This bourbon-based champagne cocktail brightens up the holidays
Like bourbon? And champagne? Then we’ve got just the drink for you.
The Seelbach was invented around 1917 as the signature cocktail of the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. Rumor has it that F. Scott Fitzgerald hung out at the hotel bar while writing The Great Gatsby (remember, Daisy Buchanan hailed from Louisville). And that Gatsby character? He may have been inspired by a gangster Fitzgerald met there—presumably while enjoying this flavorful elixir.
True story? Who knows? What we do know is that sometime during Prohibition (when the hotel was forced to close its bar), the recipe for this drink was lost. Then a hotel manager rediscovered it in 1995.
Lucky for us. Because on Kitchen Riffs this year, we’ll be doing nothing but cookies and cocktails from now until Christmas. As a bonus, all the cocktails will be made with champagne (or sparkling wine, to be more precise).
So stock up on bubbly and grab your party hat. As Gatsby might say, “Time to enjoy some holiday cheer, old sport.”
Recipe: The Seelbach Cocktail
In addition to bourbon and sparkling wine, you need Cointreau (or another triple sec) and two different bitters for this drink: Angostura and Peychaud’s Bitters. You can find Angostura bitters at any liquor store and many supermarkets. You may have to hunt for Peychaud’s Bitters, though a good liquor store will carry them.
Cocktails are better when made with quality ingredients, but you needn’t go overboard on the bubbly. Any decent sparkling wine (preferably a brut or dry Spanish cava) will work fine. More about bubbly choices in the Notes.
We have Gary and Mardee Regan to thank for the Seelbach recipe. That’s because, when the folks at the Seelbach Hotel rediscovered it in 1995, they originally wanted to keep it secret. Gary and Mardee Regan were the ones who persuaded them to share it. In 1997, the Regans published the recipe for the Seelbach in New Classic Cocktails.
- 1 ounce bourbon whiskey (see Notes)
- ½ ounce Cointreau (see Notes)
- 7 dashes Angostura bitters
- 7 dashes Peychaud's bitters
- 5 ounces sparkling wine (see Notes)
- orange or lemon twist for garnish (optional)
- You don’t really mix this drink. Instead, you “build” it. That is, you add the ingredients—in the order specified—to a champagne flute. The order for adding ingredients is: bourbon, then Cointreau, then dashes of Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters. Then you carefully pour in the sparkling wine.
- Add an orange or lemon twist for garnish, and serve.
|Peychaud's and Angostura Bitters with Seelbach Cocktail|
- There’s a version of this recipe that uses ¾ ounce of bourbon (instead of 1 ounce as specified in this recipe) and 4 ounces of sparkling wine (instead of 5). I don’t discern much difference between the two versions, but you might.
- I usually don’t measure the amount of sparkling wine when I make this drink—I just pour until the glass is pleasantly full. But that comes pretty close to the 5 ounces specified.
- Cointreau is the original “triple sec”—and it’s expensive. You can substitute a less costly generic brand (the bottle will probably just say triple sec). The flavor won’t be as good, but it should work OK in this drink.
- According to the Regans, the original recipe for this drink specified Old Forester bourbon and Korbel Brut sparkling wine. But any full-bodied bourbon will work fine. My current preference is Buffalo Trace, though any name-brand bourbon should be OK. Likewise any decent (inexpensive) sparkling wine.
- Under European law, only sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region of northeastern France (and is bottled under certain conditions) can be sold as “champagne.”
- Champagne gets its characteristic bubbles because it undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle—a technique called “méthode champenoise.” By European law, that wording can now be used only to describe sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region. Other sparkling wines made in the same way must use the nomenclature “méthode traditionnelle” or “fermented in the bottle,” or the equivalent.
- It’s difficult to find true champagne in the US for under $30 a bottle. But most of the decent sparkling wines made in the US (and all the cavas made in Spain) are fermented in the bottle. Many of these sparklers rival champagne in flavor.
- For this drink, Korbel brut is fine, and that’s usually priced in the lower teens. Domaine Ste.-Michelle is another decent (and modestly priced) domestic brand.
- Spanish cavas can be even less expensive, often selling in the $8 to $9 range. Cordorniu and/or Freixenet can be found in most grocery stores.
- My favorite un-champagne in this price range is Saint-Hilaire (the full name is Saint-Hilaire, Blanquette de Limoux), which is made in a Benedictine Abbey in southwestern France. This wine actually predates champagne and is in fact France’s oldest sparkling wine. Thomas Jefferson loved it, and served it to guests when he was president. It typically costs $13 or $14 in the US (though friends tell us it can be had for $10 at Costco).
- Lots of options here. My advice? Just drop by your local wine store and tell them you need “champagne” for cocktails, then ask what they recommend in the $10-or-so range. They’ll usually have several good suggestions.
“Is it true that Fitzgerald drank these at the Seelbach Hotel?” asked Mrs Kitchen Riffs, sipping her cocktail.
“Well, he definitely spent some time in Louisville,” I said. “And knowing his fondness for all things alcoholic, I’d be surprised if he didn’t check out the Seelbach bar—and this drink.”
“Speaking of alcohol, I just finished re-reading The Sun Also Rises,” said Mrs K R. “I’d say Hemingway could knock them back too. In between bullfights and Lost Generation debauchery, that is.”
“Indeed,” I said. “You’ll be interested to know that he even invented a drink that uses champagne.”
“Perfect for our cookies-and-cocktails series,” said Mrs K R.
“If we had room for it,” I said. “We’re running out of space between now and Christmas—too many other cocktails I want to do.”
“But we always do a cocktail the first Wednesday of every month,” said Mrs K R. “And the next ‘first Wednesday’ just happens to fall on January 1, 2014 .”
“So we can post about Hemingway’s champagne drink then,” I said. “Great way to extend the holiday festivities.”
“I knew you’d see it that way, old sport,” said Mrs K R, raising her glass.
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