Sidecars with Dave Wondrich, Harry’s New York Bar, Paris, 2005

by Gaz Regan · Thursday, January 12th, 2012 · Barroom Flashbacks

This piece was written for the Museum of the American Cocktail’s web site in 2005, and it marks the occasion on which I first discovered that Dave Wondrich is such a cheap bastard.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  I love Wondrich like a brother, and I find that time spent with him is time that’s very well spent indeed.  And the fact that he’s so damned cheap gives me, well, it gives me something to rag him about.  And because I’m so very, very generous, I even allow Dave gets to weigh in on the subject at the end of this piece.

Sidecars with Wondrich, Harry’s New York Bar, 2005

I’m sure that Gilles, the bartender who served Dave Wondrich and me during a recent visit to the birthplace of the Bloody Mary, makes wonderful mixtures of vodka, tomato juice, lemon juice, and various sauces and spices, but I’ll probably never know for sure.  Not a fan of the drink, personally. Wondrich neither. We opted for Sidecars instead. The drink was, after all, invented in the City of Lights, though nobody seems to know exactly where. At least we knew what we were doing–more than can be said of the two women from Boston who sat at the bar drinking Bellinis believing they were in the birthplace of that wonderful drink. No doubt there were people in Harry’s Bar, Venice, sipping Bloody Marys, too . . .

Originally we’d planned to seek out the best Sidecar in Paris–a somewhat formidable task–but time was tight. We were leaving to tour cognac distilleries the following morning, so we sampled the cocktail in only two bars–the Hemmingway Bar at the Paris Ritz was the venue for our second round, or should I say third, forth, and fifth rounds. Two drinks each at Harry’s, and another three, or maybe four, made by Colin Fields’ marvelous staff at the Ritz. (Colin Fields, the head barman at the Paris Ritz, was a guy I’d known only by e-mail until that evening. I was happy to discover that my suspicions were correct–he’s one helluva great guy, and a wonderful bartender, too.)

Personally I’d planned to take it easy, but that Wondrich guy shot down his first cocktail at Harry’s as though he’d been stranded on the Alps for three weeks and a St. Bernard had just arrived. I couldn’t let the lad drink his second quaff alone, now, could I? By the time we got to the Ritz we had food in our stomachs, it was late in the evening, and we didn’t want to offend the staff by having only one drink after we’d traveled so far to be in such an illustrious bar. Besides, we were on a cognac trip, and someone else was picking up the tab, so what the hey . . .

Wondrich and I tend to be pretty much whiskey freaks–he’s a straight rye man whereas I usually favor bourbon–so although neither of us goes so far as to avoid cognac, this trip provided a great opportunity for us both to focus our attention on the spirit of the grape, rather than the grain. Very interesting it was, too. The French distillers really know what they’re doing.

I searched my cocktail database when I arrived home from the trip, and found lots of very distinguished cocktail recipes with a cognac base. The Betsy Ross, Between the Sheets, and the Brandy Alexander, of course–stop rolling your eyes, it’s a great drink if you don’t kill it with too much crème de cacao. Café Brûlot is an incredible drink, too, and if you ever find yourself at Commander’s Palace in the Big Easy (while visiting the museum, naturally), don’t leave without sampling their version. They serve the quintessential Café Brûlot.

Even the Sazerac, one of God’s greatest gifts to us mortal imbibers, originally contained cognac, but the base spirit was changed to straight rye whiskey at some point toward the end of the 1800s, perhaps a result of a shortage of cognac due to the phylloxera epidemic that decimated the vineyards of France around the same time. And then there’s the Stinger, yet another wonderful, if simple, cocktail, that sips very well indeed if it’s made with good cognac and just a touch of white crème de menthe.

Sipping Sidecars, Side by Side
The Sidecar, though, remains my favorite cognac-based cocktail, and the versions we sipped at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris that day slid down our throats easily, releasing a beautiful late afternoon glow that lasted throughout our trip to France–the people in the cognac industry were eager for us to sample as many bottlings as possible, and we were eager to please them. They were, after all, footing the bill.

And speaking of footing the bill, I feel it necessary to point out that Wondrich never did dip his hand into his pocket at Harry’s. “I’ll get these,” I told him, expecting at least a little protestation, but no, Dave thanked me kindly, and reminded me to tip large. We were, after all, representing cocktailians from the U. S. of A. I’ll be seeing the lad again, though, and I’ll be sure to make my way to the men’s room when the tab is presented next time. It’s an art I’ve more or less perfected over the years.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t had yourself a Sidecar recently, mix one up right now, and make sure you use lots of good cognac–the cocktail will be sublime, and the guys in France will be able to bring more thirsty cocktail writers to their wonderful country. Once they’ve recovered from our trip.

Words from Wondrich

Please allow me to clear up one small point. No, I did not make a counter-offer when Mr. Regan offered to buy the drinks at Harry’s Bar. As those who know me will attest, I have NEVER bought a round of drinks in my life, nor, as long as my sinews remain strong and my nerves swift, SHALL I EVER do so in the future.

Nor do I purchase drams or mixed drinks for myself in public houses or keep any sort of spirituous or otherwise alcoholic beverage in my home. Drinking alcoholic beverages is a low, base and therefore disgusting habit, and I do not wish to subsidize those who seek to extend its sway. However, since I have been blessed by nature with an unusual capacity to absorb such beverages without outward marks or inward effects of intoxication, when I find myself in the company of some poor, benighted soul who is hell-bent on self-destruction through liquid ingestion, I consider it my moral and Christian duty to divert as many of that sad sinner’s financial resources as I can from their devilish uses.

Indeed, I sacrifice myself that he or she may live: every drink a lost lamb such as Gary Regan cannot buy himself because he has spent the money it would cost on me is one less mark against his name in the Great Book of Judgment.

I’m glad we’ve got that straight.

And Gilles certainly does make a fine, fine Sidecar. Comes in these nice little glasses, and he holds the shaker just like Old Harry MacElhone used to in the old pictures.

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