There is something that has bothered me since I began bartending 12 years ago and that is the typically unquestioned use of the champagne flute for most sparkling wine and champagne cocktails.
During the cocktail dark ages (70’s-80’s) champagne was still often being sipped from a coupe, even if it was made of plastic, and champagne cocktails were something that Cary Grant drank in the 40’s-50’s…but he and everyone else generally drank them out of coupes or other cocktail glasses. The champagne and sparkling cocktail made a big comeback with the cocktail revolution 20 years later, but somehow the coupe got left behind.
Wine had it’s renaissance in the US around the time of the cocktail dark ages and flutes rapidly took the place of coupes for sipping your bubbles, even if they were plastic. It made more sense to drink sparkling wines from something that would keep those bubbles from dissipating quickly and direct those wonderful aromas to your nose. The aesthetics of either glass for sparkling are a matter of personal taste, but flutes did allow the bubbles to put on a long show up the glass to freedom.
But even the flute is now falling out of favor for sipping champagne as a new wave of knowledgeable oenophiles abandon the flute for the even more bubbles friendly, yet aesthetic, tulip style glass.
All of this is great for enjoying sparkling wines, but what about sparkling wine cocktails? It seems that most of the cocktail revolutionaries that helped stoke the cocktail renaissance just opted for the flute when making champagne cocktails as it was de rigueur and those revolutionaries were just getting on their feet. It seemed appropriate. This isn’t to say that they are never made in coupes or other glassware, but the trend and go-to glass was, and still is, the flute for the bulk champagne/sparkling wine cocktails. Doing a quick search for champagne or other sparkling wine cocktails, one sees that most tend to be photographed in flutes. Every bar but one that I have worked in that served all sparkling cocktails served them in flutes.
Before we get into the discussion on glassware I would like to loosely define a few things.
What is a champagne cocktail? For the purposes of this discussion and to avoid confusion at this point, I would like to define a ‘champagne cocktail’ as any drink that includes champagne or sparkling wine as an ingredient or the base ingredient of a more complex mixture. The true and narrow definition of the named drink, Champagne Cocktail, is that it is a like a strict cocktail (sugar, bitters, spirit) with champagne filling in for the spirits. Yes, some add brandy as well as champagne.
Some commonly known Sparkling Wine/Champagne cocktails
There are hundreds more and they keep coming as many talented mixologists keep creating riffs and new cocktails made with sparkling wine. Sparkling wines are also often used in punches. Sparkling wines can be used as a luxury replacement for sodas in many drinks. It is a great way to stretch out a cocktail and or lighten it up. The acidity of a brut or dry champagne can be used to balance any extra sweetness of sugars in syrups, juices and liqueurs. It certainly has no limits to it’s use in cocktails except what I see as the generally limited functionality of the flute.
Now why would the flute be better for champagne but not necessarily better for cocktails?
Let’s start with the accepted reasons it is better for champagne.
A fluted glass focuses bubbles and aroma to your nose. Those aromas are part of the experience and pleasure of a well made sparkling wine. The flute is narrow so it focuses those bubbles to your nose and palate and also, since it is narrow, won’t diffuse those bubbles and get flat quite as fast in a room temp glass. Like wine glassware, they aren’t meant to be filled to, or close to, the rim allowing for the aromas to gather in the upper part of the glass. About 3/4 or 3/5 full is about right for a proper pour of sparkling wine.
Those two reasons are the biggest for using flutes over coupes for sparkling wine. Other reasons are the aesthetics of the bubbles flowing up the glass to the top..it does look elegant.
But for cocktails and other drinks that use sparkling wine, in my opinion, coupes and other similar cocktail glassware fare much better than flutes in aesthetics as well as functionality. The champagne cocktail also opens the door to using other styles of glassware. Collins and other long drink glasses, large rocks or double old fashioneds, wine glasses and goblets can be wonderful when making a champagne/sparkling cocktail. Once sparkling wine begins to mix, it can be free to extend it’s realm to all kinds of glassware appropriate for each mixture and flutes are not made to contain ice.
COUPES vs FLUTES
Coupes were and are used for cocktails today as well as for cocktails and champagne during the classical period of mixology leading up to prohibition and during prohibition in Europe. They are better suited for champagne cocktails than for champagne for several reasons.
In lieu of unlimited refrigeration space, coupes and other cocktail glassware can be pre-chilled with ice much more easily, and thus faster, than flutes. Flute are generally not, if ever, chilled in most bars and restaurants since they are often doing double duty for cocktails and champagne service as well as part of the refrigeration space concern mentioned above. Flutes should not be chilled for wine service, but should be for cocktail service.
