The Paris bar scene is taking off, and it’s about time. While Paris has a long history of classic drinking — it has storied old bars like Harry’s New York Bar, and a wealth of great local spirits — the city has been accused of being slow on the uptake when it comes to the recent craft bartending revival.
Whatever the merits of that accusation, it’s no longer the case as a new wave of smaller, quirkier and bartender-driven bars have opened up, winning acclaim in the nominations for Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards and getting the international bartending scene talking.
To find out more we spoke to three people involved in the Paris scene for their take: Christophe Lehoux, of Parisian bar Lockwood; Forest Collins, of the Paris-based drinks blog 52Martinis.com; and Sullivan Doh, co-owner of Le Syndicat, a Parisian bar that’s been getting a lot of press of late.
Christophe Lehoux, Pocket Group
The guys behind Sydney bars Pocket, Stitch, and Button also recently launched a bar in Paris, called Lockwood (take a look at it here). We spoke to owner Christophe Lehoux to find out how their bar fits into the Paris scene, and what’s going on there right now.
Can you describe what the cocktail bar scene in Paris is like?
The cocktail scene went through a massive change over there in the last few years, when London had the cocktail boom in early 2000 Paris was still predominantly drinking wine and beers, it took about 10 years for the trend to really take off. Until recently the quality of cocktails were terrible and overly sweet, the bartenders didn’t have much knowledge and Parisian customer service was infamous for being rude. The first bar who really made an impact was The Experimental Cocktail Club, who raised the standards. Since then lots of high quality bars opened who could compete with the best bars in London, New York or Sydney. The trend took off so quickly over the last two years that it kind of skipped the whole fun part of the cocktail culture, they jumped from sweet flavoured Mojitos or Pina Coladas to very elaborate cocktails using top shelf and boutique spirits which meant they kind of lost the general crowd along the way. Paris is very much like that, it takes a while for a new trend to really gain ground but when it does it goes extreme.
How does Lockwood fit into the scene?
For us we’ve seen a gap in the market for a fun cocktail bar which takes a step back and really focuses on service, atmosphere and approachable cocktails. When we opened Lockwood most of the bars were following the speakeasy type of venue, which is fun but it was overly used, we wanted to create a space which was a bit more loud yet friendly where customers could really interact between each other and not just sitting at their table sipping drinks quietly. Lockwood is located in a 18th century cave with plenty of rooms and corridors where people can wonder around and blend with the crowd. Like our Australian venues, we focus on providing quality drinks and service in a relaxed atmosphere. Lockwood stands out from the other cocktail bars as it has various offers throughout the day. During the day it operates as a quaint coffee shop upstairs which in the evening becomes a bar which focuses on amaro and vermouth-based drinks; the basement focuses on whisky and bourbon drinks. We see Lockwood like a living space, an escape for any Parisian anytime time of the day.
Forest Collins, 52Martinis
Forest Collins is an American living in Paris, and she’s been writing about great Parisian drinking since 2007 on her blog, 52Martinis.com. She’s written for Drinks International and is on the panel for the World’s 50 Best Bars list, so we thought we’d pick her brains about the Paris scene.
We’ve heard talk about a new wave of bars in Paris, and they’ve done quite well in the nominations for this year’s Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail. What do you think it is that they’re doing differently to get the international attention they have?
Even though, historically, Paris is no stranger to cocktails, there was a definite dead-zone period for decades. And, the current global cocktail revival was slower to really take hold here compared to other international cities – even those close by like London. However, once they got on board, they slowly and steadily caught up pace with the global trends.
What’s making our bars stand out now, is that they are going beyond just following trends and taking inspiration internally. While French ingredients have always played a part in cocktail culture, now the French are really owning that. Sure anyone can follow the “going local” trend, but when the French do they are taking advantage of and celebrating some historically significant and top-notch ingredients that are not only a cornerstone of current cocktail culture, but that – more importantly – make up a part of their culinary and spirited history so they have a different relationship to and understanding of them (even if it’s just what their grandparents were drinking.)
The bars nominated for the Spirited Awards are great examples. Le Syndicat focuses purely on French spirits and ingredients but brings something fresh and youthful to their preparation. Baton Rouge is the brainchild of two very influential French bartenders, Julien Escot of Papa Doble in Montpellier and Joseph Biolatto of the family behind Bar le Forum (the longest running family owned cocktail/whisky bar in Paris) Although Le Forum recently closed, Biolatto was involved from a young age in his family’s bar that was around and influential for decades (long before the new craft cocktail revival.) And, Mabel takes rum, the base ingredient of the most commonly ordered cocktail in Paris — the Mojito — to a whole new level.
Could you tell us about some new bars that you love, and why you do?
It’s no coincidence that some of my current favourite new bars are those nominated for the Spirited Awards. Baton Rouge has brought something fun and fresh to cocktails, melding their French sensibilities with a Louisiana theme – I think the most successful Paris bars are able to both look inwards and outwards to really create something new and worthwhile. The talent behind Mable, Joseph Akhavan, doesn’t spent a lot of time working the bartender rockstar circuit but rather works hard at developing well balanced cocktails that showcase ingredients. And (one that wasn’t nominated) Pas de Loup, is an ideal example of the latest generation of bartender/owners (Amanda Boucher) working their palate and developing a drinks program that is both exceptional and accessible.
Sullivan Doh, Le Syndicat
We asked the owner of one of Paris’ hottest bars to tell us a bit about the scene right now.
Could you tell us a bit about how Le Syndicat came to be?
The idea came out with my partner Romain Le Mouellic after we found out that the new generation doesn’t know anything about our local products. French knowledge on the alcohol making is worldwide known except in France. After spending some time in Cognac, we learnt that 98% of the production is exported and all the other local spirits are drunk only in their production region. Here came the idea about bringing most of them to one place, Le Syndicat.
People know cognac, armagnac, calvados — what other French spirits/drinks do you think people should know about, and why?
People know those products by reputation but I reckon they don’t really know them and they learn more about them when they come to the bar. So we take time to start from the beginning, the big names. If they look at the speed rack there is 70% of it they don’t know like blanche d’armagnac (which is a non aged armagnac, kind of like pisco), Gentiane de Pontarlier (an old recipe of gentian liqueur), French genever, bonal (a fortified wine with quinquina and spices made by the same monks that do chartreuse). I’m a big fan of Marc de Bourgogne which is brandy pomace like grappa but aged – I love those rustic notes. That kind of spirit you can’t like from the first sip but when your palate get use to it it’s just smooth happiness.
It seems like there’s a new wave of bars opening in Paris at the moment — could you describe what’s happening there at the moment?
Basically everything started in 2007 when the boys opened Experimental Cocktail Club. It was the very first street cocktail bar. They launched a couple of others in the following years and now many of the bartenders that worked in those places opened their own. 2014 has been a tsunami, many bars came out like mushrooms and the level has increased like crazy, three of them were listed in the top 10 new international cocktail bars for Tales.