Happy Hour: a History of Cocktails in Paris

Happy Hour: a History of Cocktails in Paris

What better way to celebrate a special occasion than with a tantalising French cocktail in the City of Light? We take a look at the history of Paris concoctions.

Paris has always been a city for drinkers. Even in Roman times, its ancient precursor, Lutetia, was famous for its taverns, and by the end of the 17th century, every street in the city had at least one drinking establishment. The first cafés, including the still-famous Le Procope, appeared in the 1660s and enticed Enlightenment thinkers including Voltaire and Rousseau through their doors with radical new offerings of coffee and lemonade.

But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the City of Light came into its own as a drinking destination. The first city to have fully electrified street lighting, still reeling from a tumultuous few decades but revelling in hitherto unseen prosperity, la belle Paris was both celebrated and castigated for its vice, loose morals, ruthless energy and the breathless pace of progress. It was the best place in the world to drink – and many would argue that it still is.

© Ryland Peters & Small

A recipe for freedom

By 1885 there were more than 30,000 drinking dens offering a heady mix of drink, sex, ideas, arguments and revolutionary ferment. Although cocktails were already enjoying a golden age in America, in Paris the drinks of choice were wine, beer and champagne, and few could resist the siren call of the Green Fairy herself – absinthe – which was widely available at 72% proof. This was the glorious age of the Belle Époque, when Montmartre nightlife fizzed with activity. It was the playground of poets, artists, writers and bohemians, who met, drank, argued and philosophised, fuelled by the alcohol and music provided by cabaret bars, such as Le Chat Noir and Le Moulin Rouge, that sprang up to meet the demand. Café Les Deux Magots opened in 1885 and attracted the first of many illustrious clientèle in the form of the poets Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, and Oscar Wilde.

The mood changed with World War I, and it was around this time that cocktails first started making their appearance in France, thanks perhaps to American troops stationed there, and the new Atlantic cruise liners connecting America with Europe, with their elegant smoking-room bars serving Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. They were still largely confined to a handful of American bars, though, notably the bar at the Hôtel Ritz Paris, which may have been one of the first hotel bars in the world. Renowned cafés La Closerie de Lilas, Le Dôme and La Rotonde were hosting the luminaries of the Parisian cultural scene on the boulevard du Montparnasse, which had by now overtaken Montmartre as the centre of literary and cultural life, particularly for young composers like Francis Poulenc, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky. French writer Guillaume Apollinaire observed that Montparnasse had become ‘for artists and poets what Montmartre had been to those before them: a haven of beauty and simple freedom’.


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A thirst for Paris

It took the start of Prohibition in 1919 to truly launch the cocktail in Europe, though. The 1920s saw a migration of US-based artists and writers fleeing Prohibition in search of a drink in Paris, bringing with them a thirst for cocktails and – thus the exuberance of les années folles began. Among the greats of the so-called Lost Generation who headed for Paris were Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein and Man Ray, and for those heady years, Paris was the centre of the artistic and cocktail-universe.

For just about every sphere of cultural life, Paris was where it was at. ‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast,’ Hemingway wrote in his memoir of those years. As part of his lifelong commitment to drinking, he probably set the record for the number of drinks created by or for him, including Death in the Afternoon and the Hemingway.

The unprecedented intermingling of so many vibrant literary and cultural figures with bibulous tendencies, and the sheer sense of joie de vivre of a glamorous beau monde meeting, talking, dancing wildly and misbehaving all fuelled by wine, champagne, spirits and classic cocktails has retained an intoxicating pull on the imagination ever since, most recently demonstrated in Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris. As well as the favourite cafés of Montparnasse and Saint- Germain, infamous new drinking dens sprang up to cater for them, such as Harry’s New York Bar, where Harry MacElhone plied his shaker to creations including the Bloody Mary, the Sidecar and the White Lady, and jazz nightspot Le Boeuf sur le Toit, where Jean Cocteau was regularly to be found playing the drums. Several of the classic cocktails we enjoy today had their origins in this golden age of decadence.

Prohibition was repealed in 1932, but the Parisian scene remained as lively as ever and eminent figures like Coco Chanel, Yves Klein and Charlie Chaplin, among many others, continued to enjoy a champagne cocktail or two at much-loved bars and cafés. The 1940s saw the next great flowering of the scene, this time in the area around Saint-Germain-des-Prés, home of Brasserie Lipp, Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, which was already hosting a thriving literary scene thanks to the number of publishers and bookshops. It now saw an explosion of small basement jazz clubs – the most infamous being Le Tabou on rue Dauphine, sadly no longer with us – playing music the world had never heard before. It was a Mecca for students, struggling writers, actors, artists and musicians, many of whom met in the local cafés to work, talk and conduct their lives because their living quarters were so tiny. Most famously, this was where existentialism was born, thanks to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the so-called ‘troglodytes of Saint-Germain’. In her memoir, Beauvoir recorded an occasion in a local bar when she and Sartre were invited by a friend to philosophise about their apricot cocktails, thus kickstarting their thinking about existentialism. While Sartre preferred Scotch and soda, Beauvoir is thought to have been partial to a Gin Fizz.

Although the famous drinkers may have left, the allure of Parisian bars and cafés still burns brightly. As in many other cities, cocktails have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the last few decades, and there’s now a vibrant scene of modish bars and speakeasies, concentrated in the Marais district, where innovative mixologists create magical concoctions – such as the Experimental Cocktail Club.

City of romance, bright lights and chic hideaways, of afternoons whiled away in cafés on the Left Bank and strolls along the Seine, there is no finer place than Paris for a drink and no better inspiration to delve into your drinks cabinet.

From France Today Magazine

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