Beyond the Hotel Bar: the Next Generation of Craft Cocktails

“Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares, if you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars,” –Ernest Hemingway

The Bar at Mary Celeste, photo by Meg Zimbeck
The Bar at Mary Celeste. Photo by Meg Zimbeck

Serious cocktail snobs, beautiful bobos, eager expats, and beer geeks alike are buzzing around the octagonal bar at Le Mary Celeste on a weekday night. Bright, airy, young, and fun, the bar is the hub around which the restaurant itself is organized.

I could just as easily come for chef Haan Palcu-Chang’s globe-trotting small plates like tamarind soaked endives as I would for Le Nord Suda tangy-sweet drink that combines apple brandy from Normandy with dry Spanish sherry, lemon juice and a homemade grenadine leagues above the radioactive red syrup you commonly find in a Shirley Temple. There’s a freedom and flexibility to ordering international small plates that was not easy to find in Paris until recently. Combined with an equal opportunity beverage program (fine wine, beer and cocktails) and staff who are seriously professional without being too serious, and you have a triple treat on your hands. It’s a harbinger for the revitalized craft cocktail movement in Paris.

Craft cocktails are made from fresh ingredients, conscientiously sourced products, thoughtfully prepared and served with special attention to glassware and garnish. They demand preparation and presentation that go beyond the slapdash cocktails available at your standard bar.

In direct contrast to the expensive, old, heavy-drinking hotel bars that were the only Parisian cocktail scene for decades, and the dark and claustrophobic speakeasies that have swept the city more recently, Le Mary Celeste is light, open, casual, and in a word, accessible. To be sure, it doesn’t feel particularly Parisian. If anything, it comes off as très Brooklyn, the New York City borough where one can’t throw a rock without hitting a suspendered bartender. You could just as easily be in Cobble Hill as the Marais, but that’s just the point. Paris has finally caught up with cocktail mad cities like New York and London in terms of creating world-class cocktails by embracing worldly flavors and influences, ones that lack clearly defined geographic or ethnic boundaries.

Pisco Punch at Fish Club. Photo by Catherine Down.
Pisco Punch at Fish Club. Photo by Catherine Down.

For a country that has codified cultural food and beverage traditions into law, and where fine dining and good drinking can be considered patriotic events, the craft cocktail scene is distinctly “Not French.” It’s not American, or British, or Mexican or any other nationality for that matter. Although cocktails have deep roots in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, in an age of digitized recipes & research, and of the increasing ability to import just about any spirit desired, cocktail culture is becoming global culture.

And global culture, in food and drink, is being explored and absorbed into French culture with increasing interest by a younger generation.  The reflexive skepticism of yore towards American culinary traditions has been replaced with a genuine curiosity and enthusiasm by a generation that has extensively traveled to U.S. and U.K., the world’s cocktail bastions, and returned with a taste for seriously well-made and original drinks. Paired with a waning nightclub scene, bars have picked up the slack as the social destination du jour (or nuit).

For me, the bars have always been there,” Colin Field, the legendary bartender of Hemingway’s bar at the Ritz. Beautifully crafted cocktails, as Field explains, are not new in Paris. American expats, fleeing Prohibition, brought their cocktails to France with them. The finest bartenders were forced to leave the States so they could continue to practice their profession without fear of legal ramifications. These shake-meisters moved to places like Cuba, England and France, a migration that disseminated cocktail culture in the same way that bars on the world’s great ocean liners did. The Bloody Mary, the ubiquitous brunch drink, is said to have been invented at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris in the 1920s, along with the classic The Sidecar.

Bar 228 at Le Meurice. Photo by Catherine Down.
Bar 228 at Le Meurice. Photo by Catherine Down.

Storied expat bars like those in the Ritz Hotel (opened in 1898 and currently shuttered for renovations), Le Meurice (the hotel opened in 1835) and Harry’s New York Bar (1911) have long-standing reputations for serving quality cocktails. But at 25€ a pop, their footprint on Parisian drinking culture has been mythic but limited. The emergence of modern craft cocktail culture on a wider scale, beyond rarefied spaces geared towards travelers and expats, can be traced back to 2007 with the opening of Experimental Cocktail Club, a speakeasy style bar on rue Saint-Saveur in the second arrondissement.

“It really was taking the culture that existed elsewhere and bringing it here…they took what they learned when they went abroad,” says Forest Collins, the cocktail expert and writer behind 52Martinis.com. “It at least provided the option for people who were looking for a cocktail scene. People who had traveled internationally and really had a good idea of what cocktail culture is like elsewhere.” The three French owners behind ECC quickly built a cocktail-centric portfolio. Their bars are tiny, dark, intimate speakeasies, generally with tight door policies, so it seems hard to declare that they’ve made cocktails accessible to the masses. Yet at a price point of 12-13€ for a well-crafted libation made with quality ingredients, they rejiggered the local drinking scene by making cocktails cool.

