Alas! that so few bars are prepared to serve a properly made Sidecar, and so many prepared to abuse us with sours shot from guns. I’ll save that rant for another day.

The Sidecar is arguably the greatest of all brandy cocktails.  Doug Winship, at Pegu Blog, has a long and thoughtfully researched essay on the Sidecar’s importance; he goes so far as to count it among his “Gospels” of cocktailing. David Embury, in his Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, classes the Sidecar as one of the Six Basic Cocktails. (He also refers to it as “the most perfect example of a magnificent drink gone wrong.”)

The Sidecar Cocktail, photo copyright © 2010 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Sidecar Cocktail

Embury makes the claim that the Sidecar is modeled on the Daiquiri, but that focus distracts from the Sidecar’s heritage as a standard, old-school sour built with base spirit, citrus, and sweetener. Gary Regan, in his Joy of Mixology, identifies a sub-category of sours, the “New Orleans Sours,” sweetened with liqueurs; the Sidecar fits perfectly into this class.

There are many recipes, depending on how you prioritize boozy, sweet, and sour. Most include brandy, lemon, and curaçao, in varying proportions and styles. Early recipes often suggested equal parts of each; this makes a very sweet drink, beyond my tolerance, I’m afraid.

At least I’m not alone in that: sweetness is exactly where Embury thought the Sidecar had “gone wrong” too. In his usual style, he goes way in the other direction: heavily spirited, with 8 parts brandy, 2 parts lemon, and one part Cointreau. Much drier, but also quite lemony.

I’m partial to Robert Hess’s version:

The Sidecar Cocktail

  • 2 oz cognac (Remy VSOP or VS; Sempe Armagnac)
  • 1 oz Cointreau or Grand Marnier
  • ½ oz lemon juice

Shake with ice, double strain into a cold cocktail glass, express and garnish with a lemon twist.

This works well for me—enough Cognac to assert that this is a brandy drink; enough Cointreau to provide a bit of sweetness (and the classic orange notes); and just enough lemon to temper Cointreau’s sugar and brighten the overall flavor.

You don’t need the world’s best Cognac for the Sidecar, but you don’t want any old cheap brandy, either. The Remy VS and VSOP both work well, and don’t break the bank. Once upon a time, I had a bottle of Sempe Armagnac that made the best Sidecar I’ve ever encountered. Too bad that my Minneapolis stores don’t seem to sell it anymore.

Most modern recipes call for Cointreau, but it’s worth it to experiment with other orange liqueurs. I find Grand Marnier a good addition to the flavor mix—a bit more lush and complex than the simpler Cointreau.

Regan makes a good case for the Sidecar’s seminal importance in the “New Orleans Sours” concept: “Whoever made the world’s first Sidecar,” he writes,

“…had probably never heard of the Brandy Crusta, and he can’t have been aware of what would become of the formula he used—that this combination of a spirit, an orange-flavored liqueur, and a citrus juice eventually spawned the Margarita, the Kamikaze, and the Cosmopolitan, to name just a few…”