Cocktails and Dreams
The cocktail menu at Le Comptoir General, a very cool bar which I very much like.
Yesterday, I drank a 12 euro cocktail out of a plastic bag and was very pleased with both the reasonable price and the presentation of my drink. We are here to talk about that experience.
There are several bars in Paris that I frequent - almost all of them are either biker dives or vaguely Brooklyn-esque biker dive pastiches. But my very favorite bar in Paris is on the Left Bank, quite literally hidden among a bunch of tawny hotels and upscale boutiques in the 6th arrondissement. I'd tell you the name but I don't actually know it; I can say that it's on Rue de Condé and that this explains at least some of its appeal. At any rate, my understanding of is that it's a hobby bar. To enter, you call the phone number posted on the door, and the dude will come down and open the door for you.
I'm going to devote a lot of space to this bar because I love it, and I want you to love it, too. The place is almost always empty or near empty. I know nothing about the history, but the decor is everything you'd ever asked of an early 80's nightclub - the path to the bathroom is inexplicably paved with marble white chunks of gravel; they're playing disco. You're given the uncanny expression that at some point, 40-odd years ago, it was slightly scandalous and ugly-glamorous. Think Boogie Nights or, more recently, American Hustle. There's something seedy about it, and not the faux, Disney-fied seedy bars frequented by 20-something year old dudes who read Vice and think they're Hunter S. Thompson. The beauty of this bar is that it appears untouched by time. It's not a dive, it retains a proud dignity. If there's no crowd dripping in diamonds and gold lamé pants, it's because you've (always) arrived too early for the real party.
You take your seat, the owner (?) hands you a menu, you order your cocktail and he leaves, as if you and your party weren't the only people in the bar. The menu is devoid of innovation - here we see the Sex on the Beach, Red Headed Slut, the old friends from the days before the cocktail achieved its bourgeois prestige. The cocktail is prepared and served with out the saccharine, fawning amitié common in American bars, but also without pretension - the bartender is not an artist, the untouchable physical medium through which the cocktail gods will deliver your drink. He's a man, pouring liquid into a glass. It's unpretentious, it's unapologetically really expensive, and it is unbelievably cool as fuck.
In short, it's the exact opposite of the cocktail experience that's come to dominate bars as of late in New York and, increasingly, Paris. I'm really interested in what's happened to the cocktail in the past 10 or so years. I've only frequented cocktail establishments for about 4.5 years (and I've only been doing so legally, read: overtly, since last July) - so if I can't claim to have experienced the entire evolution, my short experience might at least speak to the rapidity of the process.
Who now mourns the cocktails of old? They first became outmoded in favor of "classic drinks" over a decade ago, but even before that, they'd largely disappeared from bar menus. The catalyst for the birth of the cocktail as we now know it was The Great Recession. Which is not to say that starving, student loan-burdened millennials were all suddenly dropping 15 dollars on cocktails. But I'd postulate that they came in 2008 with what I call the Great American Artisanal Movement. The GAMA was born of a post-financial crisis desperation to exercise control. We're all terrified, and making with our own hands, creating something "authentic," is an enticing way of opting-out of a "throw away" consumer society to which we feel chained. Suddenly we experience a sudden vogue for everything hand-made and real, and in true Barthesian fashion, what is present becomes historical, classical, natural. Mythology creates history. History creates nature. Fruity, sugary drinks become symbols of vapidity - they are not craft - and are thrown out the window. The cocktail transforms.
Here, we'll return to the cocktail in the plastic bag. You can find it at a place called Copperbay. It was delicious, if not entirely creative - gin/cucumber/a touch of something spicy (in this case, wasabi) is relatively formulaic. It was presented, however, in a fucking plastic bag with a sprig of baby's breath sticking out. Let me just take a minute to list all the things I adore about this: first, that it could be used as a water balloon, should I ever require one in an emergency situation. That I could sneak it out of there and it would be portable and pliable and maybe even fit in my purse. That it's like the fucking CAPRI SUN of cocktails, hey Mom, pass these out at soccer half time please? Then, there's the American aspect of drinking out of a brown paper bag - the cliché of the proletariate, the nearly-hidden shame of drinking as necessity - juxtaposed against that bag being filled with a 12 euro cocktail with a sprig of fucking baby's breath.
This is such an awful picture but I mean, do you get it?!
My adoration is at once sincere and mocking: on one hand, I was genuinely tickled and kept resisting the urge to whip it at the wall (in the best possible way). On the other hand, I find it hilarious, because I think we've found here the absolute apex of the ridiculous cocktail culture that's been brewing over the past few years.
So many of the elaborate idiosyncrasies now common to the average cocktail menu can be explained away under the guise of being somehow necessary to the craft of the cocktail and thus its consumption. Particular ingredients, for example, are required to bring about certain interactions of flavor between the alcohols involved. This idea of science is evoked, a concrete aspect, no room is left for argument. There are countless examples of this faux-necessity, but being served in a plastic bag is not one of them. The cocktail has long surpassed being a beverage; consumption has moved so far into the realm of A Consumer Experience that all logical consideration for what it is actually required to drink one has just gone out the window.
