How To Make The Perfect Sidecar: 8 Expert Tips
The Sidecar is the king of Cognac cocktails. It’s a three-ingredient balance of the brandy, orange liqueur, and lemon juice, followed by the endlessly debatable question: to sugar rim, or not to sugar rim.
The cocktail owes its name to the motorcycle sidecars carrying military officers around post WWI Europe where the drink emerged — some sources cite London, some the Paris Ritz, others suggest the South of France for its origin. No matter it’s true birthplace, the Sidecar became a fixture of speakeasy bars in Prohibition America as a symbol of sophistication, and it has endured ever since as the consummate Cognac cocktail — a drink that every bartender should have in their repertoire.
To offer some tips on how to make the perfect Sidecar, we spoke to Toby Cecchini, owner of The Long Island Bar in Brooklyn, and the author of Cosmopolitan: a Bartender’s Life. Cecchini is perhaps best known for inventing the Cosmopolitan cocktail as you know it, while working behind the bar at The Odeon in the late 1980’s. To this day, he says he’s never drank a whole Cosmo, and personally prefers the Sidecar if he had to choose.
“The Sidecar has become a contentious cocktail,” says Cecchini, “Someone once said that they’re like pizza, and even a bad one is good, but now bartenders are overwhelmingly saying it’s a shit cocktail and I don’t quite get that.”
Cecchini was part of a Sidecar judging panel for Punch, and he says at after he “proceeded to have ten shitty sidecars,” he realized that maybe mastering it wasn’t as easy as he’d thought. His key takeaways from the experience have clarified the way he makes Sidecars and his bar. Here’s his advice on how to nail it every time.
1. The Right Cognac Makes All The Difference
“Use a younger Cognac,” advises Cecchini, adding that it should be soft enough and dry enough to play well with the liqueur and lemon juice. Older XO Cognac is too woody, so he prefers a VS (and some VSOP) because it’s neither too young nor too old, nor too expensive. He likes to use the Carte Blanche from Cognac Park, and Hine H, for his Sidecars. “In general, you want something soft and young and without too much wood on it,” he says, “because the woodier it gets, the less pleasant it plays in a cocktail.”
2. Remember: Not All Orange Liqueur Is Created Equal
With a Sidecar, because there are only three ingredients, your choice of the orange liqueur can make a big difference. Cecchini likes to use Cointreau for a Sidecar, which he says is not as sweet as you might think. To account for this, his friend and fellow New York bartender Joaquin Simo adds a quarter ounce of simple syrup to his Sidecar due to the opinion that Cointreau can’t carry the full weight of being the drink’s only sweetening element. So, if you’re finding your Sidecar too dry, try it the Simo way. Cecchini, however, prefers to just bump his Cointreau up if more sweetness is needed.
Another good twist to try out would be the Yuzu version of Maison Ferrand’s Dry Curaçao. And while Grand Marnier is an exquisite liqueur, because it’s Cognac-based, it’s an overkill in a Sidecar.
3. Use Fresh Citrus
This should go without saying, but you have to use fresh citrus in a Sidecar. If you keep your lemons at room temperature when you juice them, you will get a higher yield than if it’s refrigerated. “You should get two ounces of juice from one lemon,” says Cecchini.
4. Double Strain For A Better Drink
The sidecar is not a rustic drink. It’s about sophistication, so you don’t want pulp floating around in it. And if you balance it right for dilution when it’s first served, melting ice chunks will throw of its balance as its being consumed. Because of these concerns, it’s one of the few cocktails that Cecchini double strains when he’s pouring it — both through a Hawthorn strainer and a tea strainer, so there’s no pulp or ice chunks when it’s served.
“If you shake it hard on good ice, you’re diluting it to 26%,” he says, “If you straight strain it with floating ice, it will continue to dilute and as it does, it will emphasize the sour more and more.” He says this is especially true if you’re using more Cointreau for extra sweetness, because as the ice shards dilute, the drink will get even more sour.
5. The Colder The Coupe, The Better
“Always a chilled couple,” Cecchini says, “If you’re gonna put a chilled drink into warm glass you’re gonna lose 15 degrees in a second––and that makes a big difference.” Asked about trying the drink in another format, such as on the rocks, he says, “I don’t do a sidecar on the rocks. It’s just not done.”
6. Garnish With A Lemon Twist
“Because it’s a lemon-based drink, I want a little of that fresh hit that you only get from the citrus oil that’s in the peel,” says Cecchini. After pouring into a chilled coup, he garnishes with a twist of lemon and the alcohol continues to draw those citrus oils from the peel that add another flavor note to the cocktail.
7. Sugar The Rim At Your Own Risk
“What is your sense of fun if you don’t sugar the rim?” was the common thinking, Cecchini recalls, but in drinking it, he found that the sugar rim throws the drink off. “If you get the drink right, then put it in a glass with a sugar rim, it fucks it up,” he says, “Do you make the drink too sharp to adjust to the sugar rim? Then what happens when half a drink is left, and the sugar is gone?” He says the few he judged that had a sugar rim didn’t work because they were out of balance, and the only ones that worked were the ones that scrapped the sugar rim. “Make the drink right and make it beautiful,” says Cecchini, “because it’s a fine line between too shrill, and too sweet.” His recommendation is to “balance the drink to where you’d want it and then skip the sugar rim.”
8. Don’t Be Afraid To Make It Your Own
“Common sense applies here as with any drink,” says Cecchini, “and every recipe is a suggestion.” Try putting more Cointreau in, or a dollop of simple syrup if you prefer it. “You have to play around with any drink to make it fit your palate,” he says. Within the Sidecar, you can change the Cognac and the Cointreau, but the lemon juice is the only constant. “Use any triple sec, try dozens of different kinds of Cognacs, because all you really need is a brandy, a souring agent, and just the degree of sweetness that you prefer––everyone has to dial that in for themselves.”
The Classic Sidecar Recipe
2 ounces of young Cognac1 ounce of fresh lemon juice1 ounce of Cointreau or your preference of orange liqueur
Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously. Double-strain into a chilled coupe glass.Garnish with a twist of lemon. Party like it’s 1923.