Other unrelated bars opened up that broke the mold entirely. Collins highlights Glass, in particular, for “their attempts to do more of a dive bar, and just something completely laid back.” Le Coq, a jewel box of a bar near République, distinguishes itself by using traditional French liqueurs and ingredients as the base of its menu. Dirty Dick, in Pigalle, carries a cheeky tiki theme throughout from their rum-based menu complete with flaming cocktail volcanoes to the Polynesian pin-up girl mural on the walls.

A Flaming Volcano at Dirty Dick. Photo by Catherine Down.
A Flaming Volcano at Dirty Dick. Photo by Catherine Down.

Cocktails are no longer a novelty, and they are no longer relegated to speakeasy type spaces. What’s more, they have now broken out of the bar and into the dining room. Restaurants like Fish Club,  Le Dépanneur, Le Mary Celeste, and Grazie offer customers the opportunity to order a beautifully prepared cocktail just as easily as an interesting craft beer or a glass of biodynamic wine. The Paris Pop-Up, a project from the head chef and the sommelier at Frenchie that has hosted sold-out events at trendy spots around town, will hold their first cocktail-centric event in September. Food used to be the exclusive domain of wine, but now fine beer and cocktails are being paired with seriously good eats that go way beyond the usual bar nibbles of nuts and olives.

Yet for all the ways in which cocktails have come of age, there are still a few notable ways in which the Paris scene still can and should develop. The taste for cocktails is still so new that the average French consumer could stand to broaden their horizons.

“I’m sure the most commonly served cocktail in Paris is the stupid mojito,” declares Emma Bentley, brand director for La Maison du Whiskey. Every bartending professional I interviewed, when asked to describe uniquely French tastes, lamented the widespread love of mojitos at any time of the year, in any weather and under any circumstances. “The proliferance of the creepy, bog standard mojito” as Bentley phrased it, is the scourge of the Parisian craft bartender. It’s the soda pop of cocktails: cheap, syrupy, and bubbly. Often made with rough rum, sickeningly sweet syrup and too much ice, the ever-present mojito is much maligned.

The Paris Mojito - photo by LittleDaan via Flickr
The Paris Mojito – photo by LittleDaan via Flickr

In order to move fledgling Parisian cocktail lovers beyond the mojito, the first step is developing a cultural reference point and taste for a more diverse array of spirits. The French are the largest Scotch whiskey drinkers in the world and according to Emma Bentley, there’s a strong market for rum because “it’s a fairly accessible spirit and something [the French] are used to drinking because of the French Caribbean islands.” Overall, however, there’s far less familiarity with or taste for tequila, mezcal and gin. Opportunities for exposure and cocktail education abound as a result.

The bartenders are in a great position to provide this education, but it’s challenging in a city like Paris where the talent pool is still shallow.  Professional bartenders are in high demand and short supply. An interesting debate has arisen over how to best bolster this profession in Paris, and two very different camps have emerged.

“One is the schooled bartender. The other is the un-schooled bartender,” explains Colin Field. “The schooled bartenders are the chaps who have done three years at hotel school…They know about cognac, armagnac, gin, whiskey, and then it’s the head bartender’s role to help them use that information.” He places himself firmly in the camp of hotel school bartenders.

At the other end of the spectrum is what Field describes as the un-schooled bartender. From Field’s perspective, the un-schooled bartenders “don’t have the same knowledge and product experience as the hotel school bartender, but they to have a certain liberty of action… The schooled bartender will say ‘This will go with this because of this reason.’ The un-schooled bartender will say ‘Let’s try it. Let’s see if it works or not.’ At the same time, I feel that the un-schooled bartender will come up with some incredible cocktails. But… if you do it that way, you’re not going to understand the thought pattern, the methodology.”

The bar at Sherry Butt. Photo by Catherine Down.
The bar at Sherry Butt. Photo by Catherine Down.

Field has made it his mission to get recognition for the profession of bartending and as such worked to create a degree equivalent called Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) that is awarded by the Sorbonne University. He explained that degree recognition at the highest ranks of society establishes the profession of bartending on par with a doctor, pharmacist or journalist. His hope is that now that the Ministry of Education recognizes the profession, it will get greater respect from the general public.

