Eric Fossard on Cocktails Spirits and the Paris Bar Renaissance
Cocktails Spirits turned 10 this week and, in honour of the anniversary, co-founder of the event Eric Fossard spoke to MIXOLOGY writer Kit Kriewaldt about the beginning of Cocktails Spirits and rise of French bartending.
Eric Fossard is known as one of the friendly faces of Cocktails Spirits – the popular Paris bar show which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. But before that, he mixed drinks with some of the bar industry’s biggest names and worked at a museum owned by the Ricard family.
In this interview, which has been edited for clarity, Fossard looks back on the history of Cocktails Spirits and talks about how the Paris bar scene went from insular to internationally influential.
Tell me about your background. How did you get into the bar industry?
Eric Fossard: Originally, I did catering school and studied hotel management in Paris. After that, I moved to London to learn English. I started as a waiter and I ended up being a bartender by accident – I really loved that and stayed in London for 11 years. I was very lucky to be in town at the time cocktails really started to come back. It was the end of the 90s, beginning of 2000, and by luck, purely, I ended up working at one of the most iconic cocktail bars in town at the time. It was called Che, and I worked there with Nick Strangeway for five years.
At the time, there were three new high-profile cocktail bars in London: Met Bar, Che, and LAB. Cocktail bartenders were a very small community back then, but because it was a really upcoming trend, we were all connected to each other. And we stayed very good friends, all of us – Nick, Henry Besant, Dre Masso, and Dick Bradsell. We used to go out and drink together. Henry and Dick are two people who have left a big hole since they died. It just shows how much older we’re all becoming, unfortunately.
After that, I moved back to France and I walked into a project which was funded by the Ricard family, on one of the islands they have in the south of France, called Bendor. I looked after the restoration of a spirit museum which was founded by Paul Ricard. I worked on restoring the collection of 7,500 bottles. The project was very involved with the international community of bartenders. I brought a lot of people to the island over four years and we did seminars and workshops for the bartending community.
You and Thierry Daniel founded Cocktails Spirits back in 2008. How did you meet and when did you realise there was a need for an event like Cocktails Spirits?
Eric Fossard: We actually met when I was still working in London, and Thierry was organising the Whisky Live event in Paris. Thierry’s background is more in the spirits industry. He used to be the commercial and marketing director of La Maison Du Whisky. He started to bring me over to Paris to do cocktails during Whisky Live. It was the first time the cocktail world began to intersect with the whisky world. More than 10 years ago, the French bar scene was quite far away from cocktails, especially whisky cocktails.
But from the beginning of Cocktails Spirits there were three of us. Xavier Padovani was part of the adventure as well, he’s always been with us and it’s really the three of us who decided to do it. Xavier and I travelled a lot at that time – we used to go to a lot of different countries and we went to every bar show on the planet. It was clear that there was definitely something missing for the French bartending community
We realised back then that the content of trade shows was really geared towards big brands more than individual bartenders. So in the second year of Cocktails Spirits, we decided to give the conference scene back to the bar community. We opened the “Bar Rouge,” where we invited bartenders to talk to bartenders. Since then, Cocktails Spirits has always been a platform for individuals to share their passion, their philosophy, and their enthusiasm with the community.
How does that focus on bartenders sharing knowledge with each other set Cocktails Spirits apart from other trade shows?
Eric Fossard: First of all, we are funding this platform ourselves. There is no brand associated with the Bar Rouge, so anyone we invite has true freedom of speech. We choose the topic, but they can say whatever they want, they can showcase whatever they want. The idea is to stick closely to what they’re doing in their venue.
More and more now, the people who come to watch the presentations are really business-oriented, so the questions they ask are extremely focussed on the business of the bar. Sometimes American speakers find that very uncomfortable because the audience will ask about profit and loss, or investment – the true details of their business – which is not something they’re used to hearing at conferences!
How did the partnership with P(our) come about?
Eric Fossard: Alex Kratena has always been a big fan of Cocktails Spirits and he always came to the event. We invited Alex to the Bar Rouge a long time ago, before he was so famous. So we know each other very well. When he started talking about P(our) Symposium, and asked us if we were happy to welcome P(our) into Cocktails Spirits, it made sense.
