Here’s the thing about bars: most of them aren’t that great. It remains woefully difficult to find a good glass of wine or a decent cocktail, and many people spend more time than they should drinking average booze in uncongenial places.
Clearly, we need assistance, but it’s pretty galling that the people giving it turn out to be French. The hottest bars around right now are owned by no fewer than four of them, French men on a mission to teach us not how to drink more — God knows we can already do that — but how to drink better.
“People used to think you make cocktails with a couple of leftover spirits which you buy cheap and sell at a premium,” says Xavier Padovani, 41. “Now, it’s completely changed. People here are cosmopolitan and super-educated. You can’t sell them s*** any more.”
Which is where the Experimental Group comes in. Romée de Goriainoff, Pierre-Charles Cros, Olivier Bon and Padovani have a string of Experimental bars, restaurants and hotels in London, Paris, New York and Ibiza. De Goriainoff, Cros and Bon have been best friends since childhood, having grown up together in the south of France. “Olivier and I were in church school together when we were seven or eight,” remembers Cros. “We went to high school together and we left Montpellier together as soon as we could.”
They always knew that, one day, they would go into business, and there is an easy camaraderie among them and Padovani that speaks of years of familiarity. Padovanipokes fun at de Goriainoff about how he’s always doing yoga and spits out the cocktails when they’re testing them, and Cros does most of the talking, and teases de Goriainoff about being single. He in turn protests that like any job with long hours, it’s hard to meet people, but admits to being so compulsively sociable that he never has a meal at home (his favourite restaurant is The Clove Club).
The only question growing up was what that business would be. At school, they were interested in wine and food, and while your average teen in Montpellier is probably drinking the French equivalent of snakebite, these three were saving up to buy a really nice bottle of wine to sip and share and discuss. Quality food and wine were always, says Cros, their common passion. It became their shared business when they all graduated from different universities in 2005, and went on a trip to New York.
“The quality of the cocktails was a shock,” says Cros. “At the time, cocktails in Paris were non-existent. The only way you could get one was by going to the Ritz and paying 35 euros for it.”
“At the other extreme,” adds Bon, “you had cheap cocktails made with bad alcohol. The things young people were drinking were so bad and we thought there was no way Paris would stay that way.”
So they opened their own cocktail bar in the up-and-coming garment area of Paris, called it the Experimental Cocktail Club and it turned out they were right. Today, their burgeoning empire consists of 15 venues — bars, restaurants and a hotel, in four different countries, with plans to open more in London. But in the beginning, back in 2005, they struggled to get off the ground. With seed money from their families, they approached the banks for a loan.
“We were refused by pretty much every bank in Paris,” says Cros ruefully, “except one. We were 24 and we had no experience!” Having raised the money and found their location, they made their first mistake: in spite of not yet having planning permission or an alcohol licence, they threw a party, which attracted way more people than they expected. The police were unimpressed on all three counts, and hauled them into the gendarmerie.
“We committed something like ten violations in a single night,” says Cros. “They could have closed us down before we even opened.”
Happily for the thirsty citizens of Paris, they didn’t. True, none of the three had a day off for a year, but the bar was a success from the get-go. It has since attracted a celebrity clientele including Keira Knightley, Quentin Tarantino and Beyoncé and Jay Z. A year later, they opened another and since then another, and another, including one in London’s Chinatown five years ago — which is when Padovani came on board — and now Joyeux Bordel. In the early days they faced some criticism for having an overly strict door policy, but now Cros maintains all you need to get into one of his venues is a big smile.
“Two things made us different,” says Bon. “Most bars in Paris had one brand of gin, one of vodka, one of rum. We had four or five, and brands that no one knew about. Second, we were the first in the city to use measures. Everyone mocked us and said we were being stingy, but it meant our drinks were consistent. Using them became the norm.”
Their latest London opening, a cocktail bar in Shoreditch, east London, is so low-key you could walk straight past. In most places, this would be irritating. In Shoreditch, it’s cool. You wouldn’t want to be seen to be trying too hard, after all, or making it easy for people to find you. And when those people have, somehow, found themselves in Joyeux Bordel — whose name means happy mess, but whose every light fitting and glass has been subjected to careful scrutiny and hours of debate — you wouldn’t want them to order a glass of wine. Heavens, no. This is a cocktail bar, so you’re going to drink a cocktail and no, you can’t have a mojito because it’s boring, why don’t you try an Old Cuban instead? Remarkably, far from resulting in zero customers, this business strategy has proved a roaring success.
“If you give people things they’d go for naturally,” reasons Cros, “they’ll never discover cocktails. Our motto is that drinking is never going to be healthy, so you might as well make it good.”
The bar at Joyeux Bordel is stocked with brands and cocktails you may never have heard of. They’ll make you a cosmopolitan, if you insist, but they sure as hell aren’t putting it on the list. Depending on which of the 12 cocktails you order, the gin in your cocktail might be Jensen’s Old Tom or Hendrick’s. Whisky could be Buffalo Trace Bourbon, rum might be Appleton Estate VX. The signature cocktail is the Saint Germain des Prés, described thus: Hendrick’s gin, St Germain liqueur, lime, elderflower cordial, egg white, spiced tincture and cucumber juice, yours for a mere £10.50. You can get champagne, mostly houses you’ve never heard of, and beers which will probably be new to you. Of wine there is none, not so much as a token glass.
