The perfect starter cocktail

The other day, a reader commented:

I’m new to cocktails. I’m intrigued by cocktail menus at restaurants, but could never decide what to order. Could you recommend a good “starter” cocktail for a novice? I’d like to try Wondrich’s basic recipe but don’t know what kind or brand of spirit to buy.

I’ll go back into the Wondrich recipe later, but for now, let me make some suggestions for what to order and what to mix at home.

How I Started

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photograph of the missus and me by meriko borogove

When Jen and I got into cocktails, we were lucky. It was 2005, and we were living in New York. Flatiron Lounge had been open a couple of years and we were starting to go there once a month or so, often enough that some of the bartenders recognized us. (We wound up there with our wedding party after getting hitched at the marriage bureau in Manhattan, but that’s a story for another day.) Pegu Club opened later that year, so we had an excellent choice of bars at which to meet after work and bend our elbows.

It was at Flatiron that I first fell deeply in love with a cocktail. That drink was the Sidecar. It quickly became one of my favorite drinks, and I believe it’s a perfect starter cocktail, both to order out and to make at home. Here’s why:

  1. When made right, it’s delicious, absolutely yummy, and one of the finest drinks ever invented.
  2. It’s a great introduction to cocktail theory, or the art of balancing the booziness, sweetness, and tartness of a cocktail. A good cocktail is an aperitif, an eye-opener. It eases you out of the stresses of the day and prepares the mind and appetite for a good meal. A drink that’s too boozy, too sweet, or too tart dulls the palate. Where the right balance lies varies from drinker to drinker, though. Some like a tarter Sidecar than others. You’ll figure it out.
  3. It’s easy to make right, unless you’re a cretin.
  4. Its ingredients (cognac, lemon juice, triple sec/Cointreau/Grand Marnier) should be available in just about every bar you’d walk into. If you’re in a bar that doesn’t have all these things, order a beer. If you’re at a bar that has cognac and triple sec, but only sour mix, order a beer. Or find another bar.
  5. Any good bartender should know this drink. If you have a bartender who doesn’t know this drink, you can easily walk him or her through it, unless the bartender’s a cretin.
  6. It belongs to a certain family of drinks that mixographer Gary Regan calls New Orleans Sours. I’ll leave aside the origin of that term, and provide you the names of the sidecar’s best-known cousins: the Margarita and the Cosmopolitan. What these drinks have in common is their basic structure: roughly 3 parts spirit, 2 parts triple sec or other orange liqueur, and 1 part citrus juice. (The Cosmo adds a hit of cranberry juice.) So once you learn the Sidecar, you’ve essentially also learned the Margarita and the Cosmo. And also the Pegu Club cocktail, the Between the Sheets, the Maiden’s Blush, and so on.
  7. Once you’ve learned the New Orleans Sour family, you can improvise and make your own version.
  8. Finally, when making a Sidecar, you can engage in a bit of theater. When you twist an orange peel to spray the oils from the peel into the drink, you can flame the twist so the oils ignite before hitting the drink. This never fails to get a response from guests, whether at a bar or at home. And it’s fun for you, the home bartender.

The Sidecar has a simple recipe; let’s look at the formula I mentioned earlier: 3 parts spirit, 2 parts triple sec or other orange liqueur, and 1 part citrus juice. You can go down-market with this, as I explained in my post about the Flea Bag Sidecar–inexpensive American brandy and basic triple sec–but I suggest you don’t. Not if you really want to love this drink.

The problem with the Flea Bag variant is that American brandy and standard triple sec are both sweeter than their French counterparts, cognac and Cointreau. To counteract that, you need to up the level of lemon juice in the drink, to balance the flavors out. Then the drink risks becoming too lemon-flavored. It wouldn’t necessarily be too tart, but it would upset the balance of orange and lemon flavors that this cocktail requires. That said, the Flea Bag variant is great if you’re skint, but otherwise, I urge you to stick with cognac and Cointreau.

Now that we’ve established the cognac, things get a little confusing. Go to a good liquor store and look at a couple of bottles. In the range that you can probably best afford, you’ll be looking at either VS or VSOP. (A good liquor store will also have an XO, or Extra Old, but if you can afford that, buy it for sipping, not for mixing.)

Sidecar

photograph by Jennifer Hess

What’s the difference between VS and VSOP? VS is Very Special, or barrel-aged for at least two years. VSOP is Very Superior Old Pale, or aged at least four years but often much longer. VSOP is a richer, more flavorful cognac than a VS, and thus makes a more flavorful Sidecar, but it’s also more expensive. Frankly, to start out, I’d buy a 200ml or 375ml bottle of a VS, of a known brand like Martell, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, etc.

Then play with the formula. Start with the classic–3 parts cognac, 2 parts Cointreau, and 1 part lemon juice. A “part” here is 1/2 ounce for one drink, 1 ounce if you’re mixing for two. Here’s the basic recipe:

Sidecar

  • 1-1/2 oz. cognac
  • 1 oz. Cointreau
  • 1/2 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • Orange twist, for garnish

Shake over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add garnish.

Now you can start playing with that. If you’re a nerd like I am, you can take up the better part of an evening, watching old noir movies on the DVD player while testing Sidecar variants. The drinks writer David Embury liked his cocktails superdry and very boozy. His formula was 8 parts cognac, 2 parts lemon juice, and 1 part Cointreau. (That’s 2 oz. cognac, 1/2 oz. lemon juice, and 1/4 oz. Cointreau.) Way too medicinal and harsh for my tastes, but maybe you’ll love it!

Okay, then, have fun, and salud!

8 thoughts on “The perfect starter cocktail

  1. I’d say .5 Cointreau, .5 simple for everything in the family. Mellows out the citrus and let’s the base spirit come forward a little more.

  2. Thank you–what a thoughtful response to my question! I was just expected a few suggestions not a post. I’ll see how the Sidecar goes. Thanks again!

    1. Honestly? Thank you! Your question was well-timed; I knew to expect the Edible Rhody piece to publish this week. If anyone who reads it actually finds this blog, I’m sure some of them will be as new to cocktails as you are, and I hope this post will help them too.

      I was pretty delighted by the serendipity, since it gave me a great excuse to get some good content up for new readers.

      Take care, and I hope you love the Sidecar!

  3. Excellent post! The Sidecar was Penny’s introduction to proper cocktails, too. It was a hit & she’s never looked back, thank goodness. I tend to mix them 1 1/2 brandy, 3/4 cointreau and 3/4 lemon, with a sugar rim & a homemade maraschino cherry. It’s rather sweet for me, but Penny likes it that way.

  4. I finally got a chance to order a Sidecar. And you know what? It wasn’t bad at all. When I looked at your recipe, I thought it would be boozier than I would like. But I found out that I enjoy the tartness and citrusiness, although the one I had seemed was mostly lemony, no orange. Anyway, this was a fun start. Cheers!

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