Plastic bags, dry ice, any and all manner of ridiculous artifice have become so unwaveringly ubiquitous in the names of "craft" and "experience" that cocktails are increasingly approaching the level of ridiculous flamboyancy for which we so cruelly shamed and abandoned their predecessors. The form of craft becomes diluted in favor of its image, complicated-for-the-sake-of-being-complicated merely replaces silly-for-the-sake-of-being-silly. Let's be very clear: there is no real difference between a Sex on the Beach and a cocktail in a plastic bag - you're ordering both for fun and for novelty, the aim of both is a certain social wink - but the latter hides behind the noble virtue of craft, while the former is left to falter in the realm of the obscene and the decadent.
And I'm left to wonder if we haven't here reached the edge, if this isn't the end of it all? I think at least in New York, there's a sort of call for calm, trend-wise. Experimental Cocktail Club seems horribly 2011, you know. You had to get the one that's like, on fire? You couldn't just a G+ T with a fancy gin? New York will never lose its taste for the elite and the expensive, and heaven forbid! that a restaurant be without a cocktail menu. It's just that I'm anticipating a return to a minimalism mimicking the stylistic minimalism that's dominated the fashion world of late; a sort of refined simplicity. I smell the return of the wine bar in the air. I also haven't been in New York in months - might as well be 10 years.
Comparatively, cocktail culture in Paris is less developed, but more interesting (and, side note, the fact that the phrase cocktail culture exists should illustrate some of my points). The French have their alcohol culture already, and it's strong and extremely deeply embedded. Wine, maybe very occasionally beer. Hard liquor tends to be consumed with a single mixer (gin/tonic; Ricard/water; rum/coke), or else straight. Historically, the French do not drink to get drunk - it's been said that drunkenness is merely the inevitable side effect of the lauded act of drinking. I mean, go out on a Friday night and see how true that is, obviously. But hard liquor is a means to an end, and so if it has a traditional place in French culture, I don't get the impression that it's a particularly valued one.
Bars, brasseries, and cafés here tend to serve a short list of common, crowd-pleasing cocktails - caprihanas and mojitos above all. (Which always kind of surprised me, because the mojito has a reputation in the US for being an obnoxiously complicated drink, a dick thing to order). This will be the case at the trendiest of bars, unless you're at a bar that's specifically designated as a cocktail bar - and that, too, means something different here.
A few months ago, I went on a first date with a dude who promised to take me to his favorite cocktail bar. We arrived, and I found myself staring at a menu with like, 100 random drinks, at least 45 of which were basic variations on the mojito, i.e this one has a splash of grenadine! It was a great date, and I totally enjoyed my drinks. It was a wonderful experience, certainly, but not without initial confusion, genre: "Where's the curation, the bitters, the pretension? Fuck, we may have had a miscommunication."
That's pretty typical for the Parisian cocktail bar, save the growing number of new-comers that are popping up with increasing frequency in some of the more Williamsburg-esque areas of the city. These have followed New York's lead, sometimes leading to a sort of heavy-handed, over the top imitation - you know, like serving a cocktail in a plastic bag with a straight face. This bar I was in last night, I went with a good French friend I met in New York, he turned to me and said, "I see why you wanted to come here, you're back at Freeman's." Ça fait très Lower East Side.
I want to be clear, I'm not shitting on Parisian cocktail bars or culture. It's just that, outside of a gin and tonic, I would never really think of ordering a real cocktail in Paris. I'd do beer, maybe wine or a mojito, depending on the night. And up until relatively recently, I don't think many Parisians would have, either. I'm really intrigued by the cocktail here, but I think it's in its nascent stages, and it's more that I look forward to seeing where it will be in a few years, when the creativity and culinary innovation that Paris is known for does its job. I've been impressed, thus far, by the Parisian cocktail's reprisal of French gastronomy - roquefort? In my Gin Fizz? It's worth noting that in some ways, cocktails fit quite nicely into France's traditional drinking culture. Price alone prohibits for many a drinking-to-get-drunk mentality; the cocktail as experience lends itself rather well to traditional views about the consumption of wine.
If I'm balking at the complication, the pretension, the cocktail as craft, it's because I'm just a little tired of it, a little tired of the bartender as vehicle, as spiritual medium, as artist, as opposed to a person, serving me a drink. Nor am I knocking artisanal cocktails themselves - I get a great kick out of ordering the most interesting thing on the menu. But I am a little tired of the extravagant showmanship, of being presented a drink that I am supposed to bow before. And I hope that, going forward, cocktail culture finds itself able to strike a balance between creativity and showmanship; between the fun experimental joy of making a mixed drink, and the extravagant faux-artistry that has dominated bars as of late.
At any rate, you can find me these days at that hidden little bar in the 6th. I guess it's like a speakeasy, but you don't have to call it that for it to be cool. You can find me ordering a Hurricane or a Slippery Nipple or whatever interesting concoction that dude who runs it has invented. I don't know, I'll be drinking something good and having a lot of fun doing so, which is ultimately the raison d'être of the cocktail - whether it has a stupid name or comes in a plastic bag.