Summer Sparklers: The wide, bubbly world of sparkling cocktails

Ted Kilgore talks about Camper English the way chefs swoon over Grant Achatz. In other words, he’s a die-hard mixologist.

“I used to drink a lot of beer, but eventually I was more into mixing things,” said Kilgore, a certified mixologist who hones his craft as bar manager of Monarch in Maplewood. Recently, we caught up with him to talk cocktails. Champagne, he said, is one of his top two favorite ingredients. The other is bourbon. Are you thinking what he’s thinking?

“Some people think it’s lunacy, but it’s not. It’s delicious,” said Kilgore about the combination of bourbon and Champagne. The Kentucky Jule, Kilgore’s contemporary homage to the Mint Julep, pairs this high-powered duo with Angostura bitters, sugar, pineapple juice and – last but not least – mint. Kilgore said The Kentucky Jule gets a lot of ladies drinking bourbon. He seemed pleased.

Old is good
As much as he likes to, well, mix things up, Kilgore also pledges allegiance to the old school. Last month he slipped behind the bars at Death and Co. and Please Don’t Tell, two speakeasy-style joints in Manhattan, for a tutorial in retro. At home, his cupboards store hundreds of vintage cocktail glasses, and the wide ties he wears to work look like posh takes on your grandmother’s couch. The Ideal Bartender, written in 1917 by a St. Louis Country Club bartender named Tom Bullock, is a tool to him, not a collector’s item.

“A lot of the classics, they don’t go away,” said Kilgore, leafing through his copy of Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide or How to Mix Drinks, published when Abraham Lincoln was in office. “The recipe for the Champagne Cocktail hasn’t changed since 1862,” he pointed out. Not that Kilgore needs a recipe, of course. He can recite the ingredients of everything from a classic Seelbach Cocktail to his very own Jasmine Smiles. Though it took him a minute to recall the name of another original concoction (Italian Star), its mix was on the tip of his tongue. “I blended a real nice peach liqueur and Disaronno amaretto, and then I used equal parts Prosecco and Moscato,” he said. Sparkling times two. Nice touch.

Everything tastes better with Champagne
Kilgore said a French 75 makes a good summer pick. “It’s like a delicious, sparkling lemonade in a Champagne glass.”

Kilgore also thinks highly of the Kir Royale, for which he favors crème de cassis above Chambord. When it comes to Bellinis, he likewise sticks to the book: fresh white peach purée (not schnapps) and Prosecco (not cava). “The best Bellinis definitely need a smaller bubble in my opinion. It makes it more silky and smooth. Once you get the basics down and you use fresh ingredients, all the simple cocktails like that are just new again,” he said.

Sparkling wine makes a bombshell substitute for soda water in just about anything you can imagine. “You take the basics and add Champagne and you just have a better drink,” Kilgore said. Veuve Clicquot is a love but not a must; he can also get the job done with Marquès de Gelida. Naturally, the sparkling element always goes on top. “You can’t shake it or stir it or you lose your bubbles. You want to have that pop,” he said.

Flavor also comes in the deal. “With club soda you’re just kind of adding fizziness and diluting the drink a little bit,” Kilgore said. This is not to say he doesn’t appreciate a good Tom Collins. He does. Unfortunately, not every bartender he meets can make a good one. It takes someone who knows the craft.

What will they think of next?
Nhat Nguyen and Steven Fitzpatrick Smith create cocktails that beg a second round. Both south St. Louis tavern owners put a premium on fresh juice when developing drink menus. At The Royale, Smith serves a pear juice and cava combo called Queen of the Hill. His namesake, Mr. Smith, is more potent, combining gin, lime juice and mint syrup with an effervescent ginger beer.

Opium, one of Nguyen’s edgy concoctions at Urban Cocktail Lounge, likewise gets its fizzy from Jamaican ginger beer. He found this nonalcoholic mixer at Jay International Foods on South Grand Boulevard, a place he often searches for inspiration. Next on his to-mix list are Jarritos.

“Crazy – really bright. They come in so many flavors,” said Nguyen of the Mexican bottled sodas. He thought mango might stand in well for sparkling water in something like a Tom Collins. “Usually my drinks have a fruity element to them, but there’s always a balance. I don’t really agree with putting sweet on top of sweet,” Nguyen said.

Just in time to quaff away the summer heat, Smith has come up with the St. Louis Starr, which gives lemon-kissed whiskey a pop via sparkling red wine. Look for it on The Royale’s summer menu, or go to for the recipe.

Also keep an eye out for O2 sparkling vodka, a brand-new spirit now making its way to the Illinois side of the St. Louis area, according to Tony McLaughlin, general manager of Randall’s Wine and Spirits in Fairview Heights, Ill. McLaughlin admitted he thinks the bubbly newcomer is “a lot weird.” His biggest concern is that it will lose its carbonation long before the bottle’s empty. Then there’s the fact that it’s 80 proof. “Your drinks are going to be stronger, and I don’t think people are going to realize that two vodka drinks could really be equal to more like six,” he said. Vodka tonics have tonic for a reason.

