Stephen Martin has dedicated much of his career behind the bar to rediscovering the traditions and recipes of classic French bars. Ahead of his France Quintessence seminar this week, Stephen Martin tells us what makes French mixology unique
Stephen Martin, pioneer of the coquetel revival, best French mixologist in 2009 and owner of A La Française (named best new French cocktail bar 2015), is devoted to his research and promotion around the French bar. He’ll be speaking on this very topic at the France Quintessence bar show on Sunday, September 10th in Paris.
In this interview, which has been edited for clarity, he shares his expertise on the unique history of French cocktail culture.
MIXOLOGY: You are now a major figure in the French bar scene. You were first trained in the American-style bar, tells us your first steps in the cocktail world.
Stephen Martin: This will amaze you, but I was really born in a bar. My mother had a nighttime establishment where she served mixed drinks and other cocktails. My father, a history, Greek, and Latin teacher, converted later by buying a crêperie bar in Bretagne where I made my début at 11 years old. I did not take any further bar or sommelier training, I just got experience behind the bar. It’s been a passion for me for 30 years. But to walk well, to be balanced and stay in this job, you need two legs, and the bar for me is one, but not two! And like Charles Schumann who found his balance in boxing and modeling, a bartender is interesting when he has other interests besides the bar. This job allowed me to travel and take up economics studies before doing two licenses in psychology and management and 15 years of psychoanalysis to become a Jungian psychoanalyst.
In 1993, when I was 24 years old, I moved to Cologne where I learned a different way of drinking popular drinks, those in the United States, mixed drinks and other cocktails. After a rich experience in pubs and nightclubs, I joined the bar team at Meyer Lansky’s, the legendary bar of Rhénanie with more than 70 cocktails. I learned the codes of service and culture of cocktails, also through the book of my mentor Charles Schumann that had recently appeared. Long live the “Flying Kangaroo” and “Swimming Pool!” I became part of the first wave of bartenders who democratized the cocktail in Cologne, through pioneering bars like Spirits.
When did you leave the American-style bar and turn to French mixology?
Stephen Martin: It was in 2010 during a visit to Bar Covent Berlin. I saw foreign bartenders brandishing bottles of Suze claiming to be the French relief. At that moment, it clicked: I had been bartending at a high level for a decade but I knew nothing about the French bar and there was definitive guide. So I attacked my research by the source. First through the books of French barmen, then the press, then the books of the French about the Parisian nightlife, and finally the books of American expats and tourists and their crazy Parisian trips in the 20s and 30s.
The progress of this long investigation showed me several visions of the Parisian nightlife and the life of the French bar: more festive, creative, cheeky and easy. I discovered a balance between different mixed drinks that I call coquetel. They’re another strand of cocktail DNA like one of the families of American mixed drinks.
At 40, I was able to be independent, so I set up the venue A La Française in Paris: on the ground floor, a bistro to highlight French aperitifs and cocktails, and in the basement an American-style bar, with more than 600 bottles of 100% French spirits. Now, I’ve stepped back from this establishment to pursue my research on the French bar and plan a French and European tour for myself, including speaking at conferences and guest bartending.
What was the French bar scene like at the end of the 19th century? Who were the strong personalities of the time and what cocktails did they make?
Stephen Martin: It was differentiated by a freedom of tone, politically incorrect, a freedom of creation and balance. In the French bar, drinks were not as strong, in contrast to the American bar. Between 1880 and 1947, the bartenders were not influenced by the culture of the cocktail from the United States. Personalities such as Pierre Dagouret, Louis Fouquet, Émile Lefeuvre, Jean Lupoïu and many others have marked the history of the French bar. Compared to the American bar, there are few French classics. The recipes were mainly based on aperitifs (quinquinas, vermouths, fruit wines) of fruit eaux-de-vie, liquors and spirits. I have worked for the revival of French products in France because today, unfortunately, there is a mix of foreign products that are not very high quality. We see the same phenomenon of this influence of the United States in the kitchen, which loses its history and its personality.
What is the character of French mixology today? What’s different between the French style and the American style?
Stephen Martin: Today, the identity of the bars is mainly based on the same cultural codes as the Americans with high doses of strong alcohol, often 6 cl in a cocktail. On the other hand, I’ve noticed a great curiosity among French bartenders about products. The French love cooking, and as a result, some bartenders do research around flavors. It creates alliances, bridges with perfumers, cooks, confectioners, and sommeliers…Unfortunately the professionals of the bar here lack some of the conviviality, cocktails can be too highly priced, and there’s the problem of training and service compared to Anglo-Saxon bartenders, who are irreproachable on that subject.
You created a new classic French cocktail “L’eau fraiche.” What was the thinking behind this cocktail?
Stephen Martin: This coquetel is a pure creation in order to explain the second principle of the four principles of the French: “A good drink need not be a strong drink.” “L’Eau Fraîche” is made from 3 cl of a French amaro, 1.5 cl of gin, 1.5 cl of peach syrup, tonic water and a spray of rosemary. I introduce a strong alcohol into this mixed drink purely for its function: reduce sugar, and that’s it. Does it need to taste strongly of alcohol? No! Neither we, nor our customers want it to. My goal is to change the approach to products and work culture. My next creations will be made with modified wines and aperitifs to demonstrate to professionals that you can maximize the flavors with this style of low alcohol products. And it costs less, too.
On September 10th, you will be presenting a seminar on the French bar at the a bar show dedicated to French spirits, France Quintessence. What issues will you discuss?
The French bar died in the 1950s, more precisely the act was signed on May 28th 1947 between Blum, Monnet and Byrnes. Today, we have only very small pieces of that history through the American-French bar. After seven years of research, my mission is to be the spokesperson of this French bar and to revive it through a series of conferences with professionals throughout France and Europe, focusing on French spirits, some of which have been produced since the Middle Ages, and on culture and the celebration of famous French bartenders, as well as some Parisian places which are important for the history of bartending. The animals of the Vincennes Zoo also paraded through the city’s bars. During World War II, they ended up on the plates.
What do you think will be the future of the French bar?
Stephen Martin: Above all, the French bar must know itself, and I work for that cause. The French bar must find both a foot in the past and one in the future. Right now, I’m delivering its past, its history. Its future? I do not know. But it will have one! I would also like the American bar to be free from the influence of the alcohol lobbies and for the French to stop feeling culturally below the Anglo-Saxons. I am very hopeful because I have already received many bar teacher requests to speak in schools and friends’ establishments.
You are currently writing your first book. Obviously, the theme will be the French bar.
Stephen Martin: Yes of course. It will be a didactic book, written in a fictionalized way, to interest both a worldwide professional clientele and the general public, from 14 to 77 years. Edited by my friend Gaylor Olivier at Corps Reviver Editions, it will also be an art book, showcasing history, recipes, and techniques, with its own professional language. We do not stir, we triturate!