From Main Street to Wall Street, people are rediscovering the unsurpassed character of brandy. Not surprisingly, this renaissance was not born with a snifter in its hand. Instead, the birth of this mega-trend came about from people exploring brandy’s creative range and limitless mixability.
Brandy is unique within the spirit world. While most types of liquors — vodka, gin and whiskeys — are distilled using cereal grains, brandy is made from grapes. It is essentially wine that is distilled rather than going through the winemaking process. In fact, brandy is a derivative of the German word meaning “burnt wine.” As a result, brandy has an incomparably fresh and vibrant flavor. Its personality and character is so universally appealing that it has the rare ability to complement a huge range of other flavors.
When it comes to mixability, brandy is a top performer behind the bar. It creates a foundation with an alluring bouquet and exuberant, fruit-induced flavor. Add a modifier or two and you’ve got the makings of something truly spectacular. The epitome of all brandy drinks is the venerable Sidecar.
This sophisticated cocktail originated in Paris at Harry’s New York Bar during the First World War purportedly by an American Army captain. Stories vary regarding the exact circumstances, but all include references to a motorcycle sidecar. In one such account, the captain actually drove his motorcycle into the bar.
The one constant between all of the versions is the principal recipe, which is two parts brandy, one part Cointreau and three parts lemon juice. The drink is shaken with ice and served in a chilled cocktail glass rimmed with sugar.
Smooth and delicious, the Sidecar is a classic cocktail of the 20th century. While an uncomplicated concoction, the drink has many creative possibilities. Here are the best kept secrets behind America’s greatest Sidecars.
• Brandy Selection — Brandies come in a wide variety of styles. They are made in every wine-producing nation and have as many different looks and personalities as the United Nations. One thing is for certain, the better the brandy, the better the Sidecar.
The upper echelon of the category is reserved for the brandies of Cognac. Their lineage and uncompromised quality have earned them their lofty status among the community of spirits. It is also a highly mixable spirit, and no better cocktail exists for promoting the incomparable characteristics of cognac than the Sidecar.
Cognac houses produce a variety of different grades of cognac, many with the accepted designations — e.g. VS, VSOP, XO. Cognac labels bear no age statements. Typically, however, brandies carrying a VS designation have been aged between four and seven years. VSOP cognacs usually have been aged for five to 13 years, while XO, Extra, Napoleon, Vielle Reserve or Hors d’Age cognacs range in age from seven to 40 years. These enormous age spreads account for much of the individuality and distinctions between cognac houses.
For making cocktails, selecting a VS cognac is more than adequate. They typically possess vibrant personalities that are tempered when mixed. As one progresses higher up the cognac designations, the more aging the brandy has received and the more mellow and refined the cognac. At Courtright’s Restaurant, for example, the Bentley Sidecar is prepared with the ultra-luxurious Hennessy X.O. As might be expected, the resulting cocktail is sensational.
Many a Sidecar, however, is prepared with a premium brandy other than cognac. Options include Armagnac and Calvados, an alembic distilled apple brandy produced in Normandy. Eau-de-vies — such as Poire William and Kirsch — are clear distillates of fruit or grape wine. These brandies typically are rested in glass vessels, which preserve the clarity of the brandy and leave it dry and flavorful.
A popular specialty at upscale 33 Restaurant in Boston is the Poire Sidecar, a cocktail made with Marie Brizard Poire William and muddled Bartlett pears. The Original McCormick & Schmick’s features a delicious version of the cocktail dubbed the Portland Street Car. It’s made with Oregon pear brandy produced at Clear Creek Distillery in Portland.
American brandies are made in every wine-producing region of the United States, most notably New York, Washington, Oregon and California. Particularly noteworthy are the critically acclaimed brandies of Germain-Robin and Jepson Winery in Ukiah, California. Equipped with copper alembic stills, they are handcrafting brandies from premium grape varietals, such as Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and French Columbard. These Californian artisan brandies are ideally suited for use in an ultra-premium Sidecar.
