Joseph Akhavan is known around Paris for two things: the extensive collection of rum at his bar, Mabel, and his dedication to the entire bar experience. Here, he shares the story of his legendary love of rum.
During BCB, Joseph Akhavan presented two seminars about his bar, Mabel, in Paris and rhum agricole. It was a chance to meet one of most talented barmen of the French cocktail scene, and ask him about his travels in the world of rum and high-quality cocktails. The following interview was edited for clarity.
How did you start your career in the bar world?
Joseph Akhavan: I started in 2004, in small bar jobs in parallel with translation studies. But my very first job in this world was in my father’s restaurant when I was 13 years old. I just dried the glasses and opened sodas and bottles of water. After three years juggling between a pub in Paris, Bercy and studies, with my Masters in my pocket, I wanted to focus on translation work….I soon realized that I was looking at a lot of articles on the net dealing with cocktails, spirits…and I missed working at the bar.
In summer 2008, I decided to turn fully to the cocktail world in a more upscale place. I applied to the ECC (Experimental Cocktail Club) and sent my CV to the following address: Xavier Padovani, the French consultant for the opening of the Mama Shelter Paris. He was seeking to create a bar team, and I was employed as a bartender. There was a very amazing team with Nico de Soto, and Arthur Combe, among others who have made great careers. I became the head bartender after six months, following the departure of Nico and stayed two years. In 2011, I decided to take over La Conserverie (one of first cocktails bars in Paris). I stayed two years – the bar has closed since – and at the end of 2014, I opened Mabel with my wife and partner Samantha Sanford.
Did you always have the goal to start your own venue like many bartenders in France? Is it difficult today to set up a bar in Paris?
Joseph Akhavan: It all depends on the structure. For example, you can take on investors who carry out heavy operations and who will count on you to lead the project from a conceptual point of view. Or you can open a bar with your own funds and lead the project from A to Z without third party. We are in this second case. It’s not easy if you start your own bar – the life of a company is hard. Employer charges are monstrous and the balance often leans more towards the employee than the employer.
What is not difficult, on the other hand, is doing what we love, and we often discover unexpected resources to carry out its project. It’s also a pretty dense world so it’s important to have your own vision, not follow a movement just because it’s cool. Cocktail bars shouldn’t be like Starbucks, where you always find the same offers whichever one you go to. I’ve always had this in mind. Above all, I have always had a strong need for independence at all levels. Being my own boss really appeals, I think, to a trait of my personality.
You’re celebrating the Mabel’s 3 years today with your wife Samantha – how did you get the idea of a rum bar with grilled cheese sandwiches?
Joseph Akhavan: Simple – rum is a personal choice. It was obvious for us to focus on something that we like. We know it well, we can talk about it, and help others discover it. I first discovered rum for myself when I started at Mama Shelter. Back then, I didn’t really know anything about rum and rhum agricole, and I was lucky enough to be able to taste many things, because our selection was quite extensive. My passion began with a knockout tasting of Ron Santa Teresa 1796 and it made me want to know more, and to read, learn, and discover all about rum. Eight years later, that discovery from a tasting led to the concept for Mabel, Cocktail Den & Rum Empire.
I noticed that rum bars were often tropical or pirate themed and our wish was to get out of this trend and to direct to all the movements it is able to represent. As for the grilled cheese idea, we started from the premise that we would like to offer some food to guests, but do it a little differently. Get out of tapas, planks, crudités…and for us grilled cheese was an obvious option: Samantha is American and she grew up with it. When we went out at night, we would make grilled cheese when we came home. All that made sense to us. What I love is the homely feeling of that, which clashes with the atmosphere the cocktails and rum create.
How has been the concept evolved over the past three years?
Joseph Akhavan: At the very beginning, our idea was to open the grilled cheese shop at noon, but after a few months, we decided to change strategy and make Mabel a nighttime place only. The menu evolves with the times. We are already on our 12th menu, and we constantly bring novelty to our cocktails. We are refocusing more and more intently on all types of rum. We’re down to 106 spirits from 160 in three years, and we have reduced or completely eliminated some other spirits we had at the beginning (no vodka, fewer gins). But overall, the concept has remained consistent.
The cocktail menu is one of the most sophisticated in Paris. How do you come up with your creations and what are your bestsellers?
Joseph Akhavan: Our menu is divided into several parts: Mabel’s Classics, Seasonal Cocktails, Clear Milk Punches, Barrel-Aged Collection, Rum Flights. And the list of rums. Of course, our best sellers are in the Mabel’s Classics section. They never leave the menu – they are cocktails that we’ve had from the very beginning but are still very current in their concept and technique.
The way I design new cocktails is a mix of instinct and seasonality. I work on the next menu as soon as the current one is printed, by trying to think three months ahead. Being the only one to create cocktails, there is of course a guideline to know to work primarily around the rum. Then for the preparations, we use many techniques inspired by the culinary world such as clarification, sous vide, and fat wash…I use a lot of oils and butters to play on the textures of the spirits. On average, there are about fifty different preparations for a menu.
You presented a conference about rhum agricole at BCB. Is this your favorite style of rum?
Joseph Akhavan: My heart leans toward Caribbean rums like Old Demerara, Barbados, Jamaica High Ester, and Old Heavy Trinidad, but I also love the rhum agricole of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Marie-Galante. One of my favorite rums, even if it is not agricole, it is Damoiseau 1980 – my year of birth. I also like the “brut de fût” rums by Velier, and everything that the Savanna distillery offers. French rhums have a wonderful history, and this also fascinates me.
How do you prefer to mix rum in cocktails?
Joseph Akhavan: At the moment, we have three rhum cocktails which are rather fruity. Undeniably what I like when I work with rum in cocktails is the depth they bring, especially white rums. In general, I mix cocktails with rum to play on the contrasts. I have a fourth cocktail with Clairin, that’s also fruity and mixed with a rum from Barbados, in a twist on a Mai-Tai, which I love.
Is rum popular among your bartender colleagues?
Joseph Akhavan: I do not have that impression, but I’s starting to change. I think it’s mostly a question of image, at least here in France. In the US, it’s clearly much more popular. All the American bartenders who come to Mabel confirmed it to me.
How is rhum agricole growing today compared to Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic rums?
Joseph Akhavan: There is a modernization around rhums agricole thanks to brands such as HSE or Savanna and others that break with tradition by using unexpected finishes, like port, calvados, Islay whisky, or sherry. This really served to open the field of possibilities and to bring renewed interest in rum. This approach has greatly helped to bring rum out of its comfort zone so that whiskey lovers will also find their way to it. Rhum agricole brands offering vintages like brût de fût (cask strength) as the Anglo-Saxon rums have done for a long time is also a beautiful demonstration of the evolution of the category.
Have you had the opportunity to visit many rum distilleries?
Joseph Akhavan: I’ve visited distilleries in Haiti, and Guatemala, but not yet French rhum, unfortunately. This is definitely a plan of mine and my dream is to return to Guadeloupe (I had no time to see the distilleries the first time) and go to Martinique and Reunion.
Bildquelle: Joseph Akhavan via Marion Berrin