– Words by Jane Zatylny Photography by Don Denton
Recall a moment of pure joy in your life: a wedding, an anniversary, a job promotion or the birth of a child. Chances are, a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine was uncorked and enjoyed with a toast.
But we don’t have to wait for a special occasion to savour a bit of bubbly, thanks to an American bartender named Jeremiah “Jerry” P. Thomas. Thomas, who owned saloons in New York City and popularized cocktails across the United States, is said to have invented the first Champagne cocktail. The original recipe, which was published in his bartender’s guide How to Mix Drinks: Or, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion (Dick & Fitzgerald Publishers, 1862), consisted of a sugar cube doused with aromatic bitters, a splash of cognac and the pièce de résistance—a Champagne topper.
Another version of the cocktail, the French 75, evolved during the First World War. Named for the French military’s rapid-fire 75-mm artillery gun, it is created with a base spirit of gin or cognac, simple syrup, lemon juice and, of course, the requisite bubbly. According to mixology lore, American soldiers brought the French 75 home with them, and it immediately gained favour stateside at New York City’s Stork Club.
Today, Champagne cocktails take their inspiration from these earlier versions, contrasting bitter or tart flavours with sweet syrups and almost any kind of spirit with soft, bubbly Champagne or sparkling wine. There’s also the French 76, which uses vodka, and the French 95, which relies on whiskey for its boozy kick. As Justin Walker, head bartender at Oak Bay’s Marina Restaurant, notes, Champagne cocktails offer the best of both worlds.
They are also more accessible than Champagne on its own, says Mathieu Lacroix, assistant food and beverage manager at FARO in the Oak Bay Beach Hotel.
“You don’t need a special occasion to enjoy one,” he says. “And, as a cocktail that can also use sparkling wine, or even non-alcoholic sparkling wine, it really is for everyone.”
I dropped into FARO to sample a Champagne cocktail from the restaurant’s new drinks menu. As Mathieu prepared the ingredients for the Trade Wind, he explained that the gin in the original French 75 recipe has been replaced here with tequila. He set a coupe glass onto the marble bar and added a measure of Espolon Reposado, an oak-aged Mexican tequila, to his cocktail shaker, along with grapefruit bitters, a house-made ginger and thyme simple syrup, fresh lime juice and ice. A few moments of vigorous shaking later, he poured the contents of the shaker into the glass and topped it carefully with a few ounces of Fitz Crémant, a sparkling wine from the Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards in the Okanagan Valley.
After garnishing the cocktail with a sprig of fresh thyme and a lime peel, he glided it across the bar. The cocktail had an appealing light surface froth and resembled a margarita. It was quite tart, almost sour in flavour, with fragrant grapefruit notes. The drink finished beautifully on the palate, with the soft, tiny bubbles and peach and pear aromas of the Crémant, and just a hint of the late fall season from the thyme and ginger, and would pair well with the restaurant’s wood stone-fired pizza and Italian-inspired appetizers.
Later that week, I dashed out of a relentless rain into the Marina Restaurant. There, bartender Justin Walker prepared a Champagne cocktail called the Mystic 75 that was sparkling in more ways than one.
Another creative twist on the French 75, this cocktail was made from Victoria’s own Empress 1908 Gin, Giffard Crème de Violette, an aromatic sweet French vermouth made from infusions of violet flower and extract of violet leaves, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup and Zonin Prosecco from Veneto, Italy. And there is a special secret ingredient—edible gold lustre dust, typically used in cake decorating.
The resulting libation, which Walter poured from his shaker into a Champagne flute and garnished with a wide curl of lemon peel, was a delicate pale purple colour with a beautiful glittering sheen from the suspended gold dust. Delicate floral notes from the Violette were immediately apparent, but there was no cloying sweetness. Instead, the cocktail was perfectly tart, thanks to the fresh lemon juice.
“This would be a wonderful way to start a meal,” says Justin, who explains that the restaurant’s clientele does enjoy classic cocktails.
I do as well, and this cocktail was as pretty as it was tasty. Just be prepared to turn on your phone’s flashlight when enjoying one of these beauties at night, so you don’t miss the precious gold sparkles.
The last Champagne cocktail I sampled was prepared for me by Cameron Paton, head bartender at Vis-à-Vis bouchon and bar, where glasses of French Champagne are served more often than Champagne cocktails. For Cameron, it’s got to be the real thing for Champagne cocktails.
“In my opinion, it should be French Champagne, not Prosecco for a Champagne cocktail,” he says.
For his Harvest Moon Champagne cocktail, Cameron blended Eagle Rare Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon with an orange juice, honey, clove and cinnamon simple syrup in a copper cocktail shaker.
He poured the pale orange-coloured contents of his shaker into a small, chilled coupe glass, topped the mixture with a few ounces of Veuve Clicquot Brut, a classic French Champagne, and garnished the glass with an orange peel.
My first sip smelled incredibly fresh, like the scent of fir trees after a heavy snowfall. Then I noticed the balance between the delicate honey and orange flavours and the stronger toffee, oak and rich cocoa notes of the Kentucky bourbon.
“It’s definitely the kind of drink I’d like to cosy up to a fire with,” says Cameron, who recommends the orange- and honey- tinted Harvest Moon as an after-dinner drink, possibly with dessert.
However and whenever I may choose to consume them in the future, my foray into the world of Champagne cocktails has reminded me: there’s no time like the present for joy—or a bubbly cocktail.
“Champagne is just a really positive and happy spirit to use,” says Cameron.
Cheers to that.