• Spirit Options — As great as this cocktail is, the creative urge to tweak and tinker should not be suppressed. A brilliant variation of the Sidecar is obtained substituting brandy with Metaxa 7-Star. It’s an elegant Greek spirit made from double-distilled brandy that’s infused with aged Muscat wine and a secret botanical mix. The Metaxa melds seamlessly with the Cointreau and fresh lemon sour mix.
Another direction to steer a Sidecar is making the drink with whiskey instead of brandy. Bourbon, Rye, Irish, Scotch and Canadian are completely comfortable paired with Cointreau and mixed with a fresh lemon sour mix. Thus the universal appeal of the Whiskey Stone Sour. No worries if a particular whiskey is finished in port pipes, sherry butts, bourbon barrels or even Madeira casks, the major components of a Sidecar adapts to them all.
One would be remiss if an aged rum wasn’t seriously considered for the leading role in a Sidecar. It’s a dynamic way to introduce people to the refined character and lavish flavors of such heavyweights as Mount Gay Extra Old, Rhum Barbancourt Estate Reserve, Rhum Clément V.S.O.P., Pyrat XO, or Zaya Gran Reserva.
• Creative Modifiers — Many a Sidecar is made using triple sec instead of premium Cointreau. The obvious explanation is that triple sec is relatively inexpensive. There is a wide range in quality between the various brands of triple sec, so use the best quality available. The difference will be appreciated in the resulting Sidecar. A side-by-side comparison of the body, bouquet and palate between a quality triple sec and Cointreau is a mismatch. The same holds true for Sidecars made with one vs. the other.
Relying on the creative talents of Grand Marnier and Italian Gran Gala in a specialty Sidecar is a strong creative move. Both add the robust and complementary flavors of aged brandy and orange citrus to the cocktail.
There are also other liqueurs well-suited for use in Sidecars. The Autumn Sidecar is prepared with equal parts of Tuaca and Frangelico, while the Sidecar Royale is made with VS Cognac, Cointreau and a splash of Benedictine. The soul-satisfying Amber Sidecar is a signature cocktail at 33 Restaurant. Instead of brandy the drink is concocted with 2 ounces of Amber, a sublime malt Scotch liqueur made by Macallan and a shot of Cointreau. In lieu of the sweet ‘n’ sour, the esteemed bar staff muddles limes, lemons and oranges and uses the juice as the base.
• Fresh Lemon Sour Mix — As is often done, it is a misnomer to call the Sidecar a “brandy Margarita.” While true that both cocktails are made with Cointreau or triple sec, the underlying foundation of the Margarita is lime juice, the Sidecar is lemon. On the other hand, one significant similarity between the two cocktails is that they both taste better when concocted with a fresh sour mix.
The ultimate objective behind creating scratch sweet ‘n’ sour is to attain a proportion of fresh lemon juice to simple syrup such that it is just slightly tart. Most scratch recipes call for 3 parts lemon juice to 1 part simple syrup (3:1). If early attempts are too tart, add a higher proportion of simple syrup. If the mix is moderately sweet — such as lemonade — increase the proportion of lemon juice.
• Adding Pizzazz — The Sidecar is traditionally presented in a sugar-rimmed glass. There are a number of different ways to adhere the sugar, the most frequent of which is to wet the rim of the glass with water and gently dip it into a saucer of granulated sugar. Substitute grenadine for the water and the sugar rim will turn red. Dip the glass into any variety of juices to produce sugar rims with different flavors and color. A number of purveyors also market sugars (and salts) in a wide array of colors and flavors just for this very purpose.
One final thought regarding adding sugar to the rim of a cocktail glass: Often the wisest course of action is coating only half of the rim instead of its entirety. That offers the recipient the choice of whether to sip the Sidecar with or without an added blast of sugar.