While many classic cocktails are associated with American Prohibition, the Sidecar is perhaps the most emblematic of the era. Classy, stylish, and sweet with its cognac and sugar-lined coupe, the drink was at home in the hands of flappers, speakeasy denizens, and the elite of East and West Egg alike.
As drink historian David Wondrich put it, the Sidecar is, “often singled out as the only good cocktail to come out of the long national nightmare that was Prohibition.” Where most cocktails of the day used sugars and juices to cover the often-unpalatable taste of bootleg booze, the Sidecar used those flavors to also elevate and augment its primary spirit.
The history of the Sidecar is a disputed one, spanning three countries and two continents. It allegedly appears in literature around 1907, but most accounts place its creation sometime after WWI. The name itself is said to be derived from the motorcycle attachment of the same name, though even that is disputed in one telling.
The prevailing story places the Sidecar’s birth in Paris in the early 1920s when one night an American Army captain, known for riding to the bar in his friend’s motorcycle sidecar (hence the name), requested a cocktail to warm him up before dinner. While cognac seemed like an obvious choice, back then it was considered gauche to have such a spirit so early in the evening. Finding a workaround, the bartender mixed it with some Cointreau and lemon juice, and served it chilled in a coupe.
Exactly which bar these events transpired at is a matter of some debate. The Hôtel Ritzôtel_Ritz_Paris claims the cocktail as its own, but most histories suggest that the storied Harry’s Bar was actually where it all went down — or at least where the drink gained popularity. More credence is likely given to Harry’s since it was a favorite haunt for American service members and ex-pats around that time.
Harry’s owner Harry MacElhone does little to clear things up. Some say he dreamed up the recipe himself. There’s some precedent here. MacElhone’s celebrated shaker has been linked (somewhat dubiously) to other classics of the era such as the Bloody Mary, French 75, Monkey Gland, and White Lady.
But even MacElhone equivocates on this fact. When the recipe first appears in his 1922 book Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails, he credits bartender Pat MacGarry of Buck’s Club in London, saying that it was invented there, but popularized in France. In later editions, however, MacElhone omits MacGarry and simply credits himself.
Another, radically different origin story — allegedly favored by none other than King Cocktail Dale DeGroff — suggests that the Sidecar’s home is in 19th-century New Orleans. In this telling, the cocktail got its name from the term bartenders sometimes use for leftover liquor they pour off into shot glasses, making the Sidecar the Flaming Moe of classic cocktails.
If you thought the Sidecar’s history was convoluted, the recipe is equally tortuous. There are several schools of thought here. MacElhone favored what came to be known as the French school stating equal parts (1:1:1) cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice. Around 1930, the English school puts forth a ratio of 2:1:1. Another method, advanced by David Embury in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948), gives the Sidecar the daiquiri treatment with ratios of 8:2:1. Finally, in his Encyclopedia of Cocktails modern mixologist Simon Difford attempts to split the difference between Embury and MacElhone suggesting a 3:2:2 ratio.
I recommend starting with the French school, and tweaking the ratios to taste.
1 oz. cognac
1 oz. Cointreau
1 oz. lemon juice
Directions: Pour all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice, and shake for 10-20 seconds. Strain into a chilled, sugar-rimmed* coupe or cocktail (martini) glass. Garnish with an orange slice or twist.
*The step of sugaring the rim does not appear in recipes until 1934. Depending on the ratio you choose, the Sidecar can be a slightly dry or citric cocktail so the extra spike of sweetness might be preferable.
Jim Sabataso is a writer, part-time bartender, and full-time cocktail enthusiast living in Vermont. Follow him on Twitter @JimSabataso.