Germain elderflower liqueur. I later discovered that this is known as a “French 77” (This is why I always Google my recipe variations!). I personally love the added sweetness and think the floral “pop” this adds elevates the drink.
Most recipes suggest using 2-4 ounces of sparkling wine. While I measured this out for the purposes of giving you an actual recipe, I usually just top off the gin-mixture with an inch or two of Prosecco until the glass looks nicely filled. In other words, use your best judgement. Serve this light and deceptively boozy drink in a champagne flute or tall shrub glass (chilled if you have the time and resources), garnished with a twist of lemon peel.
The Classic French 75 (and French 77 variation)
- 1 ounce gin
- 3/4 ounce lemon juice
- 1/2 ounce simple syrup (see note below on how to make!)
- 2 ounces Prosecco (or other sparkling wine)
- Twists of lemon peel, for garnish
- Combine the gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with two cubes of ice. Shake hard until a frost forms on the outside of the shaker. Pour into a tall glass (with crushed ice if you prefer), and top with the Prosecco. Garnish with a twist of lemon rind.
For more Prohibition-era cocktail ideas, I can’t suggest more strongly picking up a copy of The Savoy Cocktail Book (less than $15 on Amazon). While many recipes are old fashioned and not always what have come to be known as “standard”, the combinations and names will give you interesting insight into the cocktail culture of the 1930’s. I recently picked up a copy and I’m really enjoying the author’s notes and comments throughout.
Next up will be a selection of incredibly easy and theme-appropriate snacks you can serve alongside these simple but show-stopping cocktails. Until then, stay strong – 2016 is almost over.
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