In Paris, wine lists are often as thick as the Bible, with French spirits are printed as small as footnotes in the back. Slowly but surely, spirits like Cognac are beginning to get the attention—and innovation—they deserve.
On a recent Friday night in Paris, during the height of French cocktail hour (7 p.m. apéro), I slid into a corner of the bustling bar at Le Syndicat and opened the menu. “Let me know if you need me to explain any of the cocktails,” co-manager Giovanni Allario shouted over the surrounding conversation while placing the final touches on a cocktail so beautiful, it almost seemed sacrilegious to sip. I didn’t need him to explain the cocktails; I needed him to explain the spirits.
The speakeasy in the somewhat sleepy stretch of Paris’s 10th arrondissement is known for its nationalist spirit—and spirits. While the average bar in Paris may feature four different Cognacs at the most (usually from the four major maisons), Le Syndicat stocks over 15. “My boss (founder Sullivan Doh) opened Le Syndicat because he saw that cocktail bars in Paris only had one good whiskey, one good gin, it was always the same,” explains co-manager Juliette Larrouy, who puts on a show alongside Allario as entertaining as Sonny & Cher. “There were no good French products, especially Cognac.”
In Paris, wine lists are often as thick as the Bible, but French spirits are printed as small as footnotes in the back. Up until about 10 years ago, cocktail culture revolved mostly around the Palace hotels, six-star spots like the Ritz Paris, where Bar Hemingway’s head bartender, Colin Peter Field, is just as legendary as Hemingway himself. In 2007, however, the scene shifted with the opening of the Experimental Cocktail Club, which groomed Paris’s next generation of bartenders (Le Syndicat’s Sullivan Doh is one alum, along with Danico’s Nico de Soto and the team behind Mexican speakeasy sensation, Candelaria).
“For me, there is a before and after Experimental Cocktail Club,” says Florian Hériard Dubreuil, the international ambassador for Rémy Martin (and fourth generation representing the family business). “Before, cocktails were mostly at these Palace hotel bars, which were more for international people, not Parisians.”
When Le Syndicat debuted five years ago, it was one of the first that celebrated smaller French producers of Cognac—and were bold enough to mix it into cocktails. “Cognac has become something of a status symbol, so people see it as a premium spirit—which it is—but it’s one that can really shine in cocktails,” Allario says. “You can sub it for anything in classic cocktails, and it’ll work because of its complexity.”
La Maison du Whisky’s brand manager, Hugo Gargaud, says he’s seeing two trends at the moment: younger Cognac with high ABV that can be consumed on ice or in cocktails—catering to the millennial market—and the more niche, high-end product that targets traditional, older Cognac consumers. “We’re not big Cognac drinkers in France,” adds Alexandre Lesbats, who heads La Maison du Whisky’s product development, including independently bottled Cognac line “Through the Grapevine.” “But it’s getting more popular to order a cocktail made with Cognac in France.”
One reason for this rise could be that as whisky is getting more expensive, bartenders are leaning toward local spirits like Cognac, especially as an influx of smaller, independent estates are entering the market with craft versions made for mixing (think more fruit and florals, less wood).
Nearly 98 percent of Cognac is exported outside the country (the majority of which is split between the U.S. and Asia), but “cocktail bars and speakeasies are helping to drive this trend [of drinking Cognac] in France,” explains Bernard Peillon, chairman and CEO of Maison Hennessy. The city that once looked to New York or London for its cocktail cues is instilling faith in itself and its terroir, reviving recipes for cocktails that disappeared in the 19th century and giving old-school digestifs a livelier—and more modern—spin.
Over the winter, Hôtel Parister’s Les Passerelles was one of five bars in Paris and Bordeaux to host the pop-up Cognac Cocktail Connexion, an event devoted entirely to showing off the versatility of Cognac in cocktails. In the span of three hours at the one-night soirée, Les Passerelles sold 400 cocktails. While Les Passerelles is still technically a hotel bar, more 20 and 30 somethings are coming in for a cocktail—and not just international travelers, but Parisians, too.
“Cognac used to be a grandpa spirit, what you would drink after dinner with a cigar,” laughs Lilya Sekkal, bar manager at Les Passerelles, over coffee one afternoon. “But bars like Experimental Cocktail Club have helped made cocktails sexy.” Bartenders are also making Cognac more accessible (read: less intimidating) by mixing it into easy-to-sip cocktails that are something other than a Sazerac, “which is a great, but quite powerful and old school,” Sekkal says. In Paris, she’s now seeing a trend in consumers drinking less, but willing to dish out more for a craft cocktail they can linger over. “That’s why there are so many cocktail bars in Paris right now,” she says.
Sure, you’ll still find stronger favorites like Sazeracs on the menu, but bartenders are toning down the intensity and making Cognac seem just as approachable as, say, tequila or vodka. At Danico, the spirit is mixed with avocado and black sesame orgeat syrup and sprinkled with cacao nibs, while Bonhomie’s aptly titled cocktail, Grand Bazaar, infuses handcrafted Bourgoin Cognac with sesame oil before blending it with a cornucopia of flavors from cold brew to coffee and cardamom bitters.
Cognac was once considered the drink of the Pacific (with Hennessy first arriving in Shanghai 160 years ago), but this spirit is coming full circle as the trend toward terroir grows in Paris.
“What we need to do, as bartenders, is be ambassadors of French spirits and make cocktails dans l’air du temps, that keep up with the times,” Sekkal says. “In France, we are really chauvain, we love our country, we love our terroir.”