OK, so you have champagne for your New Year’s brunch. Seems a little blah, doesn’t it? Try the Champagne Cocktail instead.

The Champagne Cocktail is one of the oldest of cocktails, and one of the quickest and easiest to make. It turns a glass of everyday champagne into a much more sophisticated flavor treat.

It is as simple as adding sugar and bitters to a glass of champagne. This would have been a sweet cocktail when it was invented in the first half of the eighteenth century; the drier “brut” champagnes so familiar today didn’t become popular until the 1880s and ’90s.

The drink would have been pretty flat, too—Jerry Thomas’s 1887 Bartender’s Guide calls for it to be shaken with ice before serving. This is not my idea of a good way to treat any kind of sparkling wine, and apparently others came to that conclusion, too. By the end of the century, shaking and stirring were deprecated, and brut champagnes were the Champagne style of choice.

The Champagne Cocktail, photo © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Champagne Cocktail
The Champagne Cocktail

  • 1 sugar cube (or ½ tsp granulated sugar)
  • 1–2 dashes Angostura bitters (or other aromatic bitters of choice)
  • 5 oz mid-range champagne (or prosecco, cava, etc.)
  • ½ oz cognac (optional variation, see note below)

Put the sugar in the bottom of a champagne flute, and soak it with the bitters. Top up the glass with sparkling wine.

This is a fine place to use decent, middle-of-the-road sparkling wines. You can use dry midrange champagnes to good advantage in this drink;  proseccos and cavas work very nicely, too.

The Champagne Cocktail, photo © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.Bitters are the heart of the Champagne Cocktail. They have a pronounced influence on the final flavor. They balance the sweetness of the champagne, and introduce herbs and spices that give the drink a completely different character from that presented by the wine itself.

The sugar cube is part of the fun of this drink, present mainly for entertainment value. It dissolves very slowly, and encourages a constant turmoil of bubbles in the champagne. It does have a slight sweetening effect on the drink, but since it dissolves so slowly, it is barely noticeable until you get to the end of the glass, where a little pool of simple syrup forms with time. (It intrigued me to discover that, while I find undissolved sugar off-putting in something like a Whiskey Old-Fashioned, its bubble-inducing presence in the Champagne Cocktail seems more amusing.)

The Champagne Cocktail has changed very little since the Gay ’90s, when the drier champagnes caught on, and the bubble-flattening shaking and stirring finally fell off the instruction list.

There is one embellishment of note, one that you don’t encounter very often: the addition of a small amount of cognac to the mix. David Wondrich attributes this variant to Joseph Hayward, a Delaware barman who first recorded it in 1898. This version is absolutely delicious, and I recommend it highly. (Hayward added an ounce of brandy; I prefer less, about a half-ounce.)