Several years ago, I read an article praising the three-ingredient cocktail as having both beauty and simplicity. Three components is enough to craft a drink that strikes the palate as being more than the sum of its parts. However, with such a stripped-down recipe, there’s nothing for any of the elements to hide behind if they’re not working.
Enter the sidecar: a drink I quite like, but one that had defied me for so many years. This approach to a classic cocktail is going to be a little bit different, in that even if you don’t nail the drink on your first try, it’s a profound lesson in all of the ways that your home-made cocktails can go horribly, horribly awry.
A bit of history
The sidecar traces its origins back to WWI. Unlike the much-cooler “French 75,” which was named after an artillery cannon because it had a kick to it, the Sidecar was named because, uh, sidecars existed and why not call it that since the guy who invented it rode around in one? You’d think it would have some little secondary carafe, or that you’d float a shot of something over the top, but nope. Sidecar. Done. Don’t think too much about it.
At its core, the classic sidecar recipe is simple: cognac, lemon juice, and Cointreau. What makes the sidecar additionally interesting it that it’s another combination of the “holy trinity” method of cocktail design that pairs a base spirit with something sour and something sweet. Bartender drink books are filled with variations of this same basic riff, but consider the Margarita: tequila, lime, and triple sec. In this sense, the Sidecar is a sister cocktail if there ever was one.
Original recipes called for equal parts of the three ingredients. Over time, it was adapted to two parts cognac to one part each of lemon juice and Cointreau (i.e., 2:1:1). However, even the Wikipedia page suggests a version made in a 5:2:2 ratio with cognac, lemon, and triple sec. The jury seems to be out with respect to “correct” proportions. Before I share the recipe I finally settled on, let me explain some of the problems you will inevitably run into when it comes to home-made experimentation.
Problem 1: It’s a Lemon Party
Lemons are always a thorny addition to a drink. Sidecar recipes that call for “the juice of one lemon” seem to forget that certain lemons are bigger than others, and certain lemons are juicier than others. If you grabbed a juicy, monster lemon, you’re going to end up with a mega-tart drink.
This is additionally amplified if, like the drink-making me of ten years ago, you figured that it’d be a hell of a lot more convenient to stock up on those little squeezers of lemon juice you find at the grocery store. Problem is, those guys always end up being too tart, as is any store-bought lemon juice made from concentrate.
After years and years of making lemony drinks, I also realized I’m just sensitive to tartness. I never liked sour candy as a kid, and I wince whenever I hear about people who can slice up lemons and eat them like any old fruit. For that reason, I found that following “correct” proportions even with store-bought citrus always threw me for a loop. With many drinks, in fact, but especially so in the delicate sidecar.
Problem 2: It’s too sweet
I mentioned I don’t like tart, but I do have a sweet tooth. You might already be thinking, “I can always handle too sweet. In fact, I like girly drinks!”
There’s nothing quite like the hell of having a drink where the liqueur (i.e., Cointreau or triple sec) is all out of whack. If you’ve gone too heavy handed with the stuff, you become aware of an artificial sweetness and strange viscosity that shoves everything else in the drink aside. The sugary part of the drink begins to fight with the other components, and at its worst can be somewhat nauseating if your tongue registers sugar water and then immediately gets sucker-punched with the rest of the booze.
Many women will instantly know what I mean. I don’t say this as any misogynist bullshit: so many bartenders (especially female bartenders at dive bars) interpret a patron’s request for a mild or less-boozy drink as a license to make what they normally do, but double down on the liqueurs.
Problem 3: It’s too Boozy
Once you’re used to drinking straight liquor on its own, having a cognac-based drink that’s a little too heavy on the cognac really doesn’t seem that offensive taste-wise. And, if you’re gonna screw up the proportion of sour, sweet, and booze, this seems like the most inoffensive part of the trinity to botch.
But remember, you’re trying to create something distinctive with a three-ingredient cocktail: that’s why you decided to make it in the first place rather than pouring brown liquor right into a rocks glass. A too-boozy drink, even if you can drink it without displeasure, will be muted in all of the wrong ways. It probably won’t taste strong to a developed palate, but it will fail to pop. Less-seasoned drinkers, however, will scrunch their faces up and blink rapidly if they’re expecting a mixed drink and you pour them something that’s 95% hard liquor.
Problem 4: Your technique sucks
There’s one very simple cocktail rule I follow: anything that uses fruit juice gets shaken, not stirred. Always.
The reason for that has to deal with the dilution provided by the ice. In cocktails that should be stirred, like Manhattans and martinis, you don’t want to over-dilute the drink and kill the silky texture of things. The big ice cubes float lazily around in the glass and chill without reducing the overall ABV too much. These drinks do taste better a little stronger.
Now, in drinks that rely on fruit juice—especially tart fruit juice—shaking is the way to go. That juice needs to marry with the other ingredients, and the melted ice lowers the ABV just a little bit more. Examine the size of the ice cubes you pull out of your shaker, and you’ll see just how much smaller they are. That’s a substantial amount of liquid that goes into the drink, making it less of an ass kicker.
This rule of thumb is a killer in the sidecar, because even if your proportions are dead-on, you might inadvertently make the drink the wrong way and end up with something that, horror of horrors, tastes too boozy, too syrupy, and too tart. Stir instead of shake, and you’re guaranteed to have three angry ingredients that fail to act cordially toward one another in your glass or the glass of a guest.
Okay, bozo: so how do you do it?
So the recipe first, and then an explanation of where I get off on this to accommodate for my own tastes.
The Spirit Animal Sidecar
2 oz Ararat 5yr Armenian Brandy
3/4 oz Meyer Lemon juice
3/4 oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
It sounds fancy, but not as much as you’d think—this recipe is an equal amount of trial and error and basic pragmatism. First, the Ararat 5yr: it’s a stellar mixer that can be had on its own and is equivalent to Maker’s Mark in terms of price-to-quality. Armenian Brandy tends to be a little earthier to me than a lot of the major VSOP cognac offerings (Hennessy, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, etc.), and also cheaper and more interesting. A good foundation to start with!
Onto the lemons: this sounds exotic, but you can usually find Meyer lemons at a bigger grocery store. They’re still lemony, but a little sweeter and less bracingly tart. I have the good fortune of having a Meyer lemon tree in my backyard, but I’d still source them even if they weren’t an ingredient paid for with hose water.
Lastly, the Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao. Use Cointreau (or even Triple Sec) if you have it in the kitchen. But when you run out of those stalwarts, you’d be surprised at the orangey deliciousness of the Pierre Ferrand that remarkably doesn’t slap you across the face with goopy sweetness. You could enjoy this stuff over ice if you had a sweet tooth and not feel like you were committing a mortal sin. It’s $7 more than Cointreau, the ever-present “good” answer to orange liqueur, but you also get about twice as much of it, making it better-tasting and better value. It’s also got a good pedigree as being from the same people who brought this to us.
Together, you have an interesting base, an understated citrus that brings lightness without being bracing, and a sweetener that adds natural flavors without making everything taste like liquid candy. Everything plays nice, and when you sip the drink, you feel like you’re tasting something truly in the center of three very distant and different points. Exactly what a cocktail should be.
Finally, I feel like I got this fucking drink right.