As celebrations go it might be the most wonderfully warped one not named Halloween, at least where the origins of Valentine’s Day are concerned.
Today, we know February 14 as that time when we think nothing of blowing $50 on a box of chocolates. (Artisanal of course, because rightly or wrongly, a dozen Turtles don’t say “I love you”. Instead, they say “I picked these up at Shopper’s Drug Mart, along with the lube and condoms). It’s also a day for dropping double that on flowers, an added bonus being you can walk along the street with a giant bouquet without everyone thinking “Somebody clearly slept on the couch last night”.
And there’s champagne, but let’s get to that in a second.
The origins of Valentine’s Day are however even more weird than giving your loved one a coupon for one free massage and being completely unapologetic that, the second it’s cashed, you’ll attempt to turn that coupon into sex. (And guys, you’re no better. )
Looking back, as Spinal Tap might say, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, Valentine’s is thought to have both Roman and Christian roots.
Depending on which Pope you’re talking to, Valentine was a priest who married soldiers in secret back when military leaders thought sexually frustrated horny dudes made better fighters. Or he was an ancient Rome jailbird who sent a letter to an immortal beloved, signing it "From Your Valentine".
Another line of thinking is that the origins of the day date back to Lupercalia, a circa-3rd century festival devoted to purging evil spirits to ensure health and fertility. The mid-February celebration started in a sanctified cave with the killing of a goat and a dog for babymaking and purification purposes. The goat hide was then cut into strips and dipped in the blood, after which priests walked around slapping both women and agricultural crops with them.
February 14 was officially dubbed Valentine’s Day by Pope Gelasius at the tail end of the 5th century. From there it gradually evolved into a 24-hour window for expressing one’s undying love. Geoffrey Chaucer namechecked Valentine’s in the 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules”, folks began sending trinkets of affection to each other in the late 18th century, and cards became a thing in the 1900s as printing presses became common.
Chocolates became a tradition when England’s Richard Cadbury began packaging the confection in heart-shaped boxed—suitable for storing love letters—in the mid-1800s. America’s Milton Hershey started producing tear-shaped kisses in 1907, and Clara Stover gave America the wildly successful “Secret Lace Heart” chocolate box in the 1920s.
As for champagne joining the party, a bottle of Champagne Krug Clos d’Ambonnay says “I’m a keeper” in the same way a six pack of Baby Duck screeches “run for the door”. And there’s seemingly a scientific reason for that. Australia’s Dr. Max Lake deduced that scents of dry Champagne can replicate female pheromones—the subtle scents that attract suitors. (For the curious, men’s pheromones have been linked to the scents of red wine).
Sooo, for a certain segment of the male population, bubbly is basically the scent of bottled up sex appeal. And for women, it’s a sign that a suitor’s champagne tastes don’t stop at, well, her.
So what to do after you’ve popped the cork? No one’s going to do anything but applaud you for drinking things straight up. But playing liquor nerd with champagne can also be stupidly easy, as anyone with a Mimosa (equal parts champagne and fresh orange juice) addiction is well aware.
Flavoured simple syrups—which we’ve discussed previously as being stupidly simple to make—instantly make a great thing even better. For a herbal flair add thyme, rosemary, or sage syrup. Ginger, lemongrass, or galangal syrup give things an exotic kick.
Take the sting out of the fact you’re not going to Mexico any time soon with a tamarind chipotle syrup—making sure, as always, the chipotle doesn’t sit in the tea water for longer than a couple of hours. Unless, that is, you want the full-on Mexican-vacation, “¿Dónde está el baño” experience four or five hours after consuming.
One of the first champagne cocktails dates back to the middle of the 1800s. Barkeeps placed a sugar cube in the bottom of a chilled glass, splashed it with a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters, and then filled with champagne. Flash forward a couple of decades and Charles Dickens was using world book tours to sing the praises of the “Tom Gin and Champagne Cups”—a cocktail of his own creation.
Dickens proved something of a pioneer in more ways than one, because pretty soon the idea of mixing gin and bubbly became a thing, most famously at the beginning of the 20th century.
As World War I raged on, the French 75 (named after a high-calibre French combat cannon) came into being. Concocted at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, the cocktail eventually took root in America after becoming a favourite at the Stork Club in the Big Apple. And it achieved immortality after making a cameo in Casablanca—not only one of the greatest movies, but also one of the greatest love stories of all time. Watch it this Valentine’s Day. And take it easy on the chocolate box and blood-soaked goat skins.
Here’s how to make what might be the Queen of champagne cocktails.
1 ounce gin
1/2 ounce lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1/2 ounce simple syrup
3 ounces Champagne (or other sparkling wine)
Add gin, lemon juice and simple syrup to a shaker with ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a champagne flute, top with the champagne, and garnish with a lemon twist.