The Champagne Cocktail

This is a heady, perhaps even dangerous cocktail, yet it’s nonetheless delicious and fun to prepare.

I’m departing from the martini world here, but it’s such a beautiful classic I wanted to share it anyway. It’s also one of those special cocktails made with only alcoholic ingredients. There are no fruit juice mixers. Much like a martini, it’s for grownups, so I definitely think it deserves an honourable mention.

My mother has made these before and I recently had a very nice one in EE-USK restaurant in Oban so I thought I would mix some up at home.

This would be a good cocktail to serve for a party or special event – the Royal Coronation, for example.

Be aware that like many cocktails, the sweetness of a champagne cocktail can make it taste less alcoholic than it really is. You have been warned. Martinis are very honest about how strong they are whereas the champagne cocktail is more of a smiling assassin.

The recipe first emerged in the mid-1800s, appearing in cocktail books sometimes with brandy or cognac. It remained popular for decades, but has become far less visible in recent years, supported only in certain bastions of civility.


You will need:

  • Sparkling wine (the original recipe calls for champagne but consider using something more economical that you don’t mind mixing with sugar).
  • Aromatic bitters (I use Angostura as standard).
  • Sugar cubes or lumps (you can use a teaspoon of sugar as an alternative but the effect is not the same as a cube or lump).
  • Brandy.
  • Flute glasses – although note that they serve them in coupe glasses in the film Casablanca so that has to be allowed as well.
  • Optional lemon or orange peel, or maraschino cherries to garnish.

How to pour

  • I like to put the champagne flutes in the freezer for a few hours before serving so they are beautifully crisp and frosty.
  • Douse (I keep seeing that word in recipes – DOUSE) as many sugar cubes as you are using (one per glass) in Angostura Bitters. It’s basically a dash or two of the bitters. You can do this in a spoon then slip the cube into the glass, or you can do it directly in the glass itself. The latter is easier. It’s also the only option if you don’t have sugar cubes but are using granulated sugar or some other type of sweetness (such as agave for example).
  • Optional, but recommended, add in a splash of brandy (some recipes call for cognac but honestly, save good cognac to drink as it is, don’t go wasting that amazing flavour on a cocktail). Note that adding brandy makes it a more potent and heady drink. A teaspoon will do – any more and you are flirting with risk. You’re welcome to do so – we all like a bit of danger – but you have also been warned.
  • Top it up with sparkling wine.
  • Serve immediately!

The Garnish

You can garnish the champagne cocktail with different things, including a twist of lemon or orange peel.

You could squeeze a spray of oil from the peel into the glass, which will lift the booziness of the drink just a touch. You can then either trim the peel to neaten it and drop it into the drink, or leave it out completely. My personal preference is that too much garnish can crowd the glass.

Indeed I would say that the sugar cube alone could be considered sufficient as a garnish, so if you serve it without anything additional, you will still have an excellent drink. The cube – much more than normal sugar, breaks down slowly and continues to fizz long into the drink, providing a beautiful, ethereal spectacle.

Another garnish you could potentially use is a maraschino cherry. If you have a sweet tooth it’s a very tasty addition and an additional treat to enjoy near the end of your drink. It brings in a lot more sugariness but it can go quite nicely with any of the excess bitter angostura you can find at the end of the glass.

You can even add in a teaspoon of the maraschino liquor, and then go a step further and muddle the cherry for a much fuller flavour of cocktail. It’s more faff at the start but it really gives you a richer sense of the sweetness if you are that way inclined, although it perhaps doesn’t look so elegant as a full, spherical red cherry, plus it can hide the micro-spectacle of the fizzing sugar cube.

The Liquids

The recipe obviously calls for champagne but remember that there is no snobbery in martini socialism so another type of sparkling wine is acceptable. It has even been specifically called for by cocktail experts of old that champagne should really be saved for more special occasions than mixing with other ingredients. As I said above, save the good stuff to appreciate neat, as it is. Champagne and cognac seem too wonderful to mask with other flavours.

And now we simply must talk about the bitters.

What are Bitters?

Bitters are essentially a form of flavoursome alcohol with a history that stretches all the way back to the Ancient Egyptians. They were often used as a form of medicine, although today they are predominantly deployed in the world of mixology.

They are usually designed to be so aromatic that only a very little is required to impart their flavour. As their name implies, they are also often bitter, so are usually paired with sweeter drinks.

Angostura Bitters

This is one of the most commonly used bitters around. It is certainly the best known brand in the world. Produced for many years in Trinidad and Tobago (and before that, Venezuela) it is used in cocktails including the Manhattan, Mai Tai and Pink Gin, to name but a few.

It even constitutes the base spirit of the Trinidad Sour, with a recipe here from the most excellent source of alcohol truths the Difford’s Guide.

Angostura Bitters were originally concocted by German doctor Johann Siegert during the 1820s whilst he was serving as a surgeon in the army of Simón Bolívar during the wars of independence from the Spanish Empire.

The name Angostura comes from the Spanish noun “narrowing” and relates to the original location of the family business, at the first narrowing point of the Orinoco river.

In 1875 the family business was moved from Venezuela to nearby Trinidad and Tobago where it remains today as one of the most recognised businesses in the country, exporting millions of dollars worth of produce every year, including its beautiful bottles with their distinctive oversized labels.

From the middle of the 1800s as the cocktail era was blossoming, Angostura bitters presented themselves as a perfect ingredient for innovative bar tenders. The elixir constitutes a complex, pleasant and long-lasting ingredient that clearly enhances a broad repertoire of drinks.

The relationship has flourished ever since, albeit with a bit of a rough patch during the Prohibition era. Nonetheless, even then, Angostura was able to sidestep the law in many cases, often being prescribed as a digestive medicine rather than an illegal beverage. Nice work doctor!

The ingredient also migrated, along with many American bartenders at the time, to new markets such as Europe, where it found a vast range of loyal customers, including the British royal family.

You can find out more about the history of Angostura bitters on their website.

Otherwise, be sure to have a bottle handy in your household. I also hope you get to enjoy some champagne cocktails yourself. Please let me know in the comments if you have any recipe variations or champagne cocktail experiences to share!

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