In spite of the world-class wines that flow mightier than the Seine here in Paris – or perhaps because of them – well-crafted cocktails have never figured among our city’s passions and obsessions. Until now, it feels like we’ve been living in a mini Dark Age of cocktail culture, with third-rate mojitos and gin fizzes barely competing for our hard-earned euros against the far safer bet of champagne by the glass.
It wasn’t always this way, though. The high point of French cocktail culture came during the “lost generation” days when F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and company lifted cocktail drinking to the level of high-endurance sport. Legend has it that the Ritz’s “little bar,” a tiny, opulently panelled room that sadly closed its doors this April, was renamed the Bar Hemingway when the author returned, gloriously, on August 25th, 1944 to “liberate” the establishment from its last Nazi occupiers. In this case, “liberation” meant Papa riding into the Place Vendome in an armoured Jeep and, by some accounts, ordering as many as 57 dry martinis from his friend, the bartender, Georges.
Oh, the glory days. Compare that to the present, where in many of Paris’s trendiest hotels and bars, it’s impossible to get a decent dirty martini. Those cocktail-loving After Hours Athletes among us shouldn’t despair, however, because there are signs that a quiet renaissance – spurred by a younger generation of entrepreneurs – is taking place.
Leading the way are Romée de Goriainoff, Pierre-Charles Cros and Olivier Bon, the team behind the L’Experimental Cocktail Club, a 40 seat room in the 2nd arrondissment that opened its doors in 2007, modelling itself on New York institutions like the Pegu Club and Death and Co. The E.C.C. is the flagship of a mini-empire that now includes the Curio Parlour, a taxidermy filled boite straight out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn and The Beef Club, a bar/restaurant that serves handcrafted cocktails alongside dry-aged steak.
The popularity and success of these businesses have spawned offshoots, most notably at 52 rue de Saintonge, where Carina Soto Velasquez and Joshua Fontaine, both former E.C.C. employees, opened La Candelaria, a no-nonsense taqueria with a hidden speakeasy in the back. Tacos and cocktails? You read our minds.
More important, however, is the ripple effect of this movement: Unrelated establishments have had to step it up behind the counter, too. When the David Lynch designed members-only club Le Silencio opened at 142 rue Montmartre last September, along with the swanky private theatre, mirrored smoking room and plush library, the owners made sure to enlist the help of some of the city’s most creative bartenders to get the drink list right.
Of all this, Papa Hemingway would surely be proud. At 10 to 15 euros a glass, though, he can rest assured that we won’t be ordering 57 of anything anytime soon.