Fill a champagne flute with strained lemon juice or water and swirl to coat inside of glass. Discard liquid.
Fill flute with superfine sugar, coating inside to make glass appear frosted. Discard excess sugar.
Fill glass with Cognac, Bitters, and Absinthe.
Top with cold Champagne.
(Optional) Give drink a quick stir.
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With Summer soon coming to an end (Los Angeles finally seems to be trending that way), I felt it only appropriate to present a nice bridge drink — something cold and fizzy yet with broad enough shoulders to handle the milder days. Meet the Buck and Breck. Yes, there is such a thing as a manly Champagne cocktail.
You know a drink is obscure when you Google it and the name doesn’t get filled in by auto-complete. You know it’s even more obscure when Google returns only two real results. If it wasn’t for the detective work of David Wondrich, we might not even know this one existed. In the early 1880s, Jerry Thomas, the Babe Ruth of bartenders, claimed to have invented the drink; however, I was unable to find it in either edition (1862 and 1887) of Thomas’ book. Apparently, it was a California drink and, according to Wondrich, shows up in newspapers from time to time during the 1860s and 1870s. Cocktail Boothby captured it as the “Breck and Brace” in his “American Bar-Tender” of 1891, but his version neglects the Bitters and Absinthe, which Wondrich uncovered from a contemporary newspaper account.
The name is derived from the popular epithet given to the 1856 Democratic Presidential ticket of James Buchanan and John C. Breckinridge. The drink is probably their greatest legacy. Along with a collection of incredibly unpopular decisions, Buchanan and Breckenridge had the misfortune of setting the stage for the Civil War. You can’t win them all. I’m inclined to believe that Boothby or his contemporaries changed the name of the drink because by 1891 — thirty years after Buchanan left office — making a witty cocktail reference to his failed term was probably about as clever as making a Mondale reference would be today.
While the drink is stellar, it’s not one that I’d have before a heavy meal. The one-two punch of the Cognac and Champagne not only packs a wallop, it also tends to fill you up. In the above picture, I made my Buck based on Wondrich’s directions, which suggest a champagne flute. The original recipe calls for a “small bar glass”, which held between 5 and 8 ounces. As shown above, the flute holds about 6 oz, so technically, it’s on target — but I think its size may throw off the ratio of spirit-to-fizzy. My coupes max out at about 4 oz, and if you’re inclined to experiment, I recommend you try a coupe and roughly an equal or 3:4 ratio of Cognac to Champagne as well.
The sugar is also something of a mystery. Wondrich follows Boothby’s suit and calls for filling the glass with water (or lemon juice), throwing it out, then filling the glass with bar (superfine) sugar and throwing that out too. That’s what I did in preparing the drink shown in the photo. This is great if you’re building the drink before an audience; once you pour the liquid in, however, the frosted effect is lost. Photos I’ve seen of events with Wondrich where the Buck and Breck is on the menu show just a frosted rim, ala a Sidecar. Do as you prefer, but note a couple of things if you choose the rinse and dump method: the sugar in the glass will cause the Champagne to bubble over very quickly; and, if you want the sugar to incorporate into the drink, you may want to give it a quick stir.
However you choose to build your drink, there’s one rule you should follow: use cold Champagne. And, by Champagne, I mean French. Crémant, another French sparkling, works well too. To be perfectly honest, I have yet to meet a domestic sparkling that I would pick over a French one. Just remember, if you’re using Remy VSOP or another fine Cognac here, don’t skimp on the rest of the ingredients. No garnish is called for in the original recipe, but a lemon peel won’t kill anyone.
One thing I really like about the Buck and Breck is that Boothby calls it “a ’49ers Beverage”. I’m a California boy, and with all the missions and mills I’ve been to on countless school trips, I’ve never had the opportunity to actually savor the Gold Rush — to really be transported in some small, authentic way to that great moment in history. Until the Buck and Breck, that is.
Esoterica: If you look up “worst presidents” on Wikipedia, you’ll find a table that shows how all the presidents have ranked in various polls throughout the years. In the six polls shown for the past decade, Buchanan ranks dead last in four and next-to-last in the other two, “bested” both times by Andrew Johnson.