More than a Spritz: How to Use Sparkling Wine or Champagne in a Cocktail

Sparkling wine is for the New Year, but for some guests it can be too dry, or boring on its own. Time to get creative!

Even though the holiday celebrations are smaller this year, or only virtual, a toast at midnight is the tradition on New Year’s. For some, that glass of a sparkling wine gets a sip and then discarded. That is a shame as that wine could go to good use in a cocktail!

Sparkling wine cocktails can be some of the season’s brightest and most fun, and the good news they are simple cocktails to make. As a matter of fact, one of the first cocktails ever made was with champagne - The Champagne Cocktail originally appeared in The Bartenders Guide published in 1862. Learning some basics on how to incorporate a sparkling wine into a cocktail is a snap. The famous Spritz from Italy is another great example of how a simple, yet well balanced cocktail can be made from this base ingredient.

Does wine work in a cocktail? Yes - Wine has fundamentally the right structure to build a cocktail off. Lower in alcohol, sometimes dry, with bright acidity, it is a great backbone to building the flavors of sweet, bitter and sour around it. Here are our some of our favorite recommendations to get yourself ready to make a sparkler this holiday along with awesome Instagram links to inspire you.

1. Buy a brut, or dry wine

There is something about starting “dry” that just makes sense when you start on the journey of making a sparkling wine cocktail. This may not be the taste for everyone, but the consensus thought from most bartenders is that you can always add sugar, but you can’t take it away! Therefore, a dry sparkling wine that gives the control to you, the creator, not the wine maker as to how sweet your cocktail will taste, is key. The classic champagne cocktail is a great example of this; with a sugar cube, bitters and champagne as the only ingredients, a sweet sparkling would simply be a muddled mess of sugar.

 

Instead, opting for the dry acidity of a brut wine you will match the sweet, sour, and bitter ingredients the cocktail ends up being mixed with.

In terms of quality, go for better quality, but not the highest end. A high-end champagne or sparkling wine should be enjoyed as it. But don’t forget, some of these wines are not always at their prime. Perhaps a slightly off year, or choosing a more mass produced, but lower priced brand is perfectly fine to go with. Still, pick quality, as this is the back bone of the drink.

2. Ice the glass, or not!

Ice is typically added in a cocktail after the alcohol is in the glass, so the alcohol does not melt the ice too much. Because you are making a sparkling wine cocktail, ice may or may not be needed at all, and many recipes go without. Keep in mind, ice is used for dilution of alcohol typically in a cocktail. It also is used to cool down the cocktail throughout the pace of consuming it. Sparkling wine cocktails can be lower proof already (lower in alcohol) depending on the cocktail you make and what you add. Therefore, dilution is not necessarily needed. Additionally, most of the time, the ingredients in these cocktails are already cold, so ice is not needed to keep the cocktail cold. Finally, because these are lower alcohol drinks they are typically consumed before they warm up.

If you are making a cocktail that will require ice, and we recommend it for cocktails that use a small amount of sparkling wine, we like adding the non-sparkling ingredients to the glass first, then the ice. Once the ice is added, pour the sparkling components down the side of the glass and gently stir/lift with the spoon. But more on that spoon later.

 

3. Get ready to mix with other ingredients, sweet, sour/citrus, & bitter.

Get prepared to play by sorting out your ingredients. Everything is in play here, from a Non-Alcoholic shrubs, to bitters, to your liqueurs in your cabinet. These can be pulled out for this use and sorted by what they provide.

Sweet – Sweet liqueurs soft drinks, and sugar cubes or liquid sweeteners, sweet vermouth.

Sour – Shrubs, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, orange juice.

Bitter – Bitters, tonics, and bitter liqueurs like Aperol or Campari

Other enhancement - Gin, dry vermouth

We recommend planning for adding all three of these components in one form or another, particularly the bitter element, which provides that “spritz” like component to the drink.

A tonic water, bitters or a bitter liqueur provide a aromatic, and quench to the cocktail that otherwise is missing. Some may find the idea of mixing a tonic in as a little strange, but it works! Gin and vermouth can also be used in these cocktails for the aromatics, but they don't provide the quench and balance of some bitter. Using a tonic water in lieu of a bitter liqueur or gin, is a way to modify the alcohol content and keep it low (a spritz in Italy for example may just be tonic mixed with a bitter liqueur, and the wine is left totally out). Top Note Tonics, a craft tonic water company from Milwaukee, makes 2 tonics that can work in this occasion; their Bitter Lemon and Indian Tonic are made with Gentian root as a bitter ingredient. (The Gentian root is what is found in bitter liqueurs that give the dry, quenching, bitter flavor.)

Remember the ingredients provide sweet, sour, aromatics, and bitterness. The key to making this cocktail is balance. We recommend the "spritz" formula which is 2-3 parts wine to 1/2 - 1 part of the other components. For example, the French 75, a classic wine based cocktail, is 3 parts wine, 1 part gin and ½ part sour (lemon juice) and ½ part sweet (liquid simple sugar syrup). In this case, The French 75 uses gin as an aromatic component, but also as an alcohol enhancer. For a twist on the French 75, to keep it low in alcohol, use a good quality tonic water instead of gin as mentioned earlier (Top Note has great recipes for using tonic in this way here). The “sweet” in the French 75 is the simple sugar. A sugar cube can be ½ part sweet as well, and is frequently used in these cocktails. Any amaro, or bitter liqueur may provide sweet and bitter to these cocktails. The sour is the lemon juice, and depending on the wine, the amount can be modified.

 

4. Lift to mix with a cocktail spoon

Once your cocktail is built, and if needed iced down, the last step is to lift the cocktail gently with a cocktail spoon to stir it. We highly recommend picking up a quality, long cocktail spoon to do this properly. Bartenders may get fancy by pouring sparkling component like a club soda, down the spoon, but we don’t bother. Instead, we use the skinny twisted spoon to nuzzle down the side of the ice, and then gently lift the ingredients so the heavy alcohol or syrups at the bottom are mixed in. Carefully nudge the spoon down the side of the glass, and with a small movement, lift the heavier ingredients at the bottom up a little. Making a smaller movement will ensure the bubbles do not get over agitated, and the cocktail gets mixed naturally.

5. Add a garnish

Garnish is everything in this sometimes-slim glass drink. The bubbles make a great first impression, but a bamboo tooth pick with cranberries, or candied ginger makes it more festive. Even a colorful rim of sugar is a unique way to show some creativity. The trend this year is to dry a citrus fruit wheel and pin it to the side of the glass. Though that makes a nice visual, the element of aroma can be lacking. Therefore, we recommend in place of anything else, learn to do make a twisted citrus peel for the added wow. Start with a solid peel from a clean lemon or orange either from a wide peeler, or a channel peeler. If need be, use a paring knife if need be to trim the sides down to make it even and clean looking. Then take the peel and with the outside peel facing the glass, pinch both end to express the oils into the cocktail. You may then use the peel and swipe the edge of the glass with the oils on the rim. The twist is made by twirling the peel into a curl by twisting the ends in opposite directions. Drop the peel in the glass and voila – citrus sensations abound. 

Following this basic formula, anyone can build a wine cocktail from the ingredients they may be hiding in their cabinets.

Have fun creating something special this holiday! Cheers

 

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