Kilgore also expressed doubts about sparkling vodka. Still, at some point he’ll be having a little O2 taste test/mix session. Can we come?

Sparklicious Picks

Not everyone likes cocktails, of course. Some prefer their bubbly straight. Understandable enough – just remember that life is short and the summer’s shorter. Venture outside your cava comfort zone already. And don’t forget the pinks, the reds and the adventures.

Because they’re worth it.
One of Marilyn Monroe’s headiest love affairs was with Dom Pérignon. You can drink an even better glass of stars. “Don’t get me wrong: Dom Pérignon has some great years – 1990, 1996 – but Bollinger will only produce in the great years,” said Paul Hayden, manager of The Wine and Cheese Place in Clayton. Bollinger RD 1995 tops his splurge list. Celebrity Champagnes rank much lower. The trend, said Hayden, favors growers’ Champagnes made by small, doting producers. Two swanky picks: Jean Laurent and Pierre Peters.

Jonathan Parker, owner of Parker’s Table in Clayton, is a fool for the sky-map complexity of Salon Le Mesnil wines. Art Harper is a Krug fan. “It’s one of the few Champagnes that I know of that truly can age,” said the 20-year salesman at Madinger Wines in Kirkwood. That doesn’t mean you should postpone your pleasure, though. A fancy-free summer night offers occasion enough.

A Champagne by any other name.
Short on discretionary cash? Raise a glass anyway. You’ve got a lot of drinking to do. “If you don’t have Champagne every day, it’s hard to appreciate the difference. You have to work your way up,” Parker said. Get something like the real thing from French winemakers who’ve set up shop in the States, suggested Ted Kilgore, bar manager at Monarch Restaurant in Maplewood. His top Champagne stand-in: Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut, instilled with a certain je ne sais quoi in California. Parker prefers the hand-riddled Bellavista Franciacorta sparklings, made in the Lombardy region of Italy, which have bubbles that are “fine and frequent.” Hayden admitted the chalky soil of the Champagne region yields wines with the yeastiest flavors and the finest effervescence, but if you bought him a bottle of the tight-bubbled Pierre Boniface Brut de Savoie, he’d pop it open in a heartbeat.

Pinky power.
So tickly, so bubbly … so girlie? “Men – especially in the United States – picture rosé as more feminine, but in reality it has more flavor. You shouldn’t be afraid to drink it,” Kilgore said. Harper is another real man who sports pink. “In a way, it’s the finest expression of Champagne there is,” he said. More and more oenophiles are catching on to this. Hayden said the demand for both Champagne rosés and their sparkling counterparts is increasing – along with their price. Better think pink soon. Andrew Traughber, owner of Bon Vivant in Columbia, Ill., likes to sip the 100 percent Pinot Noir-based Laurent-Perrier Rosé Brut, made with just a touch of skin contact using the saignée method. His pick under $25 was Domaine du Vieux Pressoir Saumur. Parker said the ultimate insider pick is Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé. And it just so happens that’s what Kilgore likes. “Yes, it’s pink, but I’ll drink it all day long.”

Daredevil reds.
“People can drink high fructose corn syrup all day long, but if a wine is sweet, they spit it out practically. And that’s not right. It’s socialization more than natural affinity,” Parker said. That said, don’t go stocking your fridge with Riunite Lambrusco. Screw, er, pop the top off something a little drier, more adventurous. For example, Rinaldi Brachetto d’Aqui (Hayden’s pick) or Elio Perrone Bigaro (a Brachetto-Moscato blend that Traughber likes). Also keep in mind that 21 million Australians might be right about sparkling Shiraz. Slightly spicy, the sixth continent’s go-to fizzy is brash, boozy and a bit of a shock. “It’s more confusing than anything else,” Harper said. Hayden agreed it could take some getting used to. “A dark, inky sparkling red is a little off-putting if you haven’t had them before,” he said. Get a good introduction to this controversial sparkler via Aussie Peter Rumball.

Fizzies with a twist.
Like to drink off the beaten path? Well, keep your eye out for sparkling sake. Marc Ventus, wine buyer at Provisions in Creve Coeur, has seen the interest in rice wine go up yearly. The specimen you’ll most likely come across is Gekkeikan Zipang. Yes, this wine has a tropical flavor and froths like a Bud, but you just said you were in the mood for something different. While you’re pushing the boundaries of bubbly, get a load of Deus Brut des Flandres Cuvée Prestige 2005. This beer is brewed in Belgium, shipped to France and then aged like Champagne in the epicenter of sparkling wine itself. Hayden said it debuted in the Midwest just months ago.
– A.S.