The Sidecar: Simple Recipe, Complex History

Tina Fineberg/AP Photo
Tina Fineberg/AP Photo

There are certain mixtures that any bartender worth his margarita salt should have under his belt and the sidecar is toward the top of that list. At once smoky and citrusy, it’s an easy-to-make drink that still feels a little luxurious. It’s as simple as it is delicious: cognac, orange liqueur, lemon juice. So how did something so easy to concoct end up the subject of its own national holiday while more laborious cocktails get no recognition? Perhaps because a mysterious beginning gives it an aura of cool.

Almost one hundred years after the drink first came into vogue, there’s still some debate about its origins. Some cocktail historians insist the drink was created in New Orleans in the late 19th century, taking the name of the leftover liquor bartenders poured into shot glasses at the end of the night. The Ritz Paris is also credited with inventing the recipe in 1917 for an American army captain who arrived daily in a motorcycle sidecar, a private driving the motorcycle itself.

Harry's New York Bar Paris/Facebook

The third, and likely most accurate version of the story says the birthplace is actually a stone’s throw away from the Ritz Paris at Harry’s New York Bar: a different locale but still served to the eponymous sidecar-riding army captain. Harry MacElhone, the Harry in Harry’s New York Bar was a Scotsman running a haven for Americans in Paris. He first wrote about the popular new drink in his Harry's ABC of Mixing Cocktails, published in 1919.

Kevin Fitzpatrick sticks with the story that credits Harry’s New York Bar with giving us the sidecar. Author of Under the Table: A Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guide, Fitzpatrick is another gentleman who has literally written the book on the classic cocktails we still swill.

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Not only are the drink’s origins contested, there are two opinions on just how the three ingredients of the sidecar should be combined. The English school dictates bartenders combine two parts brandy with one part each orange liqueur and lemon juice while the French school insists on equal parts of all three ingredients. Fitzpatrick sticks to the classic English recipe, which has, incidentally, always been the one used at Dorothy Parker’s legendary haunt, the Algonquin Hotel. That’s a lot of contention for one simple recipe!

Once the ingredients’ proportions have been settled, it comes time to look at just what types of liquors are best suited to the task. It seems those who are most particular about their brandy insist on using cognac as the base. “Generally, I like to use cognac,” explains Andy Heidel, owner of popular Brooklyn bar The Way Station and author of the upcoming Cocktail Guide to the Galaxy (St. Martin’s Press, fall 2017). “I find [standard] brandy to be a little harsher, and it gives [the cocktail] heavier nose. Cognac I find to be smoother and well-rounded. It sits better with the orange liqueur.”

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Whether you’re making a sidecar or enjoying the spirit on its own, celebrate National Cognac Day with the experts. Rémy Martin has been bottling Cognac for almost 300 years. Now that’s a time to toast.

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But Fitzpatrick argues that a sidecar is really about the refreshing citrus of the orange liqueur and the lemon juice.

With the cocktail components in the shaker, it’s then time to choose glassware. Either a cocktail glass or the very Jazz Age coupe glass is acceptable. What matters most is that the glass itself is chilled and the ingredients shaken vigorously for a cold, crisp beverage. A stemmed glass ensures that body heat doesn’t prematurely warm up your drink. The sidecar is best sipped during the warmer months, preferably outdoors, the way its early 20th century fans enjoyed it.

Of the countless cocktail recipes to come out of World War I and Prohibition, why has this recipe survived generations and dozens of cocktail trends? Plenty of cocktails from the era have largely fallen out of favor, even as cocktail culture has sought to return us to our roots. For starters, though the sidecar is a drink to make you feel fancy, it’s actually pretty accessible, especially if you’re not going all out with brandy choice.

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Explains Fitzpatrick, “Brandy’s kind of seen as a rich man’s drink or what your grandfather or grandmother would drink, but once you use it as a base with Cointreau, it really changes it.” The result is elegant in its simplicity—and plenty strong. “It’s smoky, it’s a dark drink,” says Fitzpatrick. “There’s no garnish in it, it’s just booze.” Just the way Hemingway and friends liked their cocktails.

As with any great classic, there will always be variations on a theme. TV host Rachel Maddow, who loves cocktails almost as much as sharp political commentary, likes the classic sidecar (according to the English school), but also favors the Tantris sidecar served at New York’s Pegu Club.

In a 21st century update, the Tantris draws its appellation from the screenname of a cocktail aficionado named Kevin. In addition to the customary cognac, lemon juice and triple sec, Pegu Club mixologist and “Libation Goddess” Audrey Saunders adds calvados, pineapple juice, simple syrup, a sugared rim and a lemon twist for garnish.

This fruit-filled rendition is pretty far from what Fitzpatrick calls “a true speakeasy drink,” a drink designed to made quickly before the cops come, but Saunders "wanted a to create a sidecar with further complexity," for Kevin, a.k.a. Tantris on Bonding over their shared love of the cocktail, she "added ingredients which had an affinity with the original ones" to turn a simple sipper into a sidecar symphony.

Heidel has sampled a version similar to Saunders’ and likes it—but there’s nothing quite like the original. Plus, there’s something to be said for getting to the good part, the drinking, faster. “The point of cocktails at my bar is to make them with three, four ingredients tops, so we can make them in 30 seconds to a minute.” Delicious and to the point.

Desiree Browne has been published in The Village Voice, New York Observer, and other outlets. Her favorite cocktail is an old fashioned, but she is opening to sampling more. Tweet suggestions @itsdlovely.