Sidecar cocktails

Picture this: six hedonistic gentlemen in Provincetown, Cape Cod late September; nestling into a cultivated ambience of maritime antiquity, dissolving from the Tea Dance at the nearby iconic Boat Slip; dining upstairs in a restaurant on Commercial Street overlooking Cape Cod Bay.  The customary perfect, dry, warm weather abounds, the declining sunset over the dunes. After dinner at table, Johnnie nudges me, inviting me to retreat with him to the quiet bar adjoining. We do so. No doubt I lit a Winston cigarette en route to the dark mahogany bar to signify my retirement from the present scene.

The exact origin of the sidecar is unclear, but it is thought to have been invented around the end of World War I in either London or Paris. The drink was directly named for the motorcycle attachment, which was very commonly used back then.

The Ritz Hotel in Paris claims origin of the drink. The first recipes for the sidecar appear in 1922, in Harry MacElhone’s Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails and Robert Vermeire’s Cocktails and How to Mix Them. It is one of six basic drinks listed in David A. Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948).

In early editions of MacElhone’s book, he cites the inventor as Pat MacGarry, “the popular bartender at Buck’s Club, London”, but in later editions he cites himself. Vermiere states that the drink was “very popular in France. It was first introduced in London by MacGarry, the celebrated bartender of Buck’s Club.” Embury credits the invention of the drink to an American army captain in Paris during World War I and named after the motorcycle sidecar that the captain used.

At the bar Johnnie purposively approaches the bartender and asks whether she is familiar with the Side Car cocktail (which Johnnie insists derives from the Savoy Hotel). She is. She unhesitatingly creates the admixture, places the requisite square white paper napkins on the mahogany plateau before us then transfers the contents of the cocktail shaker into the frozen stemware. We take a sip, regarding one another playfully, eyes widened, as if having unfolded a puzzle. Magnificent!

The Side Car cocktail is in polite society a preprandial drink. Its constituents of Cognac and Cointreau do however nicely elevate the composition to a surprisingly adequate digestif. It is not a drink I have regularly ordered or served. Indeed the occasions on which I have drunk the cocktail are singular though memorable. If this endorsement appears to speak of hidden volatility, it is no accident. Side car cocktails are not for the pusillanimous! I jokingly quip that Side Car cocktails translate jet fuel into rocket fuel. This may render the appearance of the sharpness of a dry martini (to which most people initially require adjustment); but the stealth of the Side Car is not its toxicity but its remarkable agreeableness.

If I were to promote the ideal occasion for Side Car cocktails, my preference is luncheon. There is something about the immediacy of luncheon – an enterprise which seldom lingers much beyond the noon hour – which adequately controls its manufacture and distribution. Indeed a medical confederate of my erstwhile physician persists to this day to admonish me for having acquitted him of sobriety when I first introduced him to the concoction. It is a tolerable complaint but one whose evolution I am afraid he owes not to me but to his own gusto. The account succeeds as a reminder to handle the device gingerly.