Though I absolutely love champagne and prosecco and cava, the idea of sparkling-wine cocktails always has vexed me. I mean, if we’re really being honest, how many champagne-based cocktails truly are better than a lovely glass of champagne all by itself?
Just look at the classic namesake, the Champagne Cocktail, found in most bartenders’ guides: Into a champagne flute goes a sugar cube. Douse it with a few drops of Angostura bitters, then fill the glass with champagne. Maybe toss in a lemon peel.
It is simply a terrible cocktail. I defy you to taste it next to even a middling glass of champagne and reach any other conclusion. I can think of two reasons why the champagne cocktail exists in this world: 1) to cover up rotgut sparkling wine, and 2) to reinvigorate the remainder of a bottle that has been sitting around for a day or two.
As to the first reason: Never, ever knowingly buy bad sparkling wine. Go without if you must. As to the second: If you try this trick on a bottle you’ve accidentally left opened in the fridge for three days, like I did, the result is only slightly better than awful.
So many other sparkling-wine cocktail classics are also pretty lame. Consider the Kir Royale: Champagne poured over a half-ounce of cloying, sickly-sweet creme de cassis. It’s in every guide, but who likes this concoction? Poor Félix Kir, is what I always think! The French priest risked his life in the Resistance fighting the Nazis, and this is the drink they named after him.
Then there’s the popular Bellini. I’m sad to report that I mostly detest the drink, because it’s usually so poorly made. Bellinis should only be made in the summertime, with pureed fresh white peaches. Not yellow peaches. Not peach juice from a can or bottle. It’s white peaches that mingle subtly with the flavor profile of prosecco. Yet even when the Bellini is made correctly, I usually find myself wondering why I didn’t just order plain prosecco in the first place.
The same goes with the Bellini’s cousin, the dreaded mimosa, possibly one of the worst drinks of all time. Hey, can I serve you some really cheap sparkling wine topped with store-bought orange juice? Yay.
Yet given all my reservations and negativity, over the years I have found (and created) a number a sparkling cocktails that are winners. Certainly, a classic well-made Black Velvet (see below) or French 75 (a mix of gin or cognac, lemon juice, sugar and champagne) is just about perfect. Beyond the classics, I’ve experimented wildly with various eaux de vie and liqueurs to bring you the selection below.
For all of these cocktails, I recommend using a fine $15-to-$25 alternative to expensive champagne. You don’t want to buy any champagne under $40, and at that price, why pour it in cocktail? At the same time, you shouldn’t try to get away with using a $9.99 Korbel in these cocktails, either.
The fact is, good-value sparkling wine can come from many places. Look for bubbly from other, less glamorous regions of the world—prosecco from the Veneto in Italy, cava from Catalonia in Spain, or fine sparklers from California’s Anderson Valley, such as Roederer Estate, owned by famed champagne producer Louis Roederer, maker of the luxury brand Cristal and a steal at around $20.
For me, some of most interesting sparkling wines still come from France, but from regions other than Champagne, such as the Loire Valley (look for Vouvray Brut), Burgundy or Alsace (look for Crémant de Bourgogne or Crémant d’Alsace) or Limoux in southwestern France (look for Blanquette de Limoux).
Experiment with different styles to find what works to your liking, and before long you’ll be making sparkling wine cocktails that are just as enjoyable as that glass of champagne.
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Eau de vie, generally poured as an after-dinner digestif, is challenging in cocktails. But the pear brandy used here creates a cocktail that would be wonderful as a replacement for the dreaded mimosa at brunch. Neyah White, of Nopa in San Francisco, named the drink after a Belgian producer of saison farmhouse ales that have pear and yeasty notes, as this cocktail does. It works best with champagne or crémant rather than cava or prosecco.
3/4 ounce pear eau de vie
3/4 ounce Licor 43 or Tuaca
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 ounces dry champagne
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway full with ice. Add the eau de vie, Licor 43 or Tuaca, and lemon juice. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds, then strain into a champagne flute. Top with the champagne.
Makes 1 serving
This classic was created in London in 1861 to mark the passing of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The trick is to pour the sparkling wine gently over a spoon to achieve a layered effect. Champagne or crémant work best.
3 to 4 ounces stout beer, preferably Guinness
3 to 4 ounces sparkling wine
Fill a champagne flute halfway full with the stout so that it has a foamy head. Gently add the champagne by pouring it over the back of a spoon; this will create a visually pleasing effect as the champagne and beer mingle gradually in the flute.
Makes 1 serving
Ostend Fizz Royale
It’s hard to say why this early-20th-century cocktail is named after the city in Belgium, considering it calls for an Alpine cherry brandy (kirsch or kirschwasser) and a black currant liqueur from Dijon, France.
In any case, this is far superior to the well-known kir royale, made with creme de cassis alone. The original calls for club soda, but this “royale” version calls for sparkling wine, preferably champagne or crémant. Though it’s tempting to simply pour the spirits directly into the glass and stir, shaking creates a more appealing and less cloying drink.
1 ounce kirschwasser
1 ounce creme de cassis
Chilled sparkling wine
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the kirschwasser and creme de cassis; shake well, then strain into an ice-filled highball or Collins glass.
Top with about 3 ounces of sparkling wine, or as needed.
Makes 1 serving
Perhaps the most popular aperitivo cocktail in Italy, this mix of low-proof Aperol and prosecco is light and perfect before a big meal, which means it’s the ideal first drink to serve your guests during the holidays.
1 1/2 ounces Aperol
2 ounces prosecco
Splash club soda
Slice of orange, for garnish
Fill an old-fashioned or rocks glass with ice. Add the Aperol, then the prosecco. Top with the club soda and garnish with the orange slice.
Makes 1 serving
Purple Fizz Royale
This is a variation on a sloe gin fizz that calls for grapefruit juice instead of lemon juice. A traditional Purple Fizz calls for club soda, while this “royale” version calls for sparkling wine, preferably champagne. There are now a number of high-quality sloe gins on the market, such as Plymouth and The Bitter Truth.
1 1/2 ounces sloe gin
1 1/2 ounces freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
1 tablespoon simple syrup (see NOTE)
Chilled sparkling wine, preferably champagne
Twist of grapefruit peel, for garnish (optional)
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the sloe gin, grapefruit juice and simple syrup. Shake well, then strain into an ice-filled highball or Collins glass. Top with about 2 ounces of sparkling wine, or as needed. If desired, garnish with the twist of grapefruit peel.
NOTE: To make simple syrup, combine 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a slow rolling boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes. Transfer to a heatproof container and let cool to room temperature.
Makes 1 serving