Increasing numbers of men and women between the ages of 20 and 30 are flocking to new nightspots for after-work drinks. These neo-cocktail buffs share a love of discovering flavors both new and old. Far from being a fad, “cocktailmania” is the manifestation of our desire to reacquaint ourselves with the long-established tradition of mixed drinks.
Where did the word cocktail come from? Some maintain that before it was used to refer to a mixed drink, the term was used in the 18th century to refer to cross-bred horses that had the muscle cut from their tails to make them stand up straight like a cock's tail. According to the surely more realistic theory, the Frenchman Antoine Amédée Peychaud, an apothecary in New Orleans in the 1830s, started mixing medicinal drinks using bitter, water, sugar and cognac and served them in an eggcup. It was then only a short step from coquetier (the French word for eggcup) to cocktail. “Cocktails have since progressed to the point at which they have sparked a real culture of the art of mixing, spread by recipe books written by the most talented barmen”, explains César Giron, Chairman and CEO of Pernod, who is passionate about mixology and collects cocktail recipe books.
There has been a sustained renewal of interest in cocktails since the late 1980s. This reinvention started in the USA, the country that invented cocktails in the first place, and soon in Europe. In France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, cocktails used to be a sophisticated and expensive drink consumed in luxury hotels by an older target group.
However, at that time, alcohol producers started to think about creating spirits and inspiring new consumption trends. Intending to break away from traditionalism and turn towards the future, they decided to target the younger generation.
Michel Roux, the marketing genius behind Absolut Vodka and later Bombay Sapphire gin, recalls that “with its trendy edge and as it was specifically used in cocktails, in the late 1980s Bombay Sapphire gave the gin industry, which had been constantly losing customers as they died out, a tremendous boost.”
Some barmen dusted off this trend. Starting with New Yorker Dale DeGroff who began the rebirth of cocktail culture by reviving vintage cocktail recipes. In London, the cocktail scene enjoyed a renaissance, particularly thanks Dick Bradsell and to the vibe at the Atlantic Bar, which has since become one of the British capital's trendiest places.
Other bartenders, such as Sasha Petraske at Milk & Honey in London, revisited the speakeasy bar culture of Prohibition - when customers drank in secret places where they were asked to “keep it down” to avoid discovery - playing with the rules to make enjoying a drink into a journey of initiation. Other famous bars followed, such as Jorg Meyer's Le Lion in Hamburg, which is barely visible from the street, and Jim Mehan's Please Don't Tell in New York, which is entered through a phone box in a hot dog cafe.
In Paris, the movement took some time to materialize. The Experimental Cocktail Club played an important role in pioneering the movement: “We had a precise idea concerning cocktails in the context of the Parisian scene. During that time, there was a real need for quality. We knew that this demand will not be short lived. We were really convinced about this, and this enabled us to surf the trend wave. We had to make the movement dynamic as we were the only ones at the beginning. And then, its success has surpassed our expectations... the Parisian market has become very dynamic, offering interesting places, an authentic scene even comparable to that of New York or London” reminisces Pierre-Charles Cros, one of the three partners of the Experimental Cocktail Club (Paris).
The cocktail revival could have just been a passing phase, but instead cocktail culture is going back to its roots and reinventing itself. For connoisseurs, sipping a cocktail is becoming an essential part of a weekend in London, New York or Berlin. A trend which already exists in the the world of food, which is seeing consumers all over the world rediscover the pleasure of eating “good, real” food after years of fast and frozen.
Gastronomy and mixology go well together: it's not uncommon to find cocktails on restaurant menus and even for chefs to create pairings between dishes and cocktails, like Taku Sekine does at Dersou in Paris, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino does at Ámaz in Lima, and Maison Première does in New York with its oyster house concept.
Today, alcohol consumption follows the “drink less, enjoy more” rule. While in the 90s, cocktails were often made from spirits of average quality mixed with soft drinks, cocktails in the 2000s are made from high-quality spirits and fresh produce. All with much lower prices than those previously charged in palatial bars!
