Champagne – it's as synonymous with New Year's Eve as Auld Lang Syne and cringingly tacky live-television specials. But why put off the festive bubbles till midnight when guests are half in the bag and fretting about the drive home or babysitter overtime? Sparkling wine makes for a far better aperitif than a nightcap after wine, beer, sweet cocktails and dessert.
While you may fear upstaging the cork-popping ceremony with early-evening bubbles, there's an elegant way around the problem: sparkling wine cocktails.
Often neglected by the home bartender, sparkling wine can add sophistication to the cocktail hour. And because wine lovers and fans of the harder stuff tend to enjoy them equally, sparkling cocktails are a good way to kick-start the party.
"Bubbles are fun. People like bubbles," says Colin Turner, bar manager at CinCin Ristorante + Bar in Vancouver. "You blew bubbles as a kid. And if you've got some good alcohol in there, it's even better."
Bubbly cocktails are also blissfully easy to make. They can be as basic as floating a few berries on the surface of the wine or mixing in a little fruit juice, as in a Bellini (peach juice) or mimosa (orange juice).
The best versions for evening, as opposed to brunch, however, usually involve a liqueur or hard spirit. That's the case with the archetypal drink known simply as the champagne cocktail, a blend of brandy, sugar, angostura bitters and bubbly. Drop a sugar cube into a champagne glass, soak it with two or three dashes of bitters and crush it with a muddling tool or spoon. Then add in 3/4 ounce brandy and slowly top up the glass with the wine.
I like to use chilled glasses and pour the wine in gently with the glass at an angle, beer-style, to preserve as much effervescence as possible. Always add the wine last. Never stir or shake. What ever you do, don't channel Tom Cruise in that dreaded movie.
Because you're flavouring the wine, there's no need to invest in bona fide Champagne, the expensive, exceptionally nuanced sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France. A $14 cava from Spain or prosecco from Italy, or a slightly more expensive sparkler from elsewhere, will do just fine.
The resurgence in Italian bitters – liqueurs with a sweet-sour flavour profile – has prompted experimentation behind the bar at places like CinCin. It's an inspired trend, I think. Bitters, such as Campari, Averna, Ramazotti and Aperol, are infusions based mainly on herbs and plant roots, and they blend in nicely with the wine, their savoury flavours imparting an aromatic lift that's carried by the effervescence.
At CinCin, Mr. Turner recently came up with something called Love the Bubbles, named for the favourite line of a prosecco-loving friend of his. Cut a mandarin orange into segments and place all but one segment into a regular water glass or cocktail shaker and squash them with a muddling tool or spoon into a pulp. Add in 1 ounce Aperol, 1 ounce Ramazzotti and three drops Fee Brothers Orange Bitters. Fill the mixing glass with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a flute. Slowly top up with prosecco and float the remaining mandarin segment on the surface.
Aperol's bitter-orange essence and bright orange colour play especially well with sparkling wine. So does its exceptionally low alcohol content, 11 per cent. The Aperol company promotes a drink it calls the Aperol spritz, involving 1-1/2 ounces of Aperol, 2 ounces of prosecco, ice cubes, a slice of orange and splash of soda. I prefer not to water down the wine, especially at New Year's, so I like to skip the club soda and add two extra ounces of prosecco. The orange slice also should be replaced with a sliver of rind, which fits more neatly into a champagne flute.
That's another nice thing about bubbly cocktails – experimentation is easy. Just be sure to keep the other alcoholic flavourings to a discreet quantity, usually no more than 3/4 of an ounce, especially if using hard spirits.
Bright-red Campari, often mixed with soda on the rocks, makes for another easy cocktail. Add half an ounce of the liqueur to a flute, then top up with bubbly. It's a play on the kir royale, the famous aperitif of Burgundy, named after the former mayor of Dijon (Felix Kir), which uses black currant-flavoured crème de cassis. Campari is more bracing and less sweet, better as a palate stimulator for food than cassis.
I've experimented with a similar formula, substituting red-hued cabernet franc ice wine from Canada for the cassis in a drink I dubbed the Trudeau. With a subtler and more mysteriously complex taste, I think it's superior to the kir royale, though that may be my Canadian bias showing through.
Another classic that has seen a renaissance is the French 75, created in 1915 in Paris. Named after the 75-millimetre French gun, it has a fierce attack. Combine 2 ounces dry gin, plus 1 teaspoon sugar, 3/4 ounce of fresh lemon juice and several ice cubes in a cocktail shaker and shake. Strain into a tall, highball glass, half-filled with ice, and top up with about 5 ounces of sparkling wine.
Elderflower syrup, available at Ikea and through online gourmet retailers, ranks high on the list of trendy new cocktail flavourings. Michael Steele, bar manager at the Rooftop Lounge at Toronto's new Thompson Hotel, uses it as the secret ingredient in a drink called Flashing Lights. Add a 1/4 ounce each of Belvedere Intense overproof vodka, elderflower syrup and fresh lemon juice to a flute and top with sparkling wine (Mr. Steele uses Domaine Chandon from California). Garnish with a short strip of lemon zest. "It's almost like a fancy vodka Red Bull in flavour," he says.
Mr. Steele, who just added Flashing Lights and two other sparkling-wine cocktails to his bar menu, says bubbly libations tend to be contagious. Mix one for somebody and the rest of the crowd will find it hard to resist. "It's definitely a party starter."