I’ve been fascinated for a while with the concept of the four bedrock drinks of cocktailia. Each is based on one of the four foundation spirits upon which classic drinking lore is laid: Gin, Bourbon, Rum, and Brandy. I refer to these cocktails as The Four Gospels. I’m not sure if I made this up, or if I read it elsewhere. I suspect I read it elsewhere, as I ain’t that clever usually.
This last post in the series is about the Gospel of Brandy, the accessible Sidecar.
I left this one for last for a couple of reasons. The Sidecar, apparently invented during the First World War, would seem to be the youngest of the Gospels. (So rumor aside, the dates don’t work if you think it inspired the Daiquri) The Sidecar is the only one to be born in the old world, rather than the Americas. And while it is unquestionably the most unknown Gospel among the drinking public at large, I would contend that it should be the most popular to that same public.
The base spirit for the Sidecar is brandy. I think this explains part of its obscurity in the U.S. American brandy is, well, mediocre, shall we say? And cognac is so, um, French. Icky. Chances are, you’ll get a negative reaction from a lot of Americans when you simply tell them the base of a Sidecar. For me, I make mine only with cognac. For some latter day, heretical mixtures you hear people scoff at this, claiming it to be a waste of premium booze. If your Sidecar tastes just as good with American brandy as with cognac, then you, sir, are doing it wrong.
The Sidecar is a Gospel. This means that it the essential showcase for its base spirit. You need to use the good stuff to make a good Gospel.
Here’s the basic Sidecar recipe. As with all the Gospel recipes, there is room for movement, but this is close to the baseline:
- 3 parts good brandy (probably cognac)
- 1 part Cointreau
- 1 part lemon juice
Combine in shaker with crushed ice. Shake thoroughly and strain into a cocktail glass rimmed with sugar. Garnish with a slice of lemon.
Again, as with all the Gospels, note the simplicity of the drink. And just as the Daiquiri is at its heart a rum sour, so too is the Sidecar a brandy sour that knows people.
The thing that makes the Sidecar stand out from the other Gospels is, if you can get around the brandy-resistance, how broadly it appeals. The world is full of people who can’t abide aromatic and/or bitter cocktails like the Martini and Manhattan. And the Daiquiri is too light or too sour for many others who crave more depth in their tipple. The Sidecar possesses the depth and complexity that cocktailians crave, while showcasing flavors and sweetness that appeal to the laity.
In my current series on Cameron Mitchell’s restaurant bars, I’m seeing a pattern of superbly-made cocktails with wonderful ingredients being damaged by too much sweetness for my tastes. But they sell well. Very well. The Sidecar thus becomes an excellent entryway into the mysteries of finer cocktails, because it is certainly the sweetest of the Gospels, especially in its base incarnation.
This brings us to the basic,
canonical variations of the Sidecar. The first is that sugared rim. I think it is a cool presentation, and actually extremely practical. Rimming a glass allows the drinker to regulate the amount of sweet (or salt, as in a Margarita) they get with each sip. If you want more sweet, sip from untouched rim. If you want to lower the sugar, drink from a clean area. Examine the picture below for a gorgeous way to rim a cocktail glass that makes this process even easier for the drinker. (Source: GlamNest)
I said this was practical, but that’s for the drinker. It’s easy to rim a glass, it’s hard to rim one properly or attractively. This makes a great Sidecar perhaps the hardest Gospel to produce, which perhaps also accounts for some of its obscurity. Also, when I make my Sidecars at home, I usually omit the sugared rim entirely. Neither Maggi nor I really need it. As your cocktail sensibilities grow more sophisticated, you may or may not lose your taste for that much sweetness. The point of all this is that you can achieve a glorious cocktail, one that is sweet enough for the general public, without adding any sugar or syrup to the drink itself!
The only sweet in the drink comes from the orange liqueur. I use Cointreau myself. (This may have something to do with the fact that I seem to use Cointreau in everything.) Grand Marnier also works very well in Sidecars, though it produces a different look and flavor. You could experiment with other orange liqueurs as well. Just use a good one. Triple Sec (generic Cointreau) may not be a heresy, but it makes a drink that is a waste of ingredients. A lot of people these days, myself included, replace or supplement the Cointreau with Tuaca. If you want to experiment with this, I’d suggest starting by using a half part each of Cointreau and Tuaca.
Lastly is the juice. Lemon juice mixes better with brandy than does lime, and that is why it is in the basic recipe. For some people’s tastes however, lime, and the slight funkiness it produces in a mix with brandy, also works. I sometimes do half and half of lemon and lime in my Sidecars.
We at last come to the heresies of the Sidecar. The biggest, I think, is actually lexicographical. As I said above, the Sidecar is a
sour. But too many mixologists go around saying various sours are Sidecars. Click on the gorgeous picture of the partially sugared cocktail from GlamNest above. She got the cocktail from Clément, and it is called a Clément Sidecar. There is no brandy in this drink at all. It is closer to a dark rum Daiquiri, than a Sidecar. (Looks good though. If Clément wants to send me some Shrub, I’ll give it a whirl!) I’d venture to say that a large majority of cocktails on bar menus in the US that call themselves Sidecars likely are nothing of the sort. A Sidecar is no more an acceptable name for any sour in the neighborhood, than Xerox is an acceptable term for every copier in Office Depot.
The other major heresy is one that lots of cocktailians rail about in bars everywhere. But it is one that is particularly important with Sidecars. I speak of the stuff that makes we cocktail snobs shudder: Sour Mix! (Dum, dum, dummmm!)
Not a good idea folks! I don’t care if your bar proudly proclaims they make theirs daily from fresh squeezed lemons and simple syrup concocted from hand selected fresh cane and unicorn sweat. The drink does not need the added sweetness… if you are using cognac and good orange liqueur. If you are using triple sec and Gallo’s cheapest brandy, then by all means glop in that sour mix. Just keep the resulting nastiness away from the ones you love.
The Sidecar is the Gospel of Brandy. It is a delicious, highly accessible drink, and one that we should use more as an essential in learning about how cocktails work and how to make them. Experiment with the Sidecar, and see how the normal variations work. Then use that knowledge to start making drinks like that Clément
Sidecar above. Drink real, good Sidecars, examine the depth and interest of the drink, then use that appreciation to move on to other cocktails outside your current zone of appreciation. Just don’t ride the Sidecar to other destinations, then call those places by the name of what you rode there in!
Thus endeth Sidecar, The Book of Brandy.
Here are the other posts here relating to the Four Gospels of the Cocktail:
The Daiquiri, The Book of Rum
The Manhattan, The Book of Whiskey
The Martini, The Book of Gin