On the Rocks
It started with a kir royale at Pix Pâtisserie. Then it was a cava cocktail at Toro Bravo.
I've always been the type of person who scans dessert menus, looking for whatever has the most chocolate. More recently I've been making quick work of elaborate cocktail lists by skimming for anything that contains sparkling wine.
Sometimes there isn't anything. But quite a few Portland drink makers recognize the potential of champagne and its cognates - prosecco, cava, sekt - as a mixer.
Partially this is the result of an increasingly avid interest in the history of mixed drinks. In the cocktail's pre-Prohibition golden age, champagne commonly was mixed with liqueurs and bitters, and the classic champagne cocktail - champagne, a sugar cube and a dash of bitters - remains one of the most elegant drinks of all time.
The French 75 caught the imagination of Timothy Krawczuk (he goes by T.K.), a longtime bartender who opened Echo (225 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.) in 2004. Lemon juice, gin and bubbly are the building blocks of the French 75, which is named for a World War I-era cannon.
'The idea is, it's a big gun,' Krawczuk says. 'It's going to screw you up.'
His version, however, is quite genteel. It's a light, summery drink, served on the rocks in a vintage glass.
'For me, I went simple, fresh, easy,' Krawczuk says of his recipe. 'I don't want to get too crazy and add too many things, 'cause it just gets syrupy and weird.'
Another favorite, he says, is vodka and white grape juice with a float of sparkling wine on top. 'You can mix almost anything with champagne,' he says. 'It just makes it fizzy and good and bubbly and delicious.'
The French 75 also is the recommendation of Deane Patton, a knowledgeable Australian who works at the Palm Court bar in the lobby of the Benson Hotel (309 S.W. Broadway).
The Palm Court version is served straight up, in a champagne glass, with a twist. It's sophisticated, just a bit tart, in keeping with the stateliness of the hotel, which was built in 1913.
Patton is enthusiastic about the flexibility of champagne. Just about any fruit, she says, can be used for the basis of a lovely libation. Soak fruit overnight with sugar and either vodka or Everclear, she says, and use the mixture as a base for a sparkling wine cocktail. Cherries, raspberries, lemons and oranges all work well, adding both flavor and color.
If you want to invent your own cocktail, a good trick is simply to take a classic and top it off with sparkling wine. I'm not saying this will work every time, and it could even be an unmitigated disaster, but I've had some fine examples.
The Cricket Cafe (3159 S.E. Belmont St.), which specializes in the hair of the dog, makes a Brunch Fizzyrita (basically, a margarita with sparkling wine) that will knock you from Sunday morning right back into Saturday night.
Perhaps the best aperitif I've ever had in my life was at Park Kitchen (422 N.W. Eighth Ave.). Its base was the already complex Negroni (Campari, gin and sweet vermouth), topped off with bubbly.
More recently, I stopped by the French restaurant Fenouil (900 N.W. 11th Ave.). The banquettes in the bar are so cushy, you sink almost too far into them. On a Sunday evening at dusk, a three-piece jazz band plays in the foyer and orchids decorate the room.
The poetically named Fleur Petillante (French for 'sparkling flower') is a drink to fit the mood: glowing, rosy, with a delicate, slightly sweet, yet herbal flavor. The sweetness comes from Parfait Amour (a liqueur with vanilla, oranges, almonds and roses) and rose syrup, the herbal hints from gin, and the lively texture from sparkling wine.
Spring is an effervescent time. This is a drink to match.