Field noted several times, however, that renewed interest in bartending has stemmed, in large part, from the actions of the “un-schooled bartender”. He explains that it’s “their Barnum & Bailey showmanship,” or hamming it up with a cocktail shaker, that’s pulling in a new generation of cocktail drinkers, who find it entertaining. As a result, he has “immense respect for the ‘flair’ bartender… those bartenders who come from “school of the Upside Down-I-Don’t-Know-What cocktails.” For the record, during the course of months of cocktail research, I never once encountered this bottle-juggling flair style that Field uses to characterize the new wave of bartenders. What I did encounter in these craft cocktail bars were thoughtfully constructed cocktails that combined attention to detail with a playfulness, willingness to explore and a lust for information about securing, serving and understanding the context of quality spirits.

An example of the flair bartending that Colin Field believes to exist in Paris. Photo by Brandon I. via Flickr
An example of the flair bartending that Colin Field believes to exist in Paris. Photo Brandon I. via Flickr

The careful sourcing of artisanal products is the hallmark of the revitalized craft cocktail movement. Spirits and other cocktail accoutrements are sourced as seriously as produce in a fine dining establishment, and it makes all the difference. Proprietors like Josh Fontaine, Adam Tsou and Carina Soto Velasquez Tsou of Candelaria, Glass and Le Mary Celeste train many staff members from the ground up and sponsor regular training and education sessions that include travel for tastings and cocktail events. Most employees have never attended a formal schooling program per se but as Fontaine says “there’s a lot of opportunities to learn if you’re interested, and I think it’s important.” This summer, his company will take their employees on several different field trips.  “We’re going to Lillet, to Beefeater, to Sweden to go to Absolut to learn about vodka, Chartreuse to hang out with the monks and check out how that’s made.” This approach to training bartenders through experiential education rather than traditional schooling stands in opposition to Field’s more formalized approach, but has been successful for Fontaine and his colleagues.

By contrast, Field believes that the recent creation of  an MOF  program is how France will distinguish itself internationally because no other similarly structured program exists in other countries. For him, the formally educated and professional French bartender will set a standard that he hopes England, Germany, the U.S. and other countries will begin to follow.

Fontaine suggested that is “maybe a little bit of an out of date perspective” and that the cultural cachet of cocktails has now moved beyond hotel bars. “It’s no longer just big restaurant groups. A lot of the new places [that are opening] are people that have worked in the industry for a long time and worked their way up from bar back support staff to bartender to bar manager.” Fontaine’s bars may not employ degree-holding bartenders, but Candelaria was recently nominated for World’s Best Bar at Tales of the Cocktail, a yearly gathering in New Orleans of 22,000 industry professionals and cocktails enthusiasts. 

Pomme Sourde cocktail at Sherry Butt. Photo by Catherine Down.
Pomme Sourde cocktail at Sherry Butt. Photo by Catherine Down.

Industry divisions between this new cocktail culture and the old guard clearly exist, but everyone is united in the quest to defeat the mass consumption of the dreaded mojito. Here’s a selection of outstanding cocktails to check out from the new generation of Parisian craft bartenders:

  • Pomme Sourde – Quintessential French aperitif Byrrh (a French red wine with quinine), and digestif Calvados VSOP (apple brandy aged at least four years), are remixed with cider syrup, lemon, mint and cucumber into a refreshing blend served  over a hefty heap of crushed ice. (Sherry Butt)
  • Alta Vista Tomy – The French palate doesn’t tolerate a lot of heat. This cocktail uses a housemade piment d’Espelette syrup to very gently spice up tequila, smoky mezcal, lime juice, fresh cucumber, and Aperol.  A cocktail so good I could swim in it. (Le Dépanneur)
  • Rain Dog – Small-batch bourbon is all-American, the bitter digestivo amaro is Italian, but the house-made capillaire syrup of maidenhair fern and orange water is all French.  (Le Mary Celeste)
  • Old Cuban – For those true Parisians, who just love a mojito above all else, opt instead for an Old Cuban. The aged rum, bitters, and fresh mint topped off with champagne is a sexy, sophisticated upgrade over the standard slurried mojito. (Glass)

For additional options, including addresses organized by arrondissement and a selection of absolute favorites, check out our brand new Guide to Paris Cocktail Bars.

2 Comments on Beyond the Hotel Bar: the Next Generation of Craft Cocktails

  1. The good thing with MOF is everyone can challenge it; it’s a way to recognize your skills…nor you’re an educated or a craft bartender…

  2. Wow, what an incredibly well written post –I sometimes found myself re-reading sentences just to hear the way they sounded again.

    I normally like to wait for the buzz to die down on places, but it seems like I need to get to Le Mary Celeste…

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