I grew up during the cocktail's Dark Ages. It was the 1960s. Mad Men was life, not television. If you wanted a mixed drink, as opposed to something straight up or on the rocks, it had to be easy. People, by golly, were thirsty back then, working up sweats fidgeting with TV antennas, hosting Tupperware parties and painting picket fences white.
So rudimentary was the mixologist's canon that a child could tend bar. Often, a child would. The default drink, as I recall, was the highball. Except for the vodka-orange abomination called the screwdriver, the four other classics - rum and coke, Scotch and soda, rye and ginger, gin and tonic - were redeemed by one thing: carbonation.
Today, many serious bartenders are increasingly going carbon-positive with more elegant bubbles in the form of sparkling wine. This is thanks mainly to the rising profile of affordable good-quality brands of bubbly that cost considerably less than too-pricey-to-mix champagne. I prefer cavas from Spain, crémants from France and other wines made using the labour-intensive bottle-fermentation technique of champagne because their bubbles tend to be finer and the flavours more layered. (Even the big cava brands such as Freixenet and Codorniu are seriously underpriced for the quality.) But prosecco, the all-the-rage Italian fizz style that develops its bubbles in large tanks before bottling, is another good choice for adding sparkle and a note of sophistication to your New Year's drinks.
Don't wait till midnight to trot out one or more of these cocktail suggestions. In all cases, make sure to chill the bubbly and pour it last; otherwise the carbon dioxide will be lost to the air.
The classic, which all bartenders should commit to memory, is the champagne cocktail . Drop a sugar cube in a champagne flute. Soak the cube with two or three dashes of Angostura bitters. Add 2/3 ounce of good brandy. Then slowly top up with sparkling wine to within half an inch of the rim. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.
A festive-looking and inspired new recipe from Simon Difford - author of the mammoth new eighth edition of Difford's Encyclopedia of Cocktails ($45, Firefly) - is the champino . A fizzy riff on the negroni, it's made by shaking 1 ounce of Campari, the red Italian liqueur, with 1 ounce of red vermouth in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a champagne flute and top up with sparkling wine.
It echoes a drink of my own that I call the Campari royale : Add a half ounce of Campari, preferably chilled, to a ¾-full flute of sparkling wine. It's a riff on the kir royale, which uses crème de cassis.
If you've got something to mourn as well as to celebrate this year (and who hasn't?), your signature New Year's cocktail could be the classic black velvet . A mix of equal parts Guinness beer and sparkling wine, it was created in 1861 when England was in mourning for Prince Albert, the ebony beer solemnly darkening the cheery bubbly. It has traditionally been served in a beer glass, but the modern twist is to use a champagne flute. Half-fill the glass with Guinness, then slowly top up with the wine.
David Wolowidnyk, bar manager and drinks wizard at Vancouver's top-ranked West restaurant, has a slightly more ambitious but inspired drink for the season. For the Merry Memory , assemble the juice of 1 mandarin orange, 2 cloves, ¾ ounce of white rum, ½ ounce Amaretto di Saronno liqueur, ¼ ounce fresh lemon juice and 3 ounces of sparkling wine such as Sumac Ridge Steller's Jay Brut from British Columbia. In a mixing glass without ice, lightly crush the cloves. Add the mandarin juice, rum, Amaretto and lemon juice. Add ice to the glass and stir for about 20 seconds, until chilled. Strain into a champagne flute through a fine strainer and top up with sparkling wine. Garnish with mandarin zest.
Complicated cocktails can be a bother for some. One solution is to make a whole pitcher at a time. For instance, try a sparkling-wine version of sangria, the Spanish spiked-wine "punch" typically served in pitchers.
This sangria recipe is a variation on one from Freixenet. The company's original "cava sangria" calls for peaches in addition to citrus, but this is not the season for stone fruit in Canada, so substitute imported mango (which tastes better than imported peaches) or skip it altogether.
To make it, place one orange (sliced), one lemon (sliced) and an equal quantity of mango or other fruit into a pitcher containing three fistfuls or so of ice. Add about 10 ounces of orange juice, 10 ounces of lemonade, three ounces of brandy and three ounces of Cointreau liqueur.
Finally, slowly pour in a bottle of sparkling wine. For a crimson hue, use Freixenet Cordon Rosado or other pink bubbly.
Happy New Year.