For Kellie Vitcavage, spending a dreary winter Sunday afternoon learning about Champagne and other bubbly drinks was a great respite from long, cold and dark days.
And the first drink wasn’t bad either.
“Woooo,” she said about halfway through her Spanish Summer. “It’s strong. When I first tasted it, I felt like I was on an island. In the middle of winter, it’s delightful.”
Vitcavage joined about a dozen others in Hallowell at The Maine House on a recent Sunday for the first in a series of classes called Cocktails with Leah. Longtime local bartender Leah Sampson said she started the classes because she gets a lot of questions about drinks at her boutique cocktail lounge. And for those who want to throw a fabulous party at home, there’s a lot to know.
“A lot of people come in and they love cocktails,” she said. “And they say when they go home, when they have parties, they don’t always know what they want to drink and they don’t know how to even start.”
The series continues Feb. 25 with a primer on whiskey and on March 25 with a class on rum. The cost is $50 per class, which covers two drinks, a gift bag full of bar gear, recipes, tips and tricks. For the whiskey and rum classes, Sampson said she’ll provide a fun mix of history, trivia, samples and advice about what to do at home to make tasty cocktails.
“They’ll leave with not only drink ideas, but they’ll know more about it,” she said.
The Maine House, located next to the Liberal Cup, seats 24, which would be the largest class size Sampson could accommodate. She’d like those planning to attend to call or stop in to sign up in advance so she can get a head count — and prepare the right number of bar kits for people to take home. The class is designed to last 2 1/2 hours to give everyone ample time to enjoy two cocktails and samples of the featured liquor.
It’s not so much a class on how to tend bar as it is a class for people who want to geek out about the history of their favorite spirit. It’s a casual afternoon that gives attendees the chance to call out questions to Sampson, who will be well prepared to make sure everyone leaves with a better understanding of just what goes into that bottle of whiskey or rum. To sign up for the next class, call after 4 p.m.
The Champagne class started with a tall glass of water, some homemade breadsticks and a black folder “for taking notes,” Sampson said as she passed them around. Inside was a page of definitions that was a handy reference guide during the class, six recipes, including the Solerno and cava-based Spanish Summer, and some fun quotes from famous folks talking about Champagne.
“I only drink Champagne on two occasions,” Coco Chanel once said, “when I am in love and when I am not.”
It was obvious from the start of the class that Sampson herself loves bubbles – Champagne, cava, prosecco – and she did a lot of research to be sure that she was prepared to answer questions. She asked the class what they love to drink, drawing a wide variety of responses.
“I love Baileys, and I love your Lemon Drop here!” one woman said.
“I’m partial to red wine and whiskey,” said another.
From there, Sampson and her colleague Trisha Cote were off to their posts behind the bar, whipping up 13 drinks while Sampson talked about the importance of measuring ingredients in these types of specialty cocktails. She held up a jigger and explained that one side is an ounce and the other is 1½ ounces.
“It’s so good for the consistency,” she said. “The drink will be the same every time.”
A little later, she talked about zesting, using her Cuisinart ice-cream maker for sorbet and perfectly placing a garnish for a finishing touch. A second later and, voila, a beautiful drink with a small scoop of sorbet on top was born. Out came the cellphones for photos – a handy trick for making sure you get it just right if you make it at home.
After that, Sampson gave a quick lesson in glassware, showing off Champagne flutes, highball glasses, goblets and cordials. She said after a visit to Central Provisions in Portland, she picked up a punch bowl with delicate little glasses that hang off the side. Perfect for entertaining.
Sampson then challenged her class to a little Champagne trivia, asking them to guess how many bottles of Champagne Marilyn Monroe used in her clawfoot bathtub. (The answer? 350.) She demonstrated the proper way to open a bottle of Champagne, explaining that although it’s fun to see the bubbly spray out the top, a small poof is really all you should be aiming for.
Next came a five minute video about how Champagne is made, drawing a compliment from a class member – “well that was interesting.”
Sampson shared other fun facts she learned about bubbles and each class member got a sample of Champagne, prosecco and cava so they could taste each side-by-side-by-side.
“A lot of questions I get are ‘what’s the difference,’ ” Sampson said.
Differences include what the size of the bubbles are, when the bubbles are added, and of course, where the beverages are made (Champagne: France; cava: Spain; prosecco: Italy).
For their second drink, class members enjoyed a Lover’s Lemon, with gin, Limoncello, thyme stems, thyme syrup and lemon syrup. Muddle, shake, and top with a splash of prosecco.
“I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday,” said Jennie Hubley, who took the bubbles class with a friend.
WHERE: 119 Water St., Hallowell
WHEN: 3-5:30 p.m. Feb. 25 (whiskey) and March 25 (rum)
COST: $50 per class, includes two drinks, recipes, a gift bag with bar gear, tips and tricks.
PRO TIPS: Be sure to eat a little before you go just so the drinks don’t hit you too hard. Then, after class, grab dinner at a Hallowell eatery before you hit the road.