I'll admit it, my favourite part of the spring carnival is probably champagne. I've never been one for the punt, in fact, I've never even laid a bet. What little I know of the sport I've gleaned from reading Gerald Murnane, Australia's great horseracing-obsessed novelist, or from my uncle, an impassioned, studious punter over many decades.
When I was younger, I'd spend the odd Sunday afternoon with my uncle as he studied form guides, updated his annual ledger and compiled detailed notes on future shoo-ins. For him, the spring carnival was like December – the Melbourne Cup his Christmas.
For me, the spring carnival represents a tantalising glimpse of the year's end, of the upcoming summer, the holidays, relaxing, celebrating. You're on the home stretch but you need a final push to get over the line.
Champagne is as good a push as any I've encountered, especially when you're labouring through Melbourne's moody spring weather. On those rare spring afternoons when the sun appears to be a stayer, I love to drift up to a glowing rooftop and sip on some bubbles.
I've even developed a penchant for champagne cocktails over the last few years, a category of drinks that most Aussie men would never dare take a punt on.
The idea of ordering bubbly, let alone a champagne cocktail, would seem anathema to some of the more traditional among us. But let it be known that one of the toughest bartenders I know loves to knock off with a Negroni topped with champagne, effectively a Negroni Royale. It's possibly the most delicious goddamn drink I've ever tried.
While a number of cocktails are topped with champagne in the same manner for a refreshing, spritzy lift, others put the champagne centre stage. The obvious example is the Champagne Cocktail, a mysterious old recipe that dates right back to the early 1800s.
You take a sugar cube, dash it with some bitters (preferably Angostura), drop the cube in the glass and then pour your favourite bubbles in. These days, it's become de rigueur to drop in a measure of cognac over the sugar as well, just to make sure of it. The champagne purists have probably fainted after reading that, but if you've ever been to the races, well, I'm sure you've seen stranger things happen.
The sparkling cup
I'll be in Tassie this Melbourne Cup, and if you're feeling like some top-quality fizz come race day you'd be well advised to sample some of the fine sparkling being produced down there from the likes of Jansz, Josef Chromy, Stefano Lubiana and House of Arras (I will be).
Many of these Tassie drops land at a very respectable price point when compared to their French competitors as well, which also makes them ideal if you're thinking about a sophisticated sparkling cocktail.
My bar manager and I came up with a ripper sparkling cocktail last spring carnival which mixes Campari, Lillet, rye whiskey and finishes it off with some Tassie bubbles. We've dubbed it 'Who Shot the Barman', partly because of the horse and partly because once you've tried it, you'll want the bartender back making another in no time.
To make that recipe, and some other sparkling classics, see below. But bear in mind, these can be potent concoctions, so stay classy this Melbourne Cup weekend.
Who Shot the Barman
30 ml rye whiskey
15 ml Campari
15 ml Lillet Blanc
Jansz Brut Vintage
Build the whiskey, Campari and Lillet over ice, top with Jansz and garnish with an orange wedge.
30 ml cognac (optional, but a quality VSOP or XO is ideal)
Apply three dashes of Angostura to the sugar cube and then place in the glass. Add the cognac if desired and then top with champagne. Zest with an orange twist and discard.
45 ml London dry gin
15 ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
5-10 ml sugar syrup (2:1)
Shake the first three ingredients with ice, pour into a chilled flute, top with champagne and garnish with a lemon twist.
A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment. His book, The Australian Spirits Guide, will be released in October.
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