Because of the direction we took in encouraging the community to talk to the community, it created a sort of closed loop of information. We couldn’t go elsewhere to bring something new to bartenders – it all stays amongst us. So because of the format and the way we designed Bar Rouge, Alex’s symposium idea appealed to us; bringing outsiders to touch on specific topics gets people thinking differently.
What’s your favourite moment in the history of Cocktails Spirits?
Eric Fossard: Unfortunately, I’ve never had time to see a full presentation at Cocktails Spirits! I tend to watch them afterwards, when I get the videos.
A big highlight, though: one year, we had five generations of bartenders from The Savoy on stage together. It was the first time they had all been back together. Erik Lorincz was presenting – he came onstage and one-by-one, called the bartenders up from youngest to oldest. They all came up and shook a cocktail in front of the audience – it was very touching.
You mentioned the French bar scene was behind on cocktails 10 years ago. Was that true for Paris, too?
Eric Fossard: The rest of France is usually behind Paris, unfortunately. I know that sounds very Parisian and arrogant! But yes, all of France was a bit behind, including Paris. For years, it felt like Paris needed to upscale in terms of the offering and the skills they had. Paris was a bit behind, in comparison to cities in Germany or to London.
Unfortunately, Paris was not connected to the international community. I remember going to bars in Paris at the time I was working for the Ricard family. I was going to America, the UK, and Germany because we were doing projects, so I was really in tune with some of the most influential people at the time. I can tell you that you could walk into any bar in Paris – except one, which was The Ritz, with Colin Field – and no one knew who Gary Regan was, no one knew who Dale DeGroff was, no one knew who Dick Bradsell was.
No one knew any of the people who were the most influential at that time – the ones really pushing forward and raising the bar on quality, going back through historical recipes. Paris, and the rest of France, had no clue whatsoever about those people. Except Colin Field, and except the boys from the Experimental Cocktail Club, because they were bringing the American bar culture into Paris at the time. But it was only them.
What do you think changed to make the scene less insular?
Eric Fossard: Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying, “It was crap before, and we started Cocktails Spirits and everyone started to become better.” That’s not the point. It’s just that they were a bit too inwardly focussed. They were looking to themselves rather than trying to see what was happening elsewhere. I’d say it was really just a matter of time. It took about four years for the scene to become more connected.
People started to win international competitions, which gave some role models to the industry in France. That was very important, because bartenders need to be inspired. We had Marc Bonneton, who won Bacardi Legacy in 2011. People like that became known in the international community, but also in the French community. What they did seemed achievable as well, because people here knew them.
What’s the Paris bar scene like today?
Eric Fossard: Actually, this year at Cocktails Spirits, we focussed on Paris, because these days it has an impressive offering, with some truly professional, passionate, and skilled bartenders. And with what’s happened in Paris lately, every business has suffered massively with the terrorist attacks we’ve had, it was the right way to celebrate our 10th anniversary, to focus on Paris and Parisian venues.
Also, Paris may be struggling with low tourism, but there’s a wave of people coming from abroad, wanting to become entrepreneurs in Paris – it’s amazing. Now, we have people coming from Venezuela, America, and the UK, who actually set up businesses and employ French people to run bars. Ten years ago, that wasn’t happening here.
Does Paris have a unique bartending style?
Eric Fossard: I think so, for the reason I just said. Because at the moment, to look at the 60 top bars in Paris, probably 70% are owned by ex-bartenders. That’s very unusual. It means you have entrepreneurs who are full of enthusiasm, wanting to be different from their next-door neighbour. They know each other, because they probably worked together four years ago in the same venue.
So by being a very small, tight community, by being inspired by role models who were entrepreneurs already, those guys now are really keen to pour all their energy into running their own businesses, but they also need to find points of differentiation. They have to be more inventive, they have to come up with different cocktails, otherwise, they look just like each other, and they can’t build up their own clientele.
It’s really turned into a friendly atmosphere. Bars are trying to be seen as a group, as an offering which is good for tourism, and for Parisians. They’re not trying to compete and be aggressive. The aim of the businesses is obviously to make money, but they aren’t aiming to put down their competitors. In the end, they’re all part of the same family.
Foto: Photo via Philippe Levy