How Cocktails Are Liberating Paris…from Wine

For a people bound by wine tradition, the rise of the cocktail has offered Parisians something it can't offer Americans: an escape.

Paris has long had a cocktail past, but almost no present. The city has its share of historic cocktail bars, like Harry’s New York Bar and the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz Hotel, that served as a refuge for a handful of prominent American bartenders left jobless after the enactment of Prohibition. But even at their peak, Harry’s and the Ritz catered primarily to expats and tourists.

Only in the past half-decade have ambitious cocktail bars appeared in Paris in numbers that testify to widespread native interest in quality cocktails. A Nielson study released in February 2013 found that three out of four French proclaim regular cocktail consumption. Meanwhile, Drinks International’s annual “World’s 50 Best Bars” list—a questionable but effective shorthand for this sort of thing—cited no less than five Paris cocktail bars in 2013, with one, Candelaria, in its top 10.

“The cocktail scene in Paris has really blossomed in the 2 1/2 short years since we opened Candelaria,” says Joshua Fontaine, an American co-owner of three of Paris’s vanguard cocktail bars (Candelaria, Glass and Le Mary Celeste). Where two years ago he was often obliged to explain cocktails to clients, “the balance has tipped in the other direction,” he says. “I encounter more guests coming and asking for a Corpse Reviver #2 or an Old Fashioned…”

In the midst of this cocktail renaissance, it’s worth pausing to consider what Parisian drinkers taste when they bring a cocktail to their lips.

In cocktails Parisians can taste liberation from wine’s outsize role in French culture in a way that’s hard for Americans to understand, mostly because we have no equivalent historical burden.

While cocktail bartending is over a century old, its fugitive history and improvisational nature mean it has largely evaded the French tendency to academicize things. In a nation of degrees, guilds and unions, cocktails remain an invitingly open field. The same can’t be said for the national beverage, wine, which is linked to regional identity in a way that cocktails aren’t, and whose various forms of study (winegrowing, winemaking, wine service) are all mature industries.

In cocktails Parisians can taste liberation from wine’s outsize role in French culture in a way that’s hard for Americans to understand, mostly because we have no equivalent historical burden.

Cocktail culture—Manhattans and Sazeracs and so on, along with the optional theatrics, from vests to elaborate moustaches—comprises America’s most original contribution to global drinking. America produces fine beer and wine, too, of course. But other nations maintain historical pre-eminence in those fields. The cocktail remains America’s genesis tale of booze. To partake in the culture of the cocktail is—it might seem strange—patriotic. (Nothing illustrated this curious dynamic more than the exhibition on Prohibition I visited in Philadelphia last February, held at the city’s newly minted Constitution Center. It was like walking through a Tea Party pamphlet sponsored by Jack Daniels.)

But for all their symbolic import, cocktails remain a niche subject in America.

France, for its part, has wine, whose history dwarfs that of cocktails. And wine in France is inescapable. It comprises part of the national patrimoine, or cultural heritage, which is why even French people with no wine experience whatsoever will unhesitatingly recommend it to you.

“All French people—and not just Parisians—think they know everything about wine because they’re French,” says Benoit Joussot-Dubien, an accredited winemaker who presently works as a wine buyer for the shop Aux Anges in Paris’s 11ème arrondissement. “They think they have it in their genes, because it’s a facet of the French culture.”

In America, which contains comparatively few wine-producing regions, wine knowledge is voluntary and typically aspirational in nature. In France, it is a social obligation. So the average Parisian confronted with a wine list among friends might justifiably feel as though he or she’s about to initiate a discussion of politics. Everyone will duly weigh in, usually to endorse, in imprecise terms, whatever they grew up with.

Wine preferences and wine experience reflect regional identity as well as socioeconomic status in France. Yet wine remains fairly opaque to most of the populace. If anything, there is in France a higher awareness of wine as a field of study more open to students with family who own vineyards. There are five schools in France that offer the DNO, or Diplôme National d’Oenologue, a degree in winemaking. These produce, collectively, 120-150 graduates per year, by Joussot-Dubien’s estimate. Of the student body, he says, “About half had family who worked in wine.” He doesn’t, incidentally, and rather than make wine, he sells it.

Perhaps it’s genetic after all?

The long history of the wine trade in France also favors pre-established players. “Since winemakers have developed relationships over the years with certain restaurants, it can be hard for newcomers to source wines they would like to put on their list,” says Joshua Fontaine. “At least at reasonable prices.”

To be sure, wine is less of a luxury in France than abroad. But real bargains in French wine aren’t found in Paris, any more than you find bargains in Manhattan. You have to go to the wine regions themselves. Paris, with its unrelenting tourist demand and longstanding corporate clientele, is among the worst places to taste the wines that serve as reference for global connoisseurship. For example, Caves Taillevent on rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré is presently offering a magnum of 2002 Louis Roederer Cristal for 1100€. Any given Internet site presently offers it for less than half that price.

Cocktails in Paris, by comparison, all cost a little over 10€. In a nation where youth unemployment has long hovered over 20%, and where the best restaurants serve famous wines mainly to tourists and the aging native elite, cocktails offer younger Parisians a newer, more approachable form of luxury.

Meanwhile, the relatively meager academic apparatus surrounding the field means that if you’re capable and interested, you’re welcome aboard.

Maxime Potfer, at 22 years old, is probably Paris’s youngest cocktail bartender. “I was fed-up with house parties where you stare at a pile of cheap vodka, pineapple juice and grenadine without knowing what to do, so I bought a recipe book,” he says. Originally from Nice, he wangled a bartending job at a Riviera hotel before moving to Paris to work, first at the Hotel Plaza Atheneum, then at Experimental Cocktail Club, the bar widely recognized as having kick-started Paris’s contemporary cocktail scene when it opened in 2007.

Joshua Fontaine, himself an alum of Experimental Cocktail Club, says the most common cocktail experience he encounters on Paris résumés is a “mention barman,” which is a focus on bartending skills within a wider hospitality degree. But hires with a mention barman remain rare, not least because the traditionalist bent of French hospitality degrees is antithetical to the informal ambience of Paris’s leading cocktail bars. “We definitely still do train up many staff members with close to zero experience,” he says.

The cocktail in Paris accordingly functions as a kind of social equalizer. You don’t need to come from a family of barmen to make one. And you don’t need to know a great deal to appreciate one.

“It’s always nice to have a client with whom one can share obscure recipes,” says Frederic Le Bordays, owner of 9ème arrondissement cocktail bar Artisan. “But all told, Parisians are curious these days and will willingly try flavors that they aren’t necessarily used to drinking.”

Le Bordays’ story is perhaps the best illustration of the free-wheeling, almost Wild-Western nature of Paris’s nascent cocktail scene. Originally from the Paris suburbs, he worked for several years as a photographer’s assistant, without much success. Then, while bartending at a nightclub by Bastille six years ago, he discovered a copy of the 1882 book The New & Improved Bartender’s Manual by legendary bartender Harry Johnson.

Le Bordays taught himself the recipes, and started a consulting company. He cultivated corporate clients, and it was at a cocktail soirée he organized for one of them that he met an editor who proposed he publish a book on cocktails, which he duly did—all before opening his own bar, or even working at any of Paris’s more famous establishments.

Paris bartenders like Le Bordays, Fontaine and Potfer are achieving what would be unthinkable in the wine industry in France, where winemaking dates back to the Roman era and has been chronicled ever since. They’re making it up as they go along. And Paris drinkers, when they sip an expertly made cocktail, taste more than just spirits, bitters and citrus. They taste freedom.