Champagne cocktails served today have their roots in some of the earliest punch recipes. Punch Royal, made with wine, including wines from Champagne, was more delicate than the stronger concoctions made with arrack, brandy or rum. However, the champagne we know today, and which gives modern cocktails their distinctive fizz, is a relatively recent style. Looking at descriptions of the original wine suggests that champagne was originally included to introduce acidity and some alcohol.
In 1700, red, white and oeil de perdrix (pink) wines were all produced in Champagne and were described as ‘delicate’ with a ‘pleasantly prickling on the palate’, although critics complained of the low alcohol and hard greenness of the wine which needed to be sweetened to make it palatable. In 1663, Samuel Butler had referred to Champagne as being ‘brisk’ and this gentle prickle was increasingly appreciated during the 18th century, with the wine served at both the French and English courts. The first champagne houses were set up in the first half of the 18th century. Ruinart (1729), Taittinger (1734) and Moët & Chandon (1743), so it is likely that it was champagne from these house that were used in the early champagne punches.
Many of the founders of the early champagne houses had trading links with Germany, so maybe it should come as no surprise that some of the first references to champagne being used in punches appear in the second half of the 18th century, in some German punch recipes. The recipes do not specify whether the wines were still, sparkling or which colour. By the end of the 18th century the majority of wine produced in the Champagne region was a non-sparkling vin gris.
In 1766 Thomas Nugent, 6th Earl of Westmeath recorded Baron Zulow’s punch: ‘a great bowl of strong punch, made of arrack and champagne.’ In 1768 von Münchhausen included a recipe for punch with lemons, Seville oranges, Rhine wine or champagne but no arrack; a Berlin cookbook from 1796 has a recipe for a cold punch made with Rhine wine, arrack, champagne, lemons and oranges, while a Bavarian recipe (1806) for punch ice is made with lemons, arrack and champagne.
An English recipe from 1819 for Regent’s Punch, so called because it was supposedly created by the Prince Regent, is full of extra additions, making it a very expensive drink as well as a powerful mix of flavours. ’Three bottles of champaigne, a bottle of hock, a bottle of curacao, a quart of brandy, a pint of brandy, a pint of rum, two bottles of madeira, two bottles of Seltzer water, four pounds of bloom raisins, Seville oranges, lemons, white candy sugar, and instead of water, green tea. The whole to be highly iced’. Mistress Margaret Dods 1829 version is simpler with brandy, rum, green tea and sugar added to the champagne, while adding that other liqueurs could be added if desired.
Back in Germany, a Punch Royal recipe from 1828 includes white wine, Burgundy, Arrack, Champagne, Tea, Lemons and Maraschino while a version from 1836 specifies old Hock instead of white wine and the addition of oranges. In Munich, a recipe from 1844 gives a Royal Punch which included oranges, lemons, arrack, and champagne. Pineapple juice and a few glasses of sweet Muscat from Lunel or Madeira were also suggested.
Extra sugar was added to the champagne to help stimulate the second fermentation which created the fizz, which often resulted in overly sweet wines. These gently fizzying punches may have needed the green tea to balance the sweetness.
National tastes also preferred different levels of sweetness, so the country of origin for the various written recipes is important as recipes were adapted to the different styles of champagne for sale. During the 19th century, Russians preferred their champagne to be very sweet with as much as 250–330g of sugar added (and in Russia and eastern Europe until very recently, sweet sparkling wine is preferred). Scandinavia liked theirs a little less sweet, at around 200g, Germany between 170-200g and France at 165g. United States preferring between 110–165g while the English preferred the driest style at 22–66g of sugar. By the 1860s, writers were recommending that champagne, especially if too sweet, was best when drunk almost frozen ‘for excessive cold disguises its nauseous sweetness; and if diluted it loses advantageously the alcoholic strength with which it is so frequently endowed.’
Gradually tastes developed to favour less sweetness and to appreciate a higher overall quality in the champagne. The first slightly dry champagne to emerge was labelled demi-sec (half dry). The success of those wines prompted the introduction of a dry style. Other producers made wines with even less sugar, called extra dry. In 1846, the Champagne house Perrier-Jouët introduced a wine that was made without any added sugar. This style was initially ill received with critics calling this wine too severe, or brute-like. But over the next generation, this brut style became the fashion for Champagne.
As the fashion for the fizz grew during the 19th century, technology worked to improve the quality of the bubbles. The fizzy texture was important, but mixing champagne into punch results in a loss of bubbles. Added to this, the wide surface area of the punch bowl released the bubbles at a fast rate resulting in a barely fizzying punch. This may have encouraged the leap from punch to champagne cocktail.
The earliest documented reference describes a champagne cocktail with ice and bitters-saturated sugar in Panama in 1855. The recipe was published in 1862 by Jerry Thomas and included sugar, bitters, lemon peel, ice and champagne which was shaken and served. The instruction to shake is particularly ingriguing, suggesting an attempt to re-energise the fizz. By 1887 the instruction to shake is replaced by gentle stirring and by the early years of the 20th century, no stirring was required. Champagne poured at the last minute onto a sugar cube serves to increase the fizz dramatically. Pouring champagne into a cocktail glass at the last minute with a light stir results in a drink where the bubbles remain for longer, enhancing the flavour and adding texture.
As champagne became drier, the amount of ice used was reduced.
Different champagne cocktails have developed over the years. The Imperial traces its history to pre-revolution Russia, via Shanghai, where it was re-discovered by Charles Barker (1931):
Into a glass rubbed with lemon and sugar add:
- 2 dashes orange bitters
- 1 jigger cognac
- ½ jigger kümmel
- 3 ice cubes
- red rose petal garnish
The Bellini cocktail made with Prosecco and peach purée was invented sometime between 1934 and 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice.
The International Bartending Association (IBA) recipe for a champagne cocktail uses brandy; the French 75 (created during the First World War) uses gin. Royale denotes inclusion of liqueurs, syrups and fruits, possibly harking back to a Punch Royal. Kir Royal (named after the mayor of Dijon in the 1940s) adds blackcurrant liqueur. New champagne coctails continue to be created: French Governor (2014) includes rum, pear juice and tarragon syrup.
Purists claim that vintage champagne is wasted in cocktails, which are best with non-vintage champagnes or other sparkling wines. Prosecco is a popular alternative. Modern sparkling cocktails can include various spirits, with proportions of bitters, spirits and liqueurs varying from maker to maker. For a good champagne cocktail, the acidity for balance, and the fizz for texture, remain important, but in a strange twist of fate, some champagne houses have re-launched sweeter champagnes (26-60g sugar) to be drunk with ice and fruit, such Moët Ice Imperial, not dissimilar to the trend for iced, fruit-flavoured rosés.