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For New Year’s Eve, Make a Sidecar
But please: Skip the sugar rim.
Typically, when New Year’s Eve rolls around, one reaches for a bottle of champagne. There are, of course, plenty of champagne cocktails, including the Champagne Cocktail — but we covered those last year. If you want a drink built on bubbly, let the archives be your guide.
This year, however, I wanted to take a look at a cocktail that captures the New Year’s Eve experience in a different way: the Sidecar.
The Sidecar is, by any reckoning, one of the major classics of cocktaildom: Death & Co.’s Cocktail Codex treats it as one of the six foundational cocktails from which all others are derived. In The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks David Embury discusses it in a chapter on “Six Basic Cocktails.” (Granted, Embury, in his typically cranky way, also declares that it is “the most perfect example…of a magnificent drink gone wrong.”) It’s hard to imagine a classic cocktail guide without an entry devoted to this drink.
In the newly released Oxford Companion to Cocktails and Spirits, Fernando Castellon’s entry on the Sidecar — a mix of brandy (almost always cognac), lemon juice, and some sort of orange liqueur — calls it “the most iconic of all cognac cocktails” and “a symbol of sophisticated drinking for a century.” The drink was big across the pond during the early part of the 20th century, and by the mid-1940s, there were reports of versions of the drink being made using rare spirits and sold at fancy European bars for then-premium prices — as much as the equivalent of five U.S. dollars. One can make a reasonable argument that the Sidecar is the cocktail that kickstarted the era of what we now think of as luxury cocktail drinking. And what is New Year’s Eve if not a celebration of luxe living?
So the Sidecar is iconic and luxurious. It’s a great introduction to cognac and cognac cocktails. It’s a relatively simple drink, with just three core ingredients, and thus relatively easy to make. Whether you’re gathering with friends or staying home, then, it’s a superb New Year’s tipple.
If there is a problem with the Sidecar, it’s that far too many of them are not very well made. Too many Sidecars are dry, sharp, thin in body, and oddly balanced, with the orange and lemon clashing while the cognac struggles to unit them. And then there’s that damnable sugar rim. The rim is not technically original to the drink, but it is now so common that it almost serves as the drink’s signature. But no matter how bound up in the cocktail’s identity the sugar rim is, the dust of sweetness on the glass is almost always a mistake; it adds a garnish of sweet, inconsistent grit to a cocktail that is already struggling to achieve a coherent sweetness and texture.
Fortunately, this is a drink that, with a bit of care and some small tweaks, can be quite delicious. A well-made Sidecar is rich and decadent, and it brings out the earthy, fruity subtleties of good cognac, or, as we shall see, good cognacs.
I shall, of course, leave your New Year’s resolutions to you. But if you’re the sort of person who likes making cocktails, and you are going to make resolutions, you could do a whole lot worse than “make a great Sidecar.” So for the final 2021 installment of this newsletter, we’ll look at how.
The Classic Ratios
Let’s start with the basics: There are two classic ratios for a Sidecar — either equal parts (1:1:1) or 2:1:1. In my experience, there are not many adherents to the equal parts ratio these days, so a very typical Sidecar construction would look like this:
¾ ounces Cointreau
¾ ounces fresh lemon juice
1 ½ ounces cognac
Granulated sugar for the rim
Prepare a coupe glass with a sugar rim. Gently wet the edge of the glass, either with water or a lemon wedge. Then dip the rim of the glass into a plate lightly dusted with sugar. Roll the edge of the glass in the sugar for a few seconds; the sugar should stick to the rim.
Combine all remaining ingredients in a cocktail shaker.
Add ice, then shake until chilled.
Strain chilled mix into the sugar-rimmed coupe.
Sometimes you will see versions that look more or less like this, but with slightly altered ratios/proportions — say, the commonly used 8:3:3 (so: 2 ounces cognac, ¾ ounce lemon juice, ¾ ounce Cointreau). But 2:1:1 is the most common, and, indeed, several major cocktail recipe repositories list Sidecar recipes that look very much like the one above.
If you’ve been following this newsletter at all for the last year, you’ll immediately recognize this structure as a sour of sorts. As Embury writes, at heart the Sidecar is “nothing but a Daiquiri with brandy in the place of rum and Cointreau in place of sugar syrup.” Fair enough.
