Everything from tequila to aperitivi to Japanese whisky has been ‘hot’ over the last five years. Yet one country’s products seem to remain mysteriously underappreciated: France. ‘Aux armes citoyens!’ says Alice Lascelles
What have the French ever given us? Well, when it comes to booze, quite a lot actually. Champagne, cognac, dry vermouth, armagnac, triple sec, pastis, calvados, curaçao, as well as many of the finest wines ever to have graced this earth. Look around a bar, and you’ll see that French drinks are everywhere.
And yet in another way, they’re invisible. Because you don’t hear bartenders waxing lyrical about French spirits in the same way that they do about Japanese whisky or artisan mezcal.
Instagram doesn’t teem with pictures of Parisian bar crawls in the same way it does with snaps of cocktails in San Francisco, Berlin or Singapore. We all love Chartreuse, of course, and no bar would survive a week without Noilly Prat, but when it comes to the radar of cool, French spirits, and French drinking culture, have for a long time barely registered.
Vive la France
But now, on both sides of the Channel, a new generation of enterprising bar owners is putting French spirits centre-stage on the menu – and what’s more, there’s not a bicycle, a beret or a string of onions in sight.
‘Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s I think the French bar scene got very complacent,’ says Xavier Padovani, partner of the Experimental Cocktail Club, the international bar group that arguably paved the way for the French drinks renaissance when it opened its eponymous bar in Paris 2007.
‘It was just about going to Paris and paying ¤15 for a bad Kir Royale at some bar on the Place Vendôme. Then French bartenders started travelling, and the bars got better, and customers also got more curious. Companies like Pernod Ricard have also been putting a lot more effort behind their heritage brands such as Pernod and Lillet and Suze, which has really made a difference.
‘Now we’re seeing a lot of new guys reviving old brands, too. People like Marseille bar owner Guillaume Ferroni, who’s doing things with ratafia and [the monastic liqueur]eau verte; and Roland Giscard d’Estaing, who is reviving the Basque liqueur Izarra. I’m also really excited about the return of the Corsican apéritif Cap Corse. And this is only the beginning – I expect we’re going to see more and more.’
But Padovani isn’t just fixated on the past – his Orfeus Agency also co-created the new-wave craft whisky Vulson, a craft rye grown and distilled in the French Alps which was recently snapped up by Rémy Cointreau.
‘There are not many things left to do that haven’t already been done,’ he acknowledges. ‘But bartenders are now starting to realise there is so much about French drinks that is undiscovered.’
Another bar that’s played a big part in the growing buzz around French drinks is Parisian Le Syndicat. Subtitled ‘Organisation de Défense des Spiritueux Français’, this shoe-box-sized bar in the 10th Arrondissement serves nothing but French wine and spirits, in a setting that feels like a cross between a pop-up and house party. The drinks are French, the hip-hop’s French, even the tiles on the ceiling make you think of France.
‘When we launched, a lot of bartenders said the concept is nice but there are all these drinks you won’t be able to make, like Margaritas and Whisky Sours,’ says co-founder Sullivan Doh (who is also an alumnus of ECC). ‘But that’s the problem with the French – we don’t drink our own. There are all these flavours people have never tasted before!’
Le Syndicat’s answer to the doubters was to create drinks like the Ay Andela, a Margarita-style cocktail made with myrtle eaux-de-vie and smoky bitters, and a delicious twist on a G&T, made with gentian liqueur, Cap Corse apéritif and homemade tonic. Keen to highlight some of the more rarefied products on their backbar, Le Syndicat also offers ‘dégustation’ flights (served in very nick-able metal stands) on themes including cognac, XO spirits and calvados. This last flight features a quartet of apple juice, cider, blanche de Normandie and calvados, tracing the evolution of calvados from fresh juice to aged spirit.
‘On my first day at Le Syndicat I looked at the back bar and there wasn’t a single bottle I recognised,’ says bar manager Aris Makris (who is, as you might have guessed, Greek). ‘These days we have met more than 80% of the producers we list in our bar, which gives us so many stories to share with our customers.’
