A big birthday bash was shaping up at my sister's house, so she called and asked for a cocktail idea. "Something for Spring," she said. "What is this Spring you speak of?" I asked. Red robins were returning to my yard, having flown back south after last month's freakish weather.
"Just a light cocktail, before dinner," she added. I wanted to say apéritif, but it's one of those SAT words that make you sound like a dumbass when used in casual conversation. "A French 75 would be perfect," I said. "It has Plymouth, which is gin for people who hate gin, lemon juice, and Champagne.
Ideally, the drink does use Champagne, but for many Champagne cocktails, a similar sparkling wine can be used. Bartenders often use Korbel, a California champagne (with a lower case "c") that's value-priced, because the delicate subtleties of French Champagne can get edged out by spirits and fruit juices, and the effervescence disappears before the whole bottle can be used. It would hurt to pour flat Veuve Clicquot down the drain.
For the same reasons, I'd been using Sofia, a sparkling blanc de blancs wine in a pull-top can. It had been recommended by a sommelier who didn't want his name used, because champagne-in-a-can. I trusted him, because Sofia is produced by Francis Ford Coppola, a man who made phenomenal movies and makes reliable mass-market wine. You can't go wrong watching The Godfather with a glass of Coppola Pinot Noir, though viewing Apocalypse Now while sipping Sofia through a straw is a noir of a different color.
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A Sparkling Surprise
I wanted to find a sparkling wine that's more available, so I visited William Byland at the Spec's on Holcombe Boulevard. He's been impeccable with his whiskey, rum, and tequila picks, so I decided to test his wine knowledge. He first recommended a Crémant de Bourgogne, which was the totally right answer.
Then I mentioned the Korbel and bartender thing, so he knew what I was hinting at. He shook his head to the "no", and reached down to the bottom shelf. "Cook's Brut Grand Reserve," he said, "Not the Brut, not the Extra Dry. Has to be the Grand Reserve". Byland had dared to recommend the Cook's Brut Grand Reserve for weddings, with successful results.
William Byland is still batting 1.000 with me, because the Cook's easily bested the Korbel in a French 75, and the difference with the Sofia version was negligible. And for under $8 per bottle, nobody's going to cry over unused bubbly.
The French 75
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1 ounce Plymouth Gin ½ ounce fresh lemon juice ½ ounce simple syrup 3 ounces Champagne or sparkling wine
-- Combine the gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a mixing glass with ice. Shake well, and strain into a Champagne flute, wine glass, or a highball glass filled with ice. Slowly pour in the Champagne.
If the drinking glass has lots of ice, increase the amount of simple syrup to ¾ ounce to compensate.
Garnish with a lemon twist, or seasonal berries, or any fruit you want to. There are no rules here for the glass, the ice, or the garnish.