Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The Sidecar

Learn the French and English schools of mixing this three-ingredient cocktail. 

The Sidecar is often singled out as the only good cocktail to come out of the long national nightmare that was Prohibition. And when you're sipping one, you almost think it was all worth it. The luminous, golden-straw color, the perfectly controlled sweetness, the jazzy high notes of the citrus against the steady bass of the brandy. This is a drink whose suavité is beyond question -- it's the Warren Beatty of modern mixology. It's so easy, in fact, to be seduced by this clever old roué that a word of caution would not be out of place here. These gents have a way of stealing up on you and -- bimmo! Next thing you know it's 8:43 on Monday morning and you're sitting in the backseat of a taxi idling in front of your place of employ. In your skivvies.
--David Wondrich

Often, the simplest things can be the best things. A great jazz trio can outshine the broadest orchestra. A raw peach, at perfect ripeness, can be more sublime than a properly prepared pie, with all the fuss of flaky crust and filling. A steak, if the meat is excellent, seasoned with salt and pepper, placed under a fiery broiler or atop a blazing grill and cooked to a perfect medium rare, needs not the bother of complicated sauces or fancy spices. An Old Fashioned satisfies and soothes, with its three simple ingredients, more fully than some baroque concoction of multiple spirits, juice, syrups, tinctures and assorted whatnots.

This is true too, of The Sidecar, a cocktail always lingering on the margins of the classics pantheon, the eternal sidekick who is always ready to step up and save the day if our heroes are incapacitated. More importantly, the Sidecar, when made properly, is a perfect illustration of how three simple ingredients, when they are mixed in balance and of good quality, can be transformed into a whole that is so, so much greater than the sum of its parts.

Multiple Claims & Two Schools: A Lengthy Note on the Origin 

There is some debate about the origin of the Sidecar, with two primary competing claims to its creation. We can say, with some certainty, that it first saw print in either Robert Vermeire’s Cocktails: How to Mix Them or in Harry MacElhone's Harry's ABC of Mixing Cocktails, both published in 1922. Vermeire credits MacGarry, a famous bartender at London’s Buck’s Club with the creation of the drink. MacElhone, in the early editions of his book, also credits MacGarry, but in later editions later lays claim to the drink himself. Confusingly, MacElhone returns credit to MacGarry in his 1927 edition, Barflies and Cocktails.

David Embury, in his 1948 The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, calls the Sidecar one of the six essential cocktails and claims to know the creator personally, writing, “It was invented by a friend of mine at a bar in Paris during World War I and was named after the motorcycle sidecar in which the good captain customarily was driven to and from the little bistro where the drink was born and christened.” Embury is most likely referring to Harry’s Bar in Paris, operated by one Harry MacElhone, but that is not made clear. What is clear is that Embury’s recipe for a Sidecar is execrable.

To further muddy the waters, other braggarts pop up claiming the drink, including the head bartender at the Ritz Bar in Paris and one Johnny Brooks who wrote in his 1954 edition My 35 Years Behind Bars: Memories and Advice of a Bartender, Including a Liquor Guide:

On my night off I went visiting a few places—busman’s holiday. In one place, the young bartender approached me for the order. He said he could make any kind of drink I wanted. So just for the fun of it I said, ‘Could you suggest something in the line of a cocktail?’

‘Yes sir, just let me make it, and you’ll like it.’

Sure enough he made one, and the minute I tasted it I knew it was a sidecar cocktail that I had originated many years ago. I was rather surprised myself, and, over the young man’s objections, I almost but not quite convinced him that it was the drink that I originated.

Of course, Mr. Brooks does not pop up in any other sources, so one is inclined to take his claim with rather a few grains of salt.

So, what do we know?  We know that sometime near the end of World War I, when Americans were running around London and Paris in some numbers, a bartender in one of those cities put some Cognac, orange liqueur and lemon juice into a cocktail shaker with some ice, set to work and an enduring cocktail was created, one that jumped the Channel in one direction or the other, before coming to an America that was about to have its liquor taken away.

