September 12 2010
It’s a strange place to start a revolution. On a quiet cobbled backstreet in the 2nd arrondissement in Paris, there’s an easily overlooked bar, its entrance marked only by a small, shiny plaque. The interior is rough and edgy: bare brick walls, dim lights, a few sofas and an old upright piano leaning precariously against one wall.
This is Experimental Cocktail Club, or ECC, where three years ago the nouveau cocktail movement started – and set Paris abuzz.
The French may swoon over wine and effuse about champagne, but mixed drinks have never been a forte. There have always been exceptions to the warm martini that costs €25, such as the creations by bar director Thierry Hernandez at the Plaza Athénée bar or the cocktails at the storied Hemingway Bar at Hôtel Ritz, but it took a trio of passionate 20-somethings to truly stir up the supine scene in Paris. Childhood friends Romée de Gorianoff, Pierre-Charles Cros and Olivier Bon are the brains and money behind ECC. Each had spent time studying overseas while at university, bringing back with them a thirst for well-made, well-priced mixed drinks that Parisian bars couldn’t satisfy. After brief forays into other careers – fashion, real estate and finance respectively – they decided to open a cocktail bar of their own.
“Few banks would support the project; they said that pricing drinks at €10-€12 wouldn’t work,” explains de Gorianoff, who believed that reasonable pricing was as vital as superior mixing. He’s a tousled, charming presence, reflexively checking the bar staff’s techniques as he chats over a sazerac inside ECC (until six months ago, he and his partners still moonlit as bartenders at their venues). Instead, they relied on their savings and refitted the space themselves in three months (the rough-hewn appearance was a necessity, not a choice).
When ECC opened in June 2007, de Gorianoff’s hopeful projections put sales of cocktails at around 25 per cent of revenue, and the rest as beer, wine or champagne; he was delighted to be proved wrong: “Instantly, 75 per cent of sales were cocktails, and now it’s close to 90 per cent.” They soon expanded with a second, larger outfit called Curio Parlor which opened in July 2008. There was a bigger budget to decorate this split-level bar; it’s festooned with taxidermy, while heavy velvet curtains create private nooks around its edges like a vintage American speakeasy. The parallels were intentional. “When it was quiet, we would only open the basement downstairs, so it was even harder to find,” says de Gorianoff. Ten months later both bars had reached capacity; time for a third, much larger space on the Left Bank. Prescription, with its Cole & Son wallpaper, overstuffed seats, patinated mirrors and international, bilingual staff is like a boozy, Gallic riff on a genteel English tearoom.
Prescription’s opening marked the tipping point in tippling culture here: it was just one of a slew of new – or reimagined – bars that began catering to the new-found cocktail curiosity among Parisians late last year. La Conserverie, named after the tinned food it serves to help soak up its killer drinks, was co-founded by Eric Bulteau and Richard Azarnia, and opened in August last year. Hardwood floors, deep blue walls, red velvet armchairs and chandeliers made from clear glass bottles give it a trippy, Warhol-meets-Willy Wonka vibe.
Then there’s Bar Le Forum, a neighbourhood boîte, dating back to 1931. Decorated like Victor Hugo’s study (brass ceiling fans, rickety pavement tables and dark wood bar), it was made over by cocktail devotee Joseph Biolatto, who outfitted his staff in sleek black jackets and included some Edith Piaf chansons on the DJ soundtrack.
Le Secret is yet another newcomer, tucked away in the 8th arrondissement. Inside, the duplex interior is dark and dominated by giant chandeliers. This bar is a true after-hours hotspot, busy with bartenders from other places who come for a nightcap after their shifts. “We really wanted to make a blend of a hotel bar and a cocktail club, with luxury but friendly service,” says head bartender Christophe Jumentier.
It wasn’t long, though, before the pioneering bartenders began adapting their techniques and menus to produce distinctly French drinks rather than clones of American or English classics. The lack of a constraining tradition here was crucial. “When it comes to cocktails in New York and London, they stick to the rules, but Paris is a wine culture and there are no rules for cocktails,” Richard Azarnia observes. Just as American restaurateurs turned the classic French bistro from neighbourhood amenity into a chic statement – Keith McNally’s Balthazar is a prime example – so the nouveau cocktail masters in Paris today feel unfettered when reinterpreting traditional recipes.
For instance, most bartenders here don’t use the measuring cups, known as jiggers, that are legally mandated in many countries. Instead, they free-pour an amount. Champagne is a core ingredient – Le Forum’s Joseph Biolatto serves many drinks with a separate snifter of it to cleanse the palate, while Azarnia offers a champagne-doused mojito called the Maurizzio. “Soda water or seltzer, which is a key part of cocktail culture, is unusual here,” he explains. “But champagne is a natural, normal thing.”
The new mixologists in France are as much bar chefs as cocktail jockeys: de Gorianoff sources the fruits for his fresh juices from Les Vergers Saint-Eustache, the same firm that supplies most of the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants. Joseph Biolatto trained as a chef at the Hôtel de Crillon before defecting to work behind the bar, as did Le Secret’s Christophe Jumentier.
Peppery and herby notes dominate in bestsellers such as La Conserverie’s sweet-tasting Guorrimin, powered by Basque piment d’espelette, or the clove-heavy cordial in Prescription’s Bright Young Thing. Fruity liqueurs and eaux de vie, such as the crème de cassis, de pêche and de mûre (long sipped in France but often shunned overseas) add complexity of flavour. Side dishes for pips, shot glasses with champagne or an absinthe spoon are all served alongside.
American expat Forest Collins scours the emerging scene for her blog, 52 Martini (www.52martinis.blogspot.com). “Barmen in Paris are more likely to use something because it makes it pretty – a complete experience as opposed to a drink,” she explains, citing prominent Parisian mixologist Laurent Greco’s Cocktail Idées. “The book has a substantial focus on how to cut, splay and prettify the fruit toppers for drinks.” The defining element of the scene isn’t the drinks, it’s the atmosphere. Cocktail bars in London and New York have reputations as being intimidating, but the Parisian bars are friendly – the smiling ECC bartender is testimony.
The fuel for the emerging Parisian cocktail scene is diverse. Many mixologists cite the television series Sex and the City as a cultural touchstone in France – the glamorous foursome’s love of cosmopolitans seeded a new Gallic sensibility. “The show had a huge impact – women are raised to drink lightly here, and that was really important in terms of awareness,” Richard Azarnia says. Another factor is the increased availability of certain liquors. Tanqueray No Ten, for example, was only launched in France three years ago, while French-made Chambord débuted here just two years before that. For Le Secret’s Christophe Jumentier, bargain Eurostar tickets have had an impact too, allowing him to observe and learn from British cocktail gurus.
Fittingly, then, it’s in London that the nouveau cocktail movement will make its first mark on the international scene. Flush with profits from their thriving trio of Parisian bars, Romée de Gorianoff and his partners are poised to open an overseas branch of ECC in Gerrard Street in London’s Soho in December. It will serve French-style cocktails to the Brits who, along with Americans, have helped inspire his innovative Gallic mixology.