This post could just as easily have been titled 'Maybe I've been making this drink wrong for years'.
I recently picked up Mark Spivak's Iconic Spirits. I haven't had the chance to read it yet, unless you count looking through the recipes as reading (which would greatly increase the amount of books I've read). In this book, each chapter deals with a spirit and concludes with a handful of drinks which feature that spirit. The Seelbach follows the section on bourbon.
I've long been a fan of the Seelbach. There aren't a ton of Champagne and bourbon cocktails out there and that one really hits the mark. I first came across the Seelbach in Ted Haigh's excellent Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails. Ingredients-wise the drink is pretty simple: bourbon, Cointreau, bitters and Champagne. The bitters in that recipe however, are not deployed subtly. Seven dashes each of Angostura and Peychaud's. This allows them to do more than just tie things together and play off of existing flavors. At seven dashes a piece they become a legitimate and significant flavor*.
And that's not a bad thing. However, this bit from Spivak's introduction to the drink piqued my curiosity:
"There are many different recipes for the famous Seelbach cocktail. The following version was described to me by Julie DeFriend, maitre d' and sommelier at the Oakroom at the Seelbach. It is her understanding of the way the cocktail was originally served."
A recipe follows which includes the usual suspects but for the bitters seven drops, not dashes, of Angostura and Peychaud's are called for. That is a significant difference. Also worth noting is the amount of bourbon in this recipe. Here we get a full 2 oz. Most recipes out there call for 3/4 oz or 1 oz.
Haigh's recipe also came from an employee at the Seelbach, so the provenance of both versions is similar.
Experiments were definitely in order.
Tasting notes - The warm spices of Angostura jump to the front of the version using dashes and inform the bulk of the drink's flavor from beginning to end. I used Old Grand-Dad bonded for the bourbon and that peaks through adding its own spice and just a little bit of heat. Peychaud's brightens and adds some zippy, fruity notes while tying things in with the sparkling wine.
The one made with bitters by the drop was a decidedly more bourbon-heavy affair. Not surprising since it has double the bourbon and less than a seventh of the bitters of the other version. The bitters are certainly present in this one though, they inform the flavor and function as accents. The Cointreau comes through a bit more in this one as well.
I like them both and the contrast between the two is interesting. There's a temptation to say the dashes version is heavier. It does have a weight to it and is heavily influenced by the Angostura. The amount of bourbon in the drops version though contributes its own weight and heat and spice and while it's lighter on the tongue it has, as David Embury would say, 'a shorter reaction time.'
I don't know which version is the most authentic. Cases could probably be made for both. They're quite similar and these things have a tendency to change over time. I'm used to the one with the dashes and it's difficult to deny the comforting familiarity that version affords. However, I do like the more prominent role bourbon plays using the recipe with drops and that will probably be the version I turn to for a while. Until the weather gets colder at least. Which I'm not ready to think about yet.
The Seelbach Cocktail - Seelbach Hotel, Louisville, KY
from Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails, Ted Haigh
1 oz Bourbon
1/2 oz Cointreau
7 dashes Angostura
7 dashes Peychaud's
5 oz Champagne
Garnish - Orange Twist
from Iconic Spirits, Mark Spivak
2 oz Bourbon
1/2 oz Cointreau
7 drops Angostura
7 drops Peychaud's
4 oz Champagne
Garnish - none (I added the orange peel out of habit)
Both versions are built in a Champagne flute.
*I was curious what seven dashes actually measured out to since that was a point where the recipes diverged. Seven Angostura dashes came out to just over 1/2 teaspoon, Peychaud's was almost a full teaspoon. Bottle volume can affect the dash amount but the actual dasher tops on these two are different and Peychaud's just dashes heavier. In the picture on the left you basically have a quarter ounce of bitters (2:1 favoring Peychaud's). The bitters in the one on the right, though less, are distributed equally. Since I was already getting nerdy I measured the drops too - seven drops was just about 1/2 ml, or 1/10 tsp.