To make things even more confusing, there were two schools of Sidecar making in the early days. The French bartenders mixed the thing with equal parts Cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice, while the English bartenders preferred a more muscular two parts Cognac to one part each Cointreau and lemon. This divide persisted for some time, and the French version still has its devotees, but the English version (or a variation on it) has become the modern standard.

That sugar rim? Doesn’t turn up until 1934.

A Brief Note On Ingredients: Use Good Stuff 

The Sidecar is a drink that is built around three ingredients, each expected to pull some heavy weight and enhance the other. Do not skimp. For the brandy, use Cognac. You don’t have to use your Frenchy La Spendy XO bottle that set you back a few hundred dollars, but something decent and big enough to play with the citrus and orange liqueur. Pierre Ferrand 1840 is great here, but any decent VS or VSOP from a respectable producer will do. General rule of thumb, if you would drink it neat and find it acceptable, you are on the right track.

For the orange liqueur, there are really only two choices here—Cointreau or Combier. Lesser Triple Sec will not work—the proof is too low for this marriage—and brandy based orange liqueurs tend to knock the whole drink out of balance, tipping the scales too much in the direction of the Cognac.

You are juicing your lemons fresh by now, right?

More Schools? 

Gary Regan in his The Joy of Mixology: A Consummate Guide to the Bartender's Craft, puts the Sidecar in a class of drinks he calls “New Orleans’ Sours.” What all these drinks have in common is that they are a mixture of a base spirit, an orange liqueur and citrus juice. Other common drinks in this family are the Margarita and the Cosmopolitan. Less widely known drinks include the Brandy Crusta and the Daisy.

Some have posited that the Sidecar evolved from the Brandy Crusta, a drink that dates from about 1850 and involves taking the peel off a lemon, before mixing together a healthy measure of brandy, a couple dashes of bitters, a teaspoon of syrup, a teaspoon of lemon juice and a smidgen of orange liqueur together. The rim of a small wine glass is crusted with sugar, the lemon peel is placed inside so it lines the glass and the drink is strained into it. But a Crusta is not a sour at all. The citrus and cordial are accents, not ingredients that play a major part in the production.

Others suggest that the Sidecar is a direct descendant of the Brandy Daisy, a very popular cocktail from around 1870 on. It its original configuration, the Brandy Daisy was, much like the Crusta: brandy with lemon juice, a bit of sugar and a bit of orange cordial. Generally, it was served up and charged with the smallest splash of soda water. The bitters of the Crusta are omitted, and the portions of citrus and orange liqueur are substantially higher, creating something that is recognizable to us as a variation on the sours we know today.

What is most interesting here is that the Crusta began to fade and the Sour and the Daisy to rise as advances in transportation, especially rail, and technology allowed for easier access to citrus fruit. There was no need to be a miser with your lemons once they became relatively cheap and easy to obtain and keep fresh.

It is considerably more likely that the Daisy begat the Sidecar than the Crusta, especially when one considers that the main argument in favor of the Crusta as the progenitor is the widely used sugared rim featured on both drinks. But that sugared rim didn't come into use on a Sidecar until more than a decade of Sidecars had been mixed, while it is a defining feature of a Crusta.

What is most likely though is that a bartender with a long memory or a good mentor knew both his Daisies and his Crustas and recalled that Cognac, orange liqueur and lemon just flat out work.

Two Recipes

Sidecar, French School

1 oz. Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac
1 oz. Cointreau
1 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and shake until very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and serve without adornment. 

Sidecar, English School

2 oz. Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac
1 oz. Cointreau
1 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and shake until very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and server without adornment. 

Enjoy (and we’ll be pouring Sidecars as part of our Cinema Cocktails screening of Pennies from Heaven).


Read Bill's previous cocktail posts here