On November 26, 1942, the iconic movie Casablanca premiered so we’ll be mixing the Champagne cocktail in honor of the film. After all, it’s not every day that you get a hard-drinking actor like Humphrey Bogart starring opposite Ingrid Bergman in a movie set within the confines of a seedy night club during World War II. They even had a piano player named Sam.
Casablanca gets special respect from the Editorial Board at The Drunkard’s Almanac. Besides the fact that most of the film occurs in a bar, the following exchange (here’s the scene) reflects our philosophy:
Major Strasser: “What is your nationality?”
Rick: “I’m a drunkard.”
Captain Renault: “That makes Rick a citizen of the world.”
Nobody expected much of Casablanca, but it went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and leave us with lines that have entered the vernacular. Even if one of them is mythical, never spoken in the movie. But we’ll set the record straight and explain the Champagne cocktail recipe.
Casablanca, the Movie
The movie Casablanca was adapted from Everybody Comes to Rick’s, a play that Warner Brothers bought to create the movie. Rick was the expat owner of Rick’s Café Américain, a nightclub and gambling den in Casablanca. Rick was, of course, played by Humphrey Bogart.
Rick’s café was full of German and Vichy French officials, refugees, and shady characters that preyed on all of them. Rick himself was a hardened, cynical man. One night his former love interest Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman, enters the place and spots the house pianist, Sam. She says, “Play it Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’” Rick is furious that Sam has disobeyed his order to never play that song again and is stunned to see Ilsa along with her husband Victor Laszlo. Nobody ever says “play it again, Sam.” It’s just an urban legend, but plenty of drama ensues.
The Axis powers are after Victor for his work in the Resistance. Victor also knows that Rick has ill-gotten “letters of transit” and tries to persuade him to take Ilsa away to safety. Louis Renault, the corrupt prefect of police, eventually arrests Victor on trumped up charges. But Rick convinces Renault to release Victor by promising to set him up for a more serious crime – the papers. Rick allays Renault’s skepticism by explaining that he will run off to America with Ilsa.
Naturally, it doesn’t quite work out like that. When Renault tries to arrest Laszlo as arranged, Rick pulls out a gun and forces him to assist in the escape. And at the last moment, Rick sends Ilsa onto the plane with Victor. A Nazi official shows up and Rick shoots him. More police arrive, and instead of arresting Rick, Renault pauses briefly and orders them to “round up the usual suspects.”
Drinking in Casablanca and the Champagne Cocktail
Let’s face it, Casablanca was set in a bar in French-controlled northern Africa during the war. So there was plenty of drinking. Rick, self-deprecating in his cynical way, uttered one of his most famous lines when describing Ilsa’s arrival: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
A lot of the customers were refugees from Europe, and they largely drank classic spirits from home – cognac, brandy, triple sec. Americans like Rick leaned toward drinks like bourbon, and he kept a bottle for his private use. Being a nightclub, however, Champagne flowed freely among the more flamboyant characters.
But only two actual cocktails appear in the movie. When Rick’s spurned girlfriend Yvonne show up with her new Nazi boyfriend he orders a French 75. Ironic, of course, as the drink is named after the French field cannon used so effectively against Germany in World War I. The other cocktail order came from Victor Laszlo, who asked for a Champagne cocktail. It’s the obvious choice for Drink of the Day.
The Champagne cocktail recipe itself is straightforward. But if you’re going to do it right you need to turn away from the Champagne flutes you likely have lurking among your glassware. You need to use a coupe. In those days Champagne as well as its namesake cocktail were drunk from a coupe. It should be among the workhorse glasses of your bar and the first to turn to when making shaken cocktails. Here’s the coupe we picture and employ for any number of drinks.
Finally, we should note that the Champagne cocktail recipe is more a template than a precise formula. The Champagne, sugar and bitters are required, but Cognac is a variable. Sometimes used, sometimes not, we feel it improves the drink. While it’s unclear which way they leaned in Casablanca, they weren’t far from France so we like to think they drank all the Cognac they could.
- If you have sugar cubes, place one in a spoon and soak it with a few dashes of Angostura bitters. Drop soaked cube into glass.
- If using granulated sugar place half teaspoon into glass and add two dashes bitters.
- Add Cognac if using, anywhere from a half to full ounce.
- Top with chilled Champagne.
- Watch Casablanca.