But unlike basic sours, which balance the citrus juice with sugar or some conventional sweetener, the “sweet” portion here comes from a highly flavored orange liqueur, Cointreau. And that means that technically this isn’t a “sour,” or at least not just a sour. It’s a kind of daisy.
We looked at the Whiskey Daisy earlier this year. But just as a quick refresher: a daisy is a sour made with some sort of additional flavoring agent beyond sugar, typically a highly flavorful liqueur or fruit syrup. Embury’s daisies, for example, were all made with grenadine and a float of Yellow Chartreuse. Some involve the nut syrup orgeat.
Predictably, the Oxford Companion’s definition, written by book editor David Wondrich, is useful: A daisy is just “a sour sweetened with a liqueur or flavored syrup” plus some sparkling water. Wondrich’s entry explicitly connects late 1800s daisies with the Sidecar, so despite the lack of sparkling water in this drink, I think it’s totally fair to say that the Sidecar resides in the daisy’s orbit.
In any case, in its most conventional, largely un-tweaked form, this is a drink where the lemon juice is balanced by the Cointreau. And in both the 2:1:1 and 1:1:1 constructions, the orange liqueur and the lemon juice appear in equal parts, as compliments and counterparts.
This is where I think the biggest problem with this drink lies. Cointreau simply isn’t sweet enough to balance out the lemon juice, nor does it have enough body to give the drink the heft it needs. So you end up with a drink that’s not sweet enough, and too thin. Plus, I am of the (probably minority) opinion that Cointreau doesn’t play particularly well with most cognacs. Possibly there is some obscure cognac out there that I have yet to try that is just yearning to be matched with the slightly ripe, soft orange peel notes of Cointreau, but I have yet to discover it. Cointreau, to be clear, is delicious stuff and can be used very well in many cocktails. There is always a bottle on my shelf. But I don’t think I’ve ever had a Sidecar with Cointreau that I wanted to have again.
And then, finally, there’s the sugar rim. Why is there sugar on the rim of the glass? Admittedly, it looks nice. But so do lots of things that do not in any way belong in cocktails.
Sugar on the rim of the glass adds a layer of grit to the drinking experience that sweetens each sip in a different, difficult-to-predict amount. It also separates the sweetener from the rest of the drink; there is a reason that even when cocktails are made with sugar cubes, some effort is usually made to dissolve that sugar into the liquid. A sugar rim makes, in contrast, makes that impossible; you get sugar flakes rather than dissolved sweetness. The result is a little like trying to follow a conversation while someone else is whispering asides in your ear. It’s inconsistent, and it’s not harmonious, because the ingredients aren’t working together.
So here are the problems with a conventional Sidecar: not sweet enough, not enough body, and made with an orange liqueur that does the base ingredient no favors. Plus, the sugar rim is doing its own thing, and it’s not a good thing.
The good news, as always, is that these are solvable problems. Indeed, they have been solved.
Solving Sidecar Problems
Let’s take these problems one at a time.
Not sweet enough? Alright. So, starting from our basic/conventional 2:1:1 spec above, let’s boost the proportion of orange liqueur to a full ounce. That change alone pushes the sweet-to-sour balance in a better direction. Already, the drink is much improved.
Not enough body? Let’s add a little bit of syrup. Not a lot. Not a deafening, bludgeoning blast of sweet — but just a little bit of liquid sugar, say a single teaspoon of rich (2:1) syrup, to thicken the drink. This, of course, also increases the sweetness a little more. But not so much that it becomes saccharine. As it turns out, the sugar rim was not a terrible idea, per se. It was just badly executed. You don’t want extra sugar stuck to the rim of the glass. You want some extra sugar inside the drink. Notably, every single one of the top three entrants in Punch’s Sidecar shootout from 2019 includes an extra hit of some sort of syrup.
The orange liqueur? Well, you can go in several different directions here. If you want something drier, more austere, and spicier, you can use Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, a historically accurate dry curacao that is beloved by cocktail bartenders. Several of my favorite Sidecar renditions call for this. It’s not a bad choice.
But you can also use Grand Marnier, which is richer, darker, and just happens to be built out of cognac — which makes it a very strong match for a cognac-based drink. And that’s what I like. It’s warmer and rounder than Cointreau, less sharp than the Pierre Ferrand, and it makes for a drinker that is more wintry in nature, so it’s a little more to my personal taste.
