The Ho-ho-Howdah Cocktail

A multi-barreled Christmas aperitif

Whilst the weather is blowing a gale outside, I am figuring out which champagne cocktail to present on the family’s Christmas dinner. An arduous task, because most of the time I end up making a French 75 variation and there’s nothing wrong with that, good and simple. Then again, I wanted something different this year, you can make only so much F75 variations, isn’t it?

French 75, I like it a lot, especially when served in a coupe like this.
French 75, I like it a lot, especially when served in a coupe like this.

So I killed off two bottles of bubbly, experimenting to get something different. And that is certainly not an easy task, I made some interesting things, but they were far too complex. ‘Keep it simple,’ was the advise Ben Belmans had given, so I went back to the basics, looking for the common element of every experiment I did like: a combination of cognac and champagne.

Soon I found myself back at the door of the French 75, the cognac version. I first tossed out the lemon juice, then omitted the sugar syrup and in the end I literally had nothing else but cognac and bubbles. Apparently this combination is called a King’s Peg, as mentioned by Rudyard Kipling in one of his stories. It is a variation of the Burra Peg – a drink from British colonial India and nothing more than a double whiskey and soda – the King’s Peg replaced the whiskey by cognac and the soda by bubbles. Apparently Charles Baker had noted down a version called: the Maharaja’s Burra Peg – basically a mix between the champagne cocktail and the King’s Peg, but with gargantuan sizes.

Rudy, of course, liked anything that contained alcohol.
Rudy, of course, liked anything that contained alcohol.

We reduced it to more human sizes, then replaced the Angostura by Jerry Thomas bitters (for some reason they taste very ‘colonial’ to me, can’t really explain it) and then replaced the cognac by Bottega Morbido Grappa Fumé (a smoked grappa, made from Prosecco grapes and aged 18 months in sherry barrels). And this hit me, a special but pleasant taste, christmassy as it were and with a recognizable structure (syrup, bitters, spirit and bubbles). Three of these would blow you apart, you’ll end up like a rug in the living room. And that imagery gave me the inspiration for a good name: The Howdah cocktail.

– 3 or 4cl Bottega Morbido Grappa

– 1 teaspoon of cane sugar syrup

– 2 or 3 dashes of Jerry Thomas Bitters

Stirr over ice and strain into champagne coupe

– Top up with champagne

– add lime peel (twist)

Named after the Howdah gun, a multi-barreled pistol of high caliber, used by hunters in India to defend them from tiger attacks.

Pair of Howdahs, belonging to Daniel O'Connel
Pair of Howdahs, belonging to Daniel O’Connel

A howdah is actually the platform mounted on an elephant from which they hunted.

It gave me everything I needed, a reference to British Colonial India and the East India Company, because I based myself on the King’s Peg and a gun reference in accordance to my starting point: the French 75 ( being named after a French quick firing cannon from WWI).

Disclaimer: I like tigers a lot, if anybody would come to me and say he’d killed a tiger I would destroy his face.

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