The Sidecar is one of those classics that everyone’s heard of, but ask anyone what it is, or how they like it and it’s possible you’ll get no answer at all. It’s the best know cocktail that no one drinks, and that’s a shame, because it’s one of the best cocktails of all time. When you get it right, that is.
As with most cocktails of a certain age, the origin of the Sidecar is a subject of speculation. The most likely story recounts it’s creation in World War I Paris, when a particular American captain would order it when he was in town. The captain rode around in a motorcycle sidecar, hence the name. The bar is assumed to be the Ritz Hotel in Paris because what other hotel would it be, and we know that the Sidecar appears in print at least as early as 1922. Other stories offer quite different legends, but it was really between the wars that the Sidecar became standardized and recognized as the classic it is.
Standardized does not mean consistently the same. It means the ingredients were sorted, but different bartenders had their own ideas about how much of each. Today, nothing has changed, and the Sidecar stands as this often overlooked classic, made any number of ways, and rarely all that good. Various concoctions range from the painfully boozey to the sickeningly sweet, to...well...over the years sour mix has made an appearance, and so has a sugar rim.
The sugar rim makes sense. Whatever the origin of the Sidecar, there’s no denying that it’s a descendant of the Brandy Crusta, a cocktail from the time of Jerry Thomas, and perhaps even earlier. Crusta’s are served in a rimmed glass, hence the name, and the current preference among some for a rimmed Sidecar glass is a nod to history. Unfortunately, the sugar rim is modern, as in post World War 2 modern. The Sidecar of Harry MacElhone et.al. did not have a rimmed glass.
Sugar rim or no, the Sidecar still suffers from neglect. One imagines it’s not as popular as the other heavyweight classics because maybe it’s not as good, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The Sidecar is one of the most refined cocktails you’ll encounter, but only if it’s made with very good ingredients, and that means good brandy, and good curacao. There’s only 3 ingredients, brandy, usually cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. All 3 have to be good quality or fresh because this is one drink above all others where it really matters. A good VS brandy smoothes things out amazingly well, as long as it’s supported by a good orange liqueur such as Cointreau. A good VSOP brandy makes the Sidecar even better, although there is a point where any more refined brandy will no longer make it better, just different. In any case, this is one cocktail where you do want a brandy you can also sip neat.
Maybe that’s the answer. The Sidecar has no capacity for mediocrity. It benefits from only quality ingredients, and that makes it expensive, and out of reach for some. It’s not a snob’s cocktail, though. It’s as common as a Manhattan, a Martini, or a Daiquiri, but you can go low on any of those and still have something reasonable. You can’t go low on a Sidecar and expect good results, so maybe it’s best saved for when you get your hands on some Treos Brandy which is top shelf quality, but won’t blow your budget. Add some Cointreau, and fresh lemon juice and try a Sidecar again, only this time, taste it as it was meant to be and see for yourself just how good this drink is. Even if no one else drinks one.
Shake with ice and serve up. Garnish with an orange twist.
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