European Masters of Bartending: Fernando Castellon
Writer, bartender, historian, consultant: Fernando Castellon is a bar industry all-rounder. France’s jack-of-all-trades talks cocktail history, Lyon’s bar scene, bartender outfits, and more.
While reading up on French bar veteran Fernando Castellon, I came across a sentence of his that made me stop short: “Most cocktail writing is unreliable, let’s fix this.” Naturally, I couldn’t resist asking Castellon about it. “Wait, was that me? I don’t remember,” he says, with a laugh. “But it’s a very good quote,” he adds.
The endlessly charming Fernando Castellon is truly obsessed with the obscure nooks and crannies of cocktail history – and the search for truth within it. He also has one of the most varied resumes in the biz. Castellon is a former bartender running his own consultancy, he’s also had a stint as brand ambassador for Hennessy, and run his own bar magazine, Ginger, for some years. Then there’s the bitters range he developed with Suze. And, in fact, as we talk, he’s on the way back home from running his own cocktail competition. Despite the twists and turns of Castellon’s career, once we get talking about cocktail history, it consumes us for well over an hour.
Fernando Castellon: Hunting Through History
Ever since bartending in the early 2000s – or more precisely, since he picked up a copy of Frank Newman’s American Bar 1907 edition – Fernando Castellon has been investigating the backstories of cocktails. “We don’t know everything, we don’t know what is the truth. And the problem is: even if we do, people are talking about the wrong version,” he says. “I always wanted to know the right thing to say to my customers.” There were few people, “around 15 perhaps,” interested in cocktail histories back then, including the likes of David Wondrich, Jared Brown, and himself.
Castellon reels off stories touching on many of the most famous classic cocktails and how their established etymologies are covered in errors. The Americano, famously said to have originated with Americans drinking in Italy during Prohibition, was actually first published in 1913 in Germany, where it was made with Fernet Branca, and not the Campari it is known to include. There’s the Sidecar, commonly said to have been invented in 1931 at Harry’s Bar in Paris, but in fact printed nine years earlier in an English book.
Castellon doesn’t say the original recipe is always best, but his research shows how much a single drink can change over time. He says the industry lacks a reliable Wikipedia-style resource, so in 2004, he wrote Le Larousse des Cocktails – a French-language encyclopedia of mixed drinks.
Don’t over-distill it
Having extensively mined the past, Castellon’s view of the future of the bar world is different than most. Castellon lists some trends he thinks we should be looking out for. There’s working with chefs, food pairing – “we don’t have a science for this yet” – and bartenders making more of their own ingredients, whether it’s homemade syrups or bitters. Then there’s more savory and intense drinks, too.
He cautions against the trend for overly elaborate cocktails. “I’ve seen daiquiris where sometimes they have distilled the daiquiri with a rotovap,” he says, noting that a rotovap can cost between €10,000 and €15,000. “It doesn’t taste better than a normal daiquiri,” he says. “So why do it? Sometimes we are losing track of what is a cocktail – one where the story becomes bigger than the drink.”
How to Build a Great Bar
It’s interesting that, despite his varied experience at a number of bars, from his first job in San Tropez, to working at Maxim’s in Brussels and ASC in Lyon, Castellon has never owned his own bricks and mortar establishment. Does he want to? “Of course,” Castellon says. “I will do it one of these days, but my priority was what is useful, and that was being the international link for the French market and the training of their bartenders,” through the consultancy business.
He has a strong philosophy of what a bar should be like. “When I was young, I thought you had to make good cocktails to make a good cocktail bar,” he says. “But as I grew and travelled, [the] more I realized that it wasn’t just that one thing.” The atmosphere, the human feeling, the quality of sound and music, and consistency are all things he notes as crucial. “I’m not especially a beer drinker, but I’d rather have a beer somewhere I feel good than a cocktail somewhere I feel bad,” he says.
Castellon says working at London’s Quo Vadis was crucial for helping him understand how good establishments work. “Here I realized that you can have a luxury place, while establishing [a] relaxed relationship with customers,” he says. “Whereas in France, when you do luxury, you were traditionally very cold with the customer.”
Lyon is No Sleeping Lion
Castellon is especially proud of his home city of 20 years, Lyon, and how far it has come. “For 10 years things stayed the same,” he says. “But now many places are opening, with many bartender-owned bars.” He points out two in particular, offering two very different experiences. He recommends L’antiquaire for classic, jazzy vibes