Bittersweetness and light: New Year’s Eve cocktails

Bust of the double-headed Roman god Janus, Vatican museum. The month of January, also facing two ways, forward and back, is named after him. Credit: Fubar Obfusco (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

I began hating New Year somewhere in my teens and it took me years to make some sort of accommodation with it. After weeks of hoo-ha and feasting, rarely a quiet moment alone, there’s this. I enjoy the long Christmas, there’s much to be said for a spell of eating, drinking and irrational, even stupid cheerfulness, but after a while you  begin to at least half-crave some temperance and a book. Then there’s the unappealing atmosphere if you go out, the crowded and expensive mediocrity, the profiteering, the inept conviviality of inexperienced partygoers having their annual night out; the shrill and brittle end-of-term hilarity, just a little too effortful, not really convincing. Finally, you wake up on the first day of the year feeling crapulous, cheated and morbid. Another year dead, never to be relived; a new year begun with torpor and regret.

‘Such a man will undertake anything; he is without skill in inebriation.’ (Samuel Johnson.)

As with most things, you need to find your method and develop a technique. Everyone’s is different, but for me it’s based on thinking of it as if I’m going to be shot the next day; put up a front, dress a bit more smartly, cultivate some gallows humour, and then think about my last meal.

New Year’s Eve cocktails

Bittersweetness seems like a good match in drinks, that or sweet and sour. For the latter, try the Sidecar or similar; read about it here. This year it’ll be bittersweet cocktails, for the most part.

The Negroni

This is very bitter, very sweet, pleasingly bracing, and very good. I think it makes a good winter cocktail, being weighty but invigorating.

  • 1 part Campari
  • 1 part sweet vermouth
  • 1 part gin

You can either stir the mixed ingredients with ice (cubes) for about twenty seconds and strain into a cocktail glass, or serve it in an Old Fashioned glass (tumbler) with ice. Add a twist of orange peel. (Note: some recipes double up on the gin.)

It’s worth using a good, strong gin and the best vermouth you can find/afford. Michael Dietsch discusses the best gins here.

For a simpler, lighter cocktail, try the Americano, which is just Campari and sweet vermouth topped with soda. I think it’s more of a summer drink, but if you’re already feeling liverish it’s easier on the body.

The Champagne Cocktail

As elegant and agreeable a drink as you could ask for before they tie the blindfold on.

  • 1 teaspoon brandy (optional)
  • 1 sugar cube
  • a few dashes of Angostura bitters
  • a few ounces of Champagne

Put the sugar cube into a Champagne glass; I much prefer a coupe glass. Add a few dashes of bitters to the sugar (some recipes say to soak it). Add the brandy—I always include it—and leave to rest briefly so the sugar and brandy soak together (this is my method and others differ). Top up with Champagne, pouring slowly as the sugar will make it fizz. You can decorate it with a slice of orange, but I don’t.

If you substitute something for Champagne, don’t use Prosecco, it’s not dry or substantial enough. You’d be better off with one of the New World sparkling wines made in collaboration with traditional French Champagne houses, e.g. Cloudy Bay Pelorus.

Black Velvet

Fortifying, oddly appealing, and a fantastic waste of Champagne.

  • 1 part Champagne
  • 1 part stout, e.g. Guinness

He opened bottles and began mixing stout and champagne in a deep jug. ‘Blackers?’ They had always drunk this sour and invigorating draught.1

A note on sparkling wine

Champagne is expensive and the cheaper Champagnes are often poor value and can be terrible. Prosecco is frequently drunk instead and is understandably popular, but it is quite different and there are closer substitutes. In France itself some very good sparkling wine is made outside Champagne, for example, in the Loire Valley, in Alsace, and in Limoux; they are generally called crémants. Some excellent sparkling wine is also made in the New World, where a number of old Champagne houses have set up collaborations with local winemakers. Then there’s Franciacorta (fran-cha-kor-tah), which is the closest thing to Italian ‘Champagne’—it uses similar grapes and the metodo classico (i.e. méthode champenoise. These wines are better value than cheap Champagne and can offer something a bit more interesting, characterful and in some cases Champagne-like than the ubiquitous Prosecco, which is made differently.

That Was New Year’s Eve

Then there’s just New Year’s Day to get through with reasonable good humour. That, too, is possible.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, December 2014)

1. Evelyn Waugh 1940 Put Out More Flags (Harmondsworth: Penguin)

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