The other night a friend and I decided to go out for a cocktail. With the whole package of full-time employment, wife, toddler, and daddy-do list, I welcomed the chance to spend an hour in a dark bar with the perfect libation.
Gone are the days when my friends and I would casually make plans to “grab a drink after work” or “meet up at the pub after the movie/concert/play/dinner for a nightcap.” A midnight drink now seems like it happens in someone else’s life. These days a nightcap in our house means getting up at 2 a.m. to get Charlotte a glass of water.
As the cocktail hour approached, I considered my likely choices.
Ah, I thought, how about a sidecar?
In David A. Embury’s work on mixology, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948), he lists the sidecar as one of six basic drinks along with the daiquiri, the martini, Manhattan, Jack Rose, and old-fashioned. His proportion of the sidecar’s standard three ingredients are rather potent: 8 parts cognac or Armagnac, 2 parts lemon juice, and one part Cointreau or triple sec.
When the drink first came into fashion following World War I, it was variously claimed to have originated in either London or Paris. It was popular at Buck’s Club in London, where the bartender, Pat MacGarry, mixed it up and was given credit for its invention. I tend toward the more romantic tale of an American army captain who gave the recipe to the barman at the Ritz Hotel in Paris during the war. According to legend, the anonymous captain always arrived at the hotel riding in a motorcycle sidecar … and thus the name.
I was anxious to see how the bartender at Seymour’s in Mr. Lyons would do with this deceptively tricky cocktail (in its youth, the sidecar was mixed with equal proportions cognac, triple sec, and lemon … a cloyingly sweet concoction that is still made by old-school bartenders at heartland country clubs who think of it as a “lady’s drink”). Unfortunately, it was a Monday night so Seymour’s wasn’t open. Because my friend had recently moved here from New York, I thought he might enjoy the scene at a valley institution, one that makes you feel like you’re visiting the desert in 1964. The advantage to visiting this bar on weeknights is that it is relatively hipster-free. Unless your definition of a hipster is a 74-year-old in white Sansabelt slacks, red-checkered sport coat, and Don Ameche moustache.
The scene was near perfection, the jazz muted, and the lights low enough to induce tranquility. My friend ordered a perfect Manhattan and I ordered a sidecar. To our shock, the drinks arrived in seconds. Worse, the sidecar came over ice in an old-fashioned glass instead of straight up in a coupe glass. We tasted. We winced. Both drinks were made from a mix, which made them only fractionally better than cocktails-in-a-can. I cannot tell you the name of the bar because as an institution, I love it too much to mention them in print … although I doubt the septuagenarian pencil-mustachioed lothario in the check jacket gives a damn if the cocktails are poured from 50-gallon drums.
To quote Brando in Apocalypse Now, “The horror …”
I bought a bottle of Hennessy on the way home. There was Cointreau in the pantry, and I found some Meyer lemons in the fridge. I mixed my own: 6 parts cognac, 2 parts lemon juice, 1 part Cointreau. I gave it a dozen jolts in the shaker with crushed ice, poured it into a coupe, and garnished it with a quarter slice of orange.
I sipped. I sighed. There is no mood lighting in my kitchen and the strains of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse drifted down the hallway, but it was a decent cocktail and made up for the lack of ambience. It wasn’t the best sidecar I’ve ever mixed, but I conservatively rated it High Pedestrian.
My wife, Emily, emerged from the bedroom and looked at me incredulously. “What, did the bar run out?”
We don’t inflict or endure penance in our household, but still, for practical reasons of scheduling and commitments, I knew it would be a while before I would have a chance to track down a superior sidecar.
The following Sunday, my wife and I found ourselves in Uptown with an hour to kill before we had to get home and relieve the babysitter. When we first moved to Palm Springs and lived in the Las Palmas neighborhood, Workshop was our biweekly treat. We loved the atmosphere, the booths, the industrial feel, and, of course, its amazing food. I think I was only vaguely aware that it even had a bar when my wife and I got naughty and stopped in for a 5:15 cocktail.
We were greeted by bartender Zane Tessay, who struck me as a man immensely proud of his craft. Tessay is a relative newcomer to the valley and formerly created liquid art at Destino, a pisco bar in San Francisco.
Zane Tessay, bartender extraordinaire, makes sure the drinks that slides across his bar are memorable.
He was in the process of setting up for the evening when we sat at the bar and gave our orders. Emily ordered a rosé, but I thought I’d give my quest for the perfect sidecar another shot.
Although he almost dusted the rim of my cocktail glass with sugar (I screeched as if he were attempting to infuse my drink with scorpion venom), Tessay and I were otherwise on the same page with our view of a classic sidecar. Even though we both like it with a bit of a bite, he felt that a little simple syrup rounded out the sharp edge of the lemon juice (“Our fresh juices make all the difference in our cocktails,” he said proudly.). I’ve always thought that a superior sidecar was made with a superior brandy or cognac, but Tessay disabused me of this prejudice. Workshop’s is a decent VSOP — nothing to make a Parisian pro-American, but too good to use for carpet stain removal. The difference, Tessay advised, is in the orange liqueur. Cointreau is delicious, but its orange flavor does not assert itself against cognac. Grand Marnier is overly assertive. Generic triple sec is simply too cloying and, well, ugh. Tessay let me sniff a bottle of Combier orange liqueur. The citrus was not overpowering, nor did it emit a preponderance of alcohol or sugar.
It might be the best sidecar I’ve ever ordered. I could taste every ingredient, yet the overall effect was rounded and soft. It was the kind of cocktail of which it would be easy to drink half a dozen … and wind up behind a Piggly Wiggly in Oklahoma City with a lipstick-smudged phone number written across your forehead and missing your left shoe.
This time, babysitter relief won. But I’ll be back.
WORKSHOP KITCHEN + BAR SIDECAR
2 ounces cognac or Armagnac
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
3/4 ounce Combier Orange Liqueur
1/4 ounce simple syrup