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Published: Monday, 12/27/2010

Savor this party favor: champagne cocktail

It probably started with Casablanca.

Victor Lazlo, all dashing and heroic in his white dinner jacket, walks up to the bar and smoothly orders a champagne cocktail.

Has there ever been anything so suave? So debonair?

Sure, Rick -- the bitter and cynical saloon owner played by Humphrey Bogart -- is the more romantic character. He's seen it all and had his heart broken, and is wearied from the experience. But, let's face it, he's a sloppy drunk. He drinks his booze straight up, barely bothering to pour it into a glass before knocking it back. When he's feeling particularly sorry for himself, he drinks so much he passes out and knocks over the bottle in his hand.

But Lazlo -- played by Paul Henreid -- is the epitome of sophistication and elegance. The Gestapo may be closing in on him, his only possibility for escape may be denied, his future may be a concentration camp or worse, but still his taste is impeccable. It's tailored clothes and champagne cocktails all the way.

Is it any wonder I started drinking them?

Champagne cocktails speak of a different age, a time when America felt younger and full of promise. Flappers would sip them when they were in too light and festive a mood for martinis. F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have favored them, and the man knew his drinks.

A champagne cocktail is simple but elegant, a perfect mixture of the sweet, the savory, and the effervescent. It is made by lightly splashing a sugar cube with Angostura bitters and dropping it in a glass of champagne. The drink is made complete by the addition of a twist of lemon peel.

That's all. It's chic and stylish, understated and delicious.

With New Year's Eve just a few days away, many people's thoughts turn to champagne. It is widely and justly regarded as the only appropriate drink for a celebration, the cherry on the top of any party.

Purists will tell you that on New Year's Eve, of all nights, champagne should be served unembellished. They will say that champagne should be experienced in its natural state, chilled and fizzy with impossibly light bubbles. They will say that of all the many things it does not need, the three things it does not need most are sugar, Angostura bitters, and a twist.

And they will be right, up to a point.

Certainly, champagne is elegant enough as it is. It does not need to be gussied up. But the classic champagne cocktail does not diminish the original concept of champagne, and neither does it add to it. Rather, it transforms and complements it, turning one kind of perfection into another. It's just as good as regular champagne; it's just a little different.

Don't make it with the very best champagne, though. Some things simply should not be transformed.

Perhaps it is our culture's obsession with casual comfort that caused the champagne cocktail to drop out of favor; it is a drink that is best consumed in evening wear. It just doesn't go with jeans and a T-shirt, so people stopped making them. And that is a pity.

A good champagne cocktail makes you feel better about yourself. Not because of the alcohol, but because of the savoir faire. And you look better with a glass in your hand, too, the bubbles rising irresistibly from the sugar cube. It makes you feel smart, fashionable, sexy.

It makes you feel like Victor Lazlo.

Or, if you prefer, it makes you feel like Capt. Renault, the charmingly corrupt prefect of police who has all the best lines. He drinks them too.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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