Le Syndicat now has a second outpost in eastern Paris called La Commune, specialising in punches with a French twist. ‘The idea is to continue our symbolic mission: to be a bridge between French spirit producers and the young urban generations, with the desire to show how French traditions can play with the modern codes and prove to be very modern,’ declares Doh’s co-founder Romain Le Mouëllic. Back in the UK, French drinks have also been pushed to the fore by Coupette, the new east London bar from Chris Moore, former head bartender at the Savoy’s Beaufort Bar.
‘I was at the Savoy one day looking at the back bar and I suddenly realised that everything I loved was French,’ recalls Moore. ‘Not just products but whole categories of drinks: champagne, cognac, armagnac. The amount that the French do with grapes alone is just staggering. And I thought: I want to explore this. I literally gave my notice in the next day.’
Moore spent a few months trawling Paris bars and restaurants for inspiration before coming back to London and snapping up a scruffy old pub. ‘You look at all the best bars in Paris at the moment and there’s a real sense of rebellion against all those old clichés,’ says Moore. ‘I was clear I didn’t want to do a Café Rouge.’
Coupette isn’t devoid of French cues – the bistro-style blue banquettes and bar inlaid with hundreds of 20 centime pieces leave you in no doubt what the theme is – but it’s definitely more of a neighbourhood bar than a pastiche.
Coupette’s speciality is calvados. It has more than 30 varieties and counting, showcased in the house cocktail: a simple highball of calvados and homemade sparkling apple juice over Hoshizaki ice balls, made with a different calvados, and a different variety of apple, every month. Coupette also makes a feature of the decidedly unfashionable French classic Kir, with half a dozen different twists made with a kaleidoscope of fortified wines, liqueurs and tinctures. I drank a superb Kir with Noilly Prat dry vermouth, Chartreuse VEP and fig leaf.
Moore’s dedication to rooting out obscure French gems has already turned Coupette into a destination for the trade, who sit at the bar tasting the likes of cassis from Château Mouton-Rothschild; fabulous poiré from L’Arpège’s former head sommelier, Eric Bordelet, and niche nut liqueurs from the Dordogne.
‘I want this menu to be about simplicity and discovery,’ says Moore, who plans to start a tasting club designed to champion the kind of small producers that don’t normally get a platform in the UK.
Coupette is a mine of information, but it’s also a lot of fun. The best-selling cocktail is a pimped Piña Colada, made with agricole rhum, champagne and coconut sorbet shipped from Paris. It’s so popular Moore’s expecting to get through 1.2 tons of sorbet in the next year.
L’amour du jour
Another British bartender who’s fallen for French drinks in a big way is Alastair Burgess, owner of London’s Happiness Forgets. Just over a year ago he opened Petit Pois, a bistro serving a short but sweet list of Francophile cocktails.
‘The French have a really great apéritif culture,’ he says. ‘They’re really good at doing the sort of refreshing, lower-abv type of drink that’s now really in vogue.’
Petit Pois is notable for serving another overlooked French classic: lager with a shot of bitter-sweet Amer Picon: ‘It gives a Continental-style lager a darker, richer, and more bitter flavour – closer to a dark English ale,’ says Burgess. ‘It gives it a real kick up the arse!’
Chef Stevie Parle’s restaurant, Sardine, has been using the Negroni to highlight more esoteric French specialities. Its Gascogne Negroni is made with gin, Kamm & Sons and Floc de Gascogne, a fortified apéritif from Armagnac, while the Petit Negroni #3 comes laced with la vieille prune, a type of plum eaux-de-vie. Exciting drinks, to be sure – but there’s no denying the fact that it’s still an Italian cocktail that does the heavy lifting.
‘It’s crazy how many French products are used by bars and yet we in France don’t really have a culture of cocktails, it’s true,’ says St Germain global ambassador and author of How to Drink French Fluently, Camille Ralph Vidal. ‘But what we do have is that culture of hospitality, and that is just as important.’
‘Anyway,’ she adds. ‘Things have come a long way in the last 10 years – ECC was a real pioneer in getting things moving and we’re now seeing a really exciting cocktail scene emerging in France. I want to take that around the world.’