“We focus on the cocktails,” says de Goriainoff, “but then we were frustrated that we couldn’t show our passion for wine. So we opened some wine bars, called the Compagnie des Vins.”
These days, three live in London, one lives in Paris, two are married, one has a baby and one — de Goriainoff — is single. “He’s on the open market!” says Cros gleefully. “So if you say he has a girlfriend he’ll get very upset.”
In the summer, they all rent a nine-bedroom house in Ibiza, hang out with the DJs from their own Ibiza bar and generally have a good time. Not one word, says Padovani, will be said about business. But in spite of mixing business with pleasure, their friendship is as strong as ever.
“It’s difficult, but not because we’re friends,” says Cros. “It’s difficult because we are all passionate. There’s been some big arguments, like which glasses work best. Our partnership and friendship has been tried and tested, but never to destruction.”
“Of course we have arguments,” adds Padovani, “but the key factor is that we have fun.”
Joyeux Bordel, 147 Curtain Road, London; joyeuxbordel.com
‘I’ll have whatever Beyoncé and Jay Z are having . . .’
Experience no. 1
“This was one of the first cocktails we had on our list and it still makes an appearance on the menu from time to time. It’s a cool, refreshing drink that has stood the test of time. Many of our other bars have used this cocktail as inspiration to create their own variations. The Experience series is often given a new lease of life using different base spirits — gin or pisco, for example.”
2 basil leaves
1 lemongrass stem, torn into pieces
50ml Fair vodka
20ml fresh lemon juice
20ml elderflower cordial
1 whole lemongrass stem, to garnish
Place the basil and torn lemongrass in a cocktail shaker and muddle lightly. Add the rest of the ingredients, then add ice cubes and shake enthusiastically until well combined. Double-strain into a chilled coupette and garnish with a fresh lemongrass stem.
“The salt fashioned was created by Damien Aries, exploring his love for the smoky, peaty Islay whiskies. It’s a great choice for neat whisky drinkers, or a way of easing into smoky Islay whisky for those used to something less peaty. This cocktail is made in the same way as a classic old fashioned, but the flavours are entirely different. It’s certainly quite smoky, but the maple syrup with a touch of sea salt creates a smooth, yet quite dry taste. The apple bitters give this drink a wonderful dessert-like quality.”
60ml Laphroaig whisky
5ml salted maple syrup*
3 dashes of apple bitters
Lemon, to garnish
Place all the cocktail ingredients in a mixing glass, fill with ice cubes and stir with a bar spoon. Strain into a rocks glass with one large ice cube and garnish with a twist of pared lemon rind.
* To make salted maple syrup, stir 1 tsp sea salt into 120ml maple syrup.
Minus et cortex
“This is a twist on the tom and jerry cocktail. Dating back to the early 1800s, this classic is synonymous with Christmas. In this version, spiced rum replaces brandy and chocolate milk replaces whole milk. The result is a rum flip with a nod of schooldays nostalgia from the chocolate milk. A bit naughty for a boozy cocktail, but true cocktail comfort food nonetheless. The name pays homage to Minus et Cortex (Pinky and the Brain), a 1990s cartoon in the spirit of the Tom and Jerry cartoons.”
30ml spiced rum
10ml dark rum
1 egg, beaten
1 dash Angostura bitters
10ml sugar syrup
30ml Cacolac, or other chocolate milk
Nutmeg, to garnish
Place all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker without ice and shake vigorously until well combined. Add some large cubes of ice and shake again. Strain into a coupette and garnish with grated nutmeg.
“This is inspired by Joyeux Bordel’s e nossa. To make the e nossa, add 3 dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters and 3 dashes of peach bitters to the ingredients in the shaker.”
50ml Yaguara cachaça
20ml fresh lime juice
15ml simple syrup
Top up with ginger ale
Lime, to garnish
Place all ingredients except the ginger ale in a cocktail shaker and add ice. Shake well until chilled. Pour into a highball glass, add fresh ice and top with ginger ale. Garnish with a lime wheel.
“This is inspired by Joyeux Bordel’s tommy’s cut. To make the tommy’s cut, replace the tequila with mezcal.”
40ml tequila blanco
10ml red vermouth
10ml fresh grapefruit juice
25ml fresh lime juice
20ml agave syrup
Rosemary sprig, to garnish
Place all the ingredients except the rosemary in a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake until well chilled. Strain into a rocks glass and add a big block of ice. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.
“Joyeux Bordel’s Christmas cocktail, by head barman Joshua Esposito.”
15ml simple syrup
Nutmeg and a butter cookie, to garnish
Place all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake well. Add ice to the shaker and shake again. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with grated nutmeg and grated butter cookie.
From the Experimental Cocktail Club: London. Paris. New York. Ibiza by Olivier Bon, Pierre-Charles Cros, Romée de Goriainoff and Xavier Padovani, published by Mitchell Beazley, £20; octopusbooks.co.uk