Category Archives: Triple sec

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!

The Flea Bag Sidecar

I don’t know about you, but I’ve crashed out in a lot of memorable sleeperies over the years. I slept in the Paris hotel where Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn filmed exterior scenes for Charade; during that same vacation, I stayed at a London hostel with co-ed rooms, a first for me. It was a little startling one night to wake up, see a woman slip naked from the bed next to mine, wrap a towel around herself, and exit to the bathroom.

charade

I once drove to Louisiana with some friends and their dawgs. We stopped along the way at a seedy little motel on the side of I-55 north of Jackson, Miss. I pulled back the bedspread and found a burn hole in the sheets, right next to the cigarette butt that had made it. Creepy. On the other hand, we got ribeye steaks delivered in for dinner, and I don’t know many other places in this world that will bring seared ribeyes to your door. The dawgs ate outside.

One thing I’ve learned, whether it’s a roadside joint, a place with live nude girls, or a quaint Parisian hotel, all I need is a place to sleep.

One place I’ve never stayed is the Hôtel Ritz in Paris, and since rooms start at 550 € a night (about $760 US), I don’t think I’ll be staying there soon. I could, however, stop at the famous Ritz Bar and have a drink. Ted Haigh (yes, him again) details one such drink in Vintage Spirits (yes, that book again), the Ritz Sidecar. It’s a simple drink, really–cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice, just like a normal Sidecar. What makes it ritzy, though, is the particular cognac. At the time of writing, the barman at the Ritz was using an 1853 E. Remy Martin bottling. Mmmmmmm. The drink costs less than one night’s stay in the hotel, although not significantly so, 400 € ($559 US). That physically hurts, so let’s look at other options.

Let’s call this the Flea Bag Sidecar:

Flea Bag Sidecar

Photograph by Jennifer Hess. Prices that follow come from BevMo.com and may vary based on where you’re located.

For this exercise, buy yourself an American brandy. Fuckin’ do it. It will lack the subtle richness and full mouthfeel of a good cognac, but you’re not sipping it from a snifter, you’re mixing it with other stuff. A Sidecar made from American brandy lacks the complexity of one made from cognac, but this post is about going cheap. And having mixed up a couple of these tonight, I just want to say, they’re pretty good.

A 1.75L bottle of E&J VSOP will run you $17.99 right now at BevMo. This is a bottle you could club a seal with and it’ll cost you less than a Jackson. Not bad. By the way, does E&J ring a bell? No? Maybe Ernest & Julio Gallo will, then.

Cointreau is simply a triple sec, an orange-flavored liqueur made from dried orange peels. It happens to be the best of the triple secs, but it’s also probably the most expensive, unless the barman at the Ritz has a bottle from the cellars of Louis XIII. Go down-market with a liter of Hiram Walker for $9.99. You can make a damn lot of Sidecars from these two bottles.

I don’t know the national-average price for lemons these days, but you can probably get one for about 50¢.

Jen and I like our Sidecars a little tart, so here’s the ratio I like to generally use:

  • 1-1/2 oz. brandy
  • 3/4 oz. lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz. triple sec

Shake over ice, strain into a chilled mixing glass, and smile.

Now let’s just go ahead and price this out. It’s tricky since the bottles are measured in liters and the recipe’s in ounces. I’ll do the math for you and keep it all to myself. Since this isn’t math class, and you’re not Mrs. Abernathy, I don’t need to show my work.*

(On an cents-per-ounce basis, the lemon juice is surprisingly the most expensive ingredient here. You might cut corners further and use Realemon or some other soul-crushing bastardization, but then you’d be the sort of person who eats Spam and Velveeta sandwiches, and I wouldn’t want to know you.)

So, here’s the cost of this Sidecar. Are you ready?

$1.00 US (or .71 €), and that’s if you pay retail prices for all ingredients.

*Oh, all right. 1.75 liters (the brandy) equal 59 ounces. 1 liter (the triple sec) is 34 ounces. (Both figures are rounded off.) At $17.99 a bottle for 59 ounces, the brandy costs 30¢ an ounce. The triple sec is about the same, 29¢ an ounce. You’ll need just one lemon to get 3/4 oz. of juice, and you’ll have a bit of leftover, so you’ll use about 40¢ worth of juice.

Mott Haven Cocktail

The Mott Haven cocktail is a variation on the Bronx, a blend of gin, vermouth, and orange juice. “Created” early February. I say “created” because I really doubt I’m the first person to vary the recipe in this way. Mott Haven is a beautiful neighborhood in the south Bronx, currently popular with the artist/musician/bohunk crowd.

Jen is allergic to fresh oranges and orange juice, but she can drink margaritas and sidecars. Triple sec, Cointreau, and other orange liqueurs are okay for her in small quantities, provided they’re diluted with other ingredients, so I killed the orange and used a combo of triple sec and lemon juice in its place. I added lemon juice because triple sec alone seemed like it might be too strong. Also, because fresh orange juice is such a crucial part of the original Bronx recipe, I wanted the bite of fresh citrus.

Gary Regan’s recipe for the Bronx was my base recipe, so if you’re a Regan fan, the proportions will sound familiar. Regan uses orange bitters in his drink, and I also “borrowed” the Angostura bitters from the Income Tax cocktail.

Having tried both the Bronx and the Mott Haven, I actually prefer the latter.

Mott Haven Cocktail

  • 2 oz. Boodles gin
  • ¼ oz. Martini & Rossi dry vermouth*
  • ¼ oz. Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth*
  • ½ oz. Van Gogh Triple Sec Superieur
  • ½ oz. lemon juice
  • Regan’s orange bitters, to taste
  • Angostura bitters, to taste

Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

*No particular reason for the Martini & Rossi. It’s just what we had on hand. One near-term goal of mine is to experiment with other brands of vermouth.