May 12th, 2007

One of the things I found most interesting when I began to learn more about cocktails was how certain drinks all follow a similar pattern of ingredients. For example, an amazing number of drinks – including many classics like the Margarita and Daiquiri – follow a ratio of two parts strong, one part sour, and one part sweet.

It all stems from one of the oldest family of cocktails, the sours. A sour consisted of a single base spirit, lemon juice and sugar – for example if the spirit was whiskey it would be a Whiskey Sour. Over the years different modifiers were introduced beyond basic sugar and lemon, but the 2:1:1 ratio from the sours remained, and still makes a good starting point for many cocktails.

Of course depending on the ingredients you may wish to modify the recipe. For example the Oh Gosh! in the last post uses less sour (lime juice) than sweet (Cointreau and sugar syrup) because limes are more acidic and hence stronger in flavour than lemons. It also uses less strong (rum) because Cointreau is an 80 proof spirit in addition to being the key sweetener in the drink.

Another classic cocktail that uses this ratio is the Sidecar, a drink that dates back to the First World War and seems to be having a small renaissance of late as traditional recipes become popular once more. The first Sidecar I ever made was not an original, but a variation using gin rather than cognac:

Chelsea Sidecar cocktail with Cointreau and Plymouth Gin bottles in background

Chelsea Sidecar

The Chelsea Sidecar has a refreshing lemon taste, with the sweet/sour mix making it very drinkable. That said, the strong lemon taste overpowers any of the subtleties in the gin, making it a somewhat undistinctive drink. Which is where the original recipe comes in…

Sidecar cocktail with Cointreau and Courvoisier VSOP bottles in background


The Sidecar was invented in Paris during World War I, when an eccentric army captain, who was always driven around in a motorbike and sidecar, asked for a pre-dinner drink to warm him up after his drive. While the warming properties of Cognac seemed an obvious choice it was traditionally a digestif (after-dinner drink), so was combined with lemon and Cointreau to make it more appropriate.

The Sidecar is a drink which really shows what a difference quality (read: expensive) ingredients can make. My first few were made with a cheap brandy called “Three Barrels” which sells for not much over £10 in most supermarkets here in Britain. The Sidecars I made using this brandy were good, and had a distinctive taste that set it apart (and far ahead) from it’s Chelsea Sidecar derivative.

Recently however, I purchased a bottle of Courvoisier VSOP, a mid-priced Cognac that from reviews I’ve read seems to be pretty respectable. And wow – what a difference it made to my Sidecars. This new cognac added an additional layer of complexity to the flavour which transforms it in to a really fantastic drink. I’m not a cognac expert and can’t begin to describe what these additional flavours are, but I do know that my Sidecars are much tastier than they were before.

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Posted in Cognac, Curaçao & Triple Sec, Gin, Lemon, Recipes

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4 responses to “Sidecar”

  1. callisto callisto says:

    The critical mix between sweet and sour in a sidecar hinges on how much you need to balance the bitter in your lemon.

    Rather than 1/2 shot, using the juice of 1/2 lemon is more reliable: the smaller ones tending towards more sour and the bigger towards more sweet.

    The best ones I ever made was when the liquour store ordered some Conde de Osborne brandy by mistake and unloaded them for $20 each. An absurd waste of fine sipping brandy, but with Cointreau and fresh lemons, the sidecars were magic!

  2. Jay Jay says:

    calisto – it’s curious you say 1/2 a lemon is more reliable than 1/2 shot. Generally most people claim measuring juice is more accurate, but your theory with regards to size of fruit and sourness is interesting. There is a lot more discussion about lemons (and limes) at the Chanticleer Society forums.

  3. Bob Bob says:

    I’ve got a copy of “Jack’s Manual” (first printed 1908, and went through editions until 1933)

    But instead of lemon, Jack says lime. I haven’t tried that yet.

    And his proportions were half brandy, half cointreau, and juice of half a lime.

  4. Jay Jay says:

    I’ve heard of Sidecar recipes calling for lime, but it really doesn’t sound right to my mind – lemon is the way to go in my opinion.

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