As a result of this democratization, a large number of consumers who are increasingly mindful of the quality on offer have become attracted to cocktails. And maybe we visit a cocktail bar more for the atmosphere and the experience it provides than to quench our thirst? As proof of this, most cocktail bars now serve customers a glass of water before they take their order. “Because when you're thirsty, you drink water, not alcohol. A cocktail should be savored. And this is a clear message that the new generation of bartenders is passing”, as Thierry Daniel co-founder of the Cocktails Spirits show explains.
It is clear that the job of barman has changed. It's not just about filling a glass any more but rather channeling expertise. Bar jobs were seen as second jobs during the post-war period but have now become professions in their own right again, for which a talent for mixing is a vital prerequisite. “Being a bartender is a multi-skilled job. We are actors, chefs, managers and we are responsible for our customers”, explains Charles Vexenat, the bartender who invented the absinthe-based cocktail Green Beast. It is safe to say that a strong international cocktail scene has now been established.
Bar show-style events and cocktail weeks are growing and helping bring together and educate professionals - and their customers too! And the online community is equally strong. “Three years ago, the Pernod Ricard Group set up the social network Wispr to help give bartenders recognition and encourage solidarity within the profession. Today the social network links around 4,000 professionals who can be informed about events, display their work and chat easily”, says Hugues Demont, Head of Digital Marketing - EMEA, who is also in charge of the Wispr project.
Now better organized, the bartender community is impacting the strategies of large spirits groups and even manufacturers of non-alcoholic drinks who want to seize the opportunities in a transforming market. Some have developed products that are better suited to being consumed in cocktails, while others are focusing on heritage or reviving brands in their portfolio that have been forgotten, such as old regional aperitif drinks in France, bitters in Italy, and some herbal liqueurs in central Europe. Other brands are even bringing out new products in line with their history, such as the bitters Suze has developed for the bar world (alongside three professionals, Joseph Biolatto, Fernando Castellon and Julien Escot).
Some manufacturers offer bartenders from all over the world training sessions on “new” mixology practice. One of the best examples of this is the Pernod Ricard Group's “Maison” program. The training provides a combination of techniques, and a command of all the spirits categories. “We support talent in music and contemporary art at Pernod Ricard, so why shouldn't we have the same ambition for our bartenders?” asks Thibaut de Poutier de Sone, executive vice-president of on-trade and luxury development at the group. The “Maison” program was also chosen to highlight the group's desire to provide a qualifying training program to barmen and to align itself with the growth of house parties and establish itself as a “creator of sociability.”
Bartenders share this desire, offering their customers the chance to learn a few mixology basics that they can use at home. For example, Le Coq in Paris organizes two-hour workshops where you can learn to make your own cocktails every Saturday afternoon. “We have become aware of our customers' curiosity about the drinks we serve them, hence the idea behind these lessons. However, we do not provide professional training - we try to teach the basic rules to explain what a cocktail is. The key is that novices are not afraid to have a go at home or at their friends' houses, even without specialist equipment”, explains Eric Fossard, consultant and co-owner of the bar and also co-organizer of the international Cocktails Spirits show in Paris, which brings together more than 300 spirits brands as well as bartenders from all over the world.
In the same way that cooking and baking have reassumed their place in the home and the media is constantly turning chefs into celebrities, mixology could well open up a new chapter in home entertaining. In our search for reassuring values that bring us closer to our roots, society is drawing inspiration from the expert knowledge, the expression of local identity, and the incredibly rich history that make the art of mixing cocktails a real cultural practice.
Thank you to César Giron, Thibaut de Poutier de Sone, Charles Vexenat, Joseph Biolatto, Eric Fossard, Thierry Daniel, Mathieu Sabbagh, Claudine Eynaud et Hugues Demont for contributing to this article.
Journalist: Olivier Reneau, independent lifestyle journalist and contributor to the magazine Cocktail Spirits
Photographer: Philippe Levy
Illustrator: Sandy Vigneron
Video director: Antoine Blanchet
Designed & produced by Textuel La Mine
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