Champagne with a twist

So you say it was a tough year, huh? Well, look at it this way: You've almost made it out of this millennium's first decade. This was the decade that the Internet hit puberty; the decade that gave birth to Google — do you remember life before you could "Google it?"; the decade in which the future seemed to finally merge with the present. A disputed presidential election, the worst attack on our soil since Pearl Harbor, the election of an African-American man as president, and the near-collapse of our economy (forgive me if I left out a momentous occasion or few) — only the real estate market had more highs and lows. Regardless of your politics, there's an untangled thread of certainty we can all agree on: it's great to be alive at this very moment.

There's no better occasion to celebrate that existential proposition than the celebration of the New Year. And there's no better way to celebrate than with bubbly, be it champagne (France), prosecco (Italy), cava (Spain) or good old American sparkling wine (try Gruet from New Mexico if you haven't already). Is there a better metaphor for hope rising above despair than thousands of tiny bubbles rushing to the top with such singular focus that you'd think there was a Black Friday sale awaiting at the surface?

But before you raise your glasses this year, I'd like to propose something you may not have tried. This year, in addition to the traditional pouring of champagne rounds for the friends and family, why not dazzle them with a bit of mixological magic? You know, show them that you didn't just mill around doing nothing during those months of unemployment — that you actually learned something useful.

The recipes below are all for classic cocktails that incorporate champagne, and by classic I mean drinks that were created prior to Prohibition and enjoyed the limelight well into the Mad Men era — you know, when folks knew how to drink with style and purpose.

Serve up the ever-regal Champagne Cocktail for the light drinkers in your crew. To folks who think summer's a 12-month season, send over an Air Mail, made of rum, lime juice, honey and champagne (basically a variation of the classic French 75). And for those who belong to the Fraternal Order of the Iron Liver, there's the Sea Captain's Special, which is a cross between a Champagne Cocktail and an Old-Fashioned.

Although the recipes below typically call for champagne, this is really no time to nitpick; any bubbly of your choice will suit just fine.

Champagne Cocktail

  • Champagne

  • Sugar cube

  • 2-3 dashes Angostura or Peychaud's bitters

  • Lemon twist

Glass: champagne flute

Drop a few dashes of bitters on a sugar cube and place the cube in a chilled flute. Fill with champagne and twist a piece of lemon peel over the drink — the point is to spritz it with the citrus oil from the peel — and place in the drink. When cutting a lemon peel try to cut as little of the bitter white pith as possible.

Unlike the Sea Captain's Special (below), the sugar's purpose in the Champagne Cocktail isn't so much to sweeten the deal but to provide a steady, pronounced stream of bubbles.

Air Mail

  • 2 ounces gold rum

  • ½ ounce fresh lime juice

  • 2 teaspoons honey

  • Champagne (approx 4-5 ounces)

Glass: highball, Collins or other tall glass

Dissolve the honey with the rum and lime juice in a cocktail shaker. Fill shaker with ice and shake until chilled. Pour everything into the glass — ice and all — without straining, and fill to the top with champagne.

To make a French 75, simply substitute gin for the rum, lemon juice for lime, and sugar instead of honey, all while keeping the proportions the same.

Sea Captain Special

  • 2 ounces rye whiskey (substitute bourbon if you can't get rye)

  • Sugar cube (or about ½ teaspoon granulated sugar)

  • 2-3 dashes Angostura or Peychaud's bitters

  • 1-2 dashes absinthe

  • Champagne

  • Orange twist

Glass: Old-Fashioned

Place a sugar cube in the glass and drop a few dashes of bitters and a small splash of champagne on it. With a muddler, spoon, small tree branch or whatever you have available, crush the sugar and swirl the glass around to coat the sides with the sugar grains and bitters. Drop in a couple of large ice cubes (the bigger the better, as you want the slowest-diluting ice possible), pour in the whiskey, top with champagne and add a dash or two of absinthe on top. Cut a swath of orange peel in the same manner as the lemon above, squeeze it over the drink and drop it in.

Not too difficult, right? With these drinks in your arsenal you should have no problem entertaining your guests and earning their praise. Believe me, at a certain point enough pats on the back begin to have an effect not unlike that of a cape.

Happy New Year, folks, and bring on the next decade!

Paystyle is a mixologist and cocktail consultant for Life's a Cocktail; his weekly "Happy Hour" column appears every Wednesday on the food blog Umamimart.

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