The Grand Marnier also helps draw a connection between the Sidecar and the classic cocktail we’ve covered in this newsletter that it most closely resembled: the Mai Tai.
Yes, the Mai Tai also contains the nut syrup orgeat — but orgeat is not out of place in a diasy. And yes, the Mai Tai is a tropical rum drink with lime juice. But look back at the various ways to construct a Mai Tai and you’ll find some real similarities, including a complex balance that over-indexes for sweetener relative to the citrus. Similarly, many well-made Mai Tais call for Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, but my go-to recipe, from Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, is built around Grand Marnier.
And the Mai Tai connection brings us to our final trick: Just as a Mai Tai relies on a blend of rums, my favorite Sidecar relies not on a single cognac, but a blend of cognacs — making this a split-base cocktail much like the split-base drinks we’ve been looking at for the last month. (Once again I will say: See how it all comes together?)
The first part of that split base is Hine H Cognac, which you should be familiar with from the four-way split-base Old Fashioned we looked at earlier this month, the Conference. Hine H a reasonably affordable, exceptionally well balanced brandy that is excellent in cocktails. It’s a good bottle to have on the shelf.
The second is Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac. This stuff is truly wondrous, especially for the price: It was designed in conjunction with cocktail historian (and Oxford Companion lead editor) David Wondrich, who along with the distiller used a rare 1840 bottle of cognac as a model, then built a cognac that was designed to mimic the sensibility of its historic counterpart. The result is a wild, fruity, incredibly fun bottle that, despite its relative lack of restraint, plays incredibly well in cocktails. I love this stuff more than I should. If you get a bottle, make sure to sip it straight; it pairs incredibly well with rich desserts.
Neither of these bottles is prohibitively expensive, exactly, but at around $45 or so (and sometimes more, depending on the market), both break the $40 rule. It’s New Year’s Eve, however, so luxury is on order.
That said, if you want something considerably less pricey that will work, just use a single French brandy — something like St. Remy VSOP. (Pour 1 1/2 ounces instead of two different 3/4 ounce portions; essentially you want to replace the entire volume of brandy.) It won’t be quite as complex or lively, but it will work well enough in this format, and a bottle will cost you less than $20. In a pinch could also use good old E&J XO, but 1) I consider myself quite flexible but I’m not quite sure it would be a Sidecar if you used American brandy 2) it’s not awful, but I do think it’s somewhat underwhelming in this format.
As for the rim: I do not make this with a sugar rim. It seems completely unnecessary to me. The drink is nicely balanced already and there’s no need to introduce additional sugar into the equation.
But I admit: It does look better. And once the rest of the drink is properly balanced, the sugar grit is less of an issue. So here’s my recommendation: If you really must have a sugar rim on this drink, confine it to half the rim of the glass. That way you can sip through it if you want…or just admire the view.
This has gone on long enough, so here’s the recipe:
1 tsp demerara gum syrup or rich (2:1) demerara syrup*
1 ounce Grand Marnier
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
¾ ounce Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac
¾ ounce Hine H Cognac
Combine all ingredients in a shaker.
Add ice, then shake until thoroughly chilled.
Strain into a coupe glass.
Garnish with a strip of orange peel.
*If you don’t want to make demerara gum syrup, just blend two parts demerara sugar with one part water for several minutes on high, then bottle and store in the refrigerator.
Where This Recipe Came From
To my knowledge, no one has published this exact sidecar recipe. But I am borrowing and combining various elements from several recipes that already exist, and I should give credit where it’s due.
The ratio/structure was mostly inspired by Death & Co.’s Cocktail Codex, although that book’s recipe calls for different brandy, orange liqueur, and a lighter syrup.
The cognac split base and Grand Marnier I took from Franky Marshall’s superb rendition. Marshall’s 8:3:3 + syrup structure is somewhat different than mine, but it was the first Sidecar I was ever truly impressed by, and for a long time it was my go-to recipe. If there’s ever a version I worry might just be better than mine, this is it.
For those looking to understand how much small adjustments can change a relatively set-in-stone classic, I recommend making and comparing several or even all of these versions. Possibly you will even find one you like better than mine. All of the versions above have something good and interesting to offer.
As always, however, the best version is the one you have in your hand. Happy New Year, all.
(This newsletter relies on Amazon Affiliate links, through which I may earn a small commission.)