The coupe offers a larger surface for the number of complementary added aromas that are generally present in cocktails. Champagne aromas can often be much more subtle and thus require the narrow mouth of the tulip or flute to collect them. Cocktail aromas often need more space to work with that champagne just won’t stand up in.
The coupe offers easier accessibility and space for the bartender to work with, also making it faster and easier to make and mix drinks in them.
The tall narrow nature of the flute often requires more manipulation with a spoon or other tool to mix properly. Over manipulation and stirring is also an enemy of bubbles. Even worse is the light shake or rolling to mix carbonated drinks I often see in many bars.
Coupes drain in a more aesthetically pleasing way. By that I mean when a Mimosa is half drunk, it leaves orange matter from the bubbles along the inside of the long iceless glass. This generally happens when fruit, juice and sugars are mixed with sparkling wine.
The flute is not a very stable glass to mix in or work with in a busy bar.
A coupe is also arguably easier to drink cocktails from. When sipping from a flute you must cock your head back the more the flute becomes drained. This is greatly diminished with a shallow glass like the coupe and better for drinking cocktails.
HEAT IS THE ENEMY OF THE BUBBLE
Since a coupe is easier to chill (in lieu of unlimited glassware refrigeration most bars and homes don’t have), using a coupe makes more functional sense. Chilling the glass before pouring anything straight up into it helps diminish the loss of carbonation for sparkling drinks and also assists in maintaining the chill of any drink served up. This helps sustain that effervescence because the more a liquid warms or is warm, the more it wants to expand. That means pouring cold bubbles into warm glasses of any kind makes those bubbles fly away faster upon impact. Chilling your glass and anything that goes into your glass makes an enormous difference to any drink that uses sodas or sparkling wines.
When one adds carbonated things to non-carbonated things or vice versa, the result is immediately diminished carbonation regardless of the chill factors mentioned above.
This means there are a many things at work against the carbonation of your drink. Some we can diminish and some we cannot, so it is imperative to attend to those few details that can help your cocktail be at it’s best. The coupe and other glassware can really have the advantage over a flute in these cases.
EVERYBODY MUST GET CHILLED
CHILL YOUR BASE
Chilling the base ingredients with a quick stir over ice before adding them to any glass to be topped with bubbles is a very important, yet overlooked, step in keeping your sparkling cocktail, sparkling.
CHILL YOUR SPARKLING
Make sure your carbonated ingredients are well chilled beforehand as well. That means your Prosecco, club soda, 7 Up, Ginger Beer, tonic etc…As explained above, warm soda falls flat fast, is difficult to work with and also stresses your ice. Having a flat and weak Gin and Tonic with already worn out ice floating to the top may as well have the nasty brown lime from the garnish tray thrown on it to finish the effect.
CHILL YOUR GLASS
Your coupe or cocktail glass must be chilled. Just fill with ice along with a little water and let it sit while you go ahead and mix your drink. Generally the glass is chilled enough by the time you have your drink mixed and are ready to pour it. Dump the ice water. A couple of quick shakes of the coupe or cocktail glass will remove most of the remaining drops.
NOT ONLY COUPES…
While I sing the praises of the coupe over the flute for champagne cocktails without ice, I also love using other styles of glassware. Tall glasses for sparkling long drinks, large sized rocks glasses, wine goblets and glasses. A Mimosa served in a tall glass on ice is delicious, cold, and wonderful looking. It also gives you the space to add the non-alcoholic mixers and garnishes, while still having room for the champagne to make a drink that fits in it’s space and won’t be drained in 3 seconds flat, or be flat in 3 seconds flat. These are also the perfect style drink to use large cubed ice. The large ice melts slowly and takes up less space, while maintaining the chill and carbonation you want down to the last sip.
This is the time when calling your cocktails ‘coolers’ and ‘spritzers’ may seem more appropriate. The Aperol Spritz is getting fantastically popular now, to the point of marginalization, but really is a delicious, fun, beautiful, low alcohol drink and style. Perfect for making in a chilled coupe, or over ice in a tall glass or wine glass with a slice of orange and/or a splash or fresh orange or grapefruit juice. I cannot think of a sparkling wine cocktail that seems completely inappropriate served on ice in any of these glasses, with the possible exception of the classic Champagne Cocktail.
I love glassware and choosing the proper one is very important to the function, as well as form, of all your drinks and cocktails.
Here is an updated version of a cocktail I did in 2013. I substituted Prosecco for Club Soda