If you're like a lot of people I know, every New Year's Eve, you pop the cork of a Champagne bottle, toast your friends, and take a sip of bubbly only to remember once again that you don't really like it all that much.
Part of this is due to the champagne itself. This year, a friend brought over a bottle of Veuve Clicquot (pictured above) and it was quite tasty, with enough depth and flavor to be extremely enjoyable. That said, most grocery-store type Champagne (such as Andre, Korbel, or Cook's) tends to be underwhelming to me. At its worst, the under-$10 sparkling wine often strikes me as a little pissy, a little skunky, and so carbonated as to make drinking a flute seem like a meal.
Most people also buy Brut or Extra Brut. Be warned: the term "Brut" doesn't mean, "This stuff is good Champagne." It's actually telling you it isn't sweet. Considering the tastes of most American wine drinkers for jammy, sugary red wine, Brut champagne has always seemed to me at odds with the local palate—my own included.
So here's the big question: what's a person to do with the post-celebration champagne that either gets left at the house by a relative or gifted by a well-meaning co-worker? I'll share with you three approaches I've used to "fix" a crappy bottle.
1. The Kir Royale
Thanks to my sister for sharing this with me. A Kir Royale is none other than champagne (or whatever variety of sparkling wine you have) topped with a splash of Creme de Cassis.
If you're out in the boonies, this stuff may be hard to source, but in most metro areas a larger liquor store should have it. It's really just a fancy name for black raspberry liqueur. Instantly, it makes the drink sweeter and fruitier without affecting the bubbles too drastically. Basically, it's a match made in heaven. On its own, the Creme de Cassis is extraordinarily viscous and sweet, whereas the sparkling wine is often too dry. Together, the two-ingredient cocktail becomes more than the sum of its parts. Also: I've heard you can also use Chambord in a pinch. Supposing that you're the type of person who stocks Chambord, let alone knows what it is.
2. The Elderflower Cocktail
While a bottle of St. Germain (an elderflower-based liqueur) tends to be a little pricey, I think it's worth it. I've tried a few of the budget-grade St. Germain alternatives, and they just don't stack up. I often refer to my bottle as a "champagne improvement serum."
The liqueur, like the Creme de Cassis, provides sweetness, but it's also wonderfully floral and aromatic. As an added plus, the bubbles in Champagne or Prosecco will whip up a frenzy of enticing smells from your champagne flute. Sacrifice your bottle of crappy Brut sparkling wine at the temple of St. Germain and never look back. Like the Creme de Cassis, about half an ounce of this stuff will do the trick.
3. The Champagne Cocktail
Technically, the above entries are champagne cocktails in the sense that you're adding ingredients to champagne, but this is THE champagne cocktail. The way you're supposed to make it is by putting one sugar cube at the bottom of a glass, soaking it in Angostura bitters, and then filling the glass with champagne. The less fussy can approximate the same results with simple syrup.
Admittedly, I include this here just for completion's sake and to say I tried it, since it's a classic recipe that shows up in 100% of every cocktail book I own. The Angostura does provide some earthier flavors and more aromatics to help a crappy bottle of sparkling wine limp towards competency, and again, the extra sweetness is usually appreciated (at least for my palate), but I prefer the other two. Still, it's much better than trash-grade champagne on its own.
Or, y'know, just buy better sparkling wine.
Easier said than done, though. As I said before, the Veuve Clicquot was an eye opener, and proof that even Brut Champagne can be wonderful. I'm normally a little suspicious of brands, but for about $40 for the regular-grade entry point, it's a very nice year-end treat.
I wish I could give you some good recommendations for other Champagnes, Proseccos, Cavas, or miscellaneous sparking wines, but I'm your liquor / cocktail guy, not your wine guy. Every year, the number of potential sparking wine options is dizzying, and I feel overwhelmed. For that reason, while I've not had a lot of luck in terms of blind purchases, I can tell you how much better life is when I can turn a mediocre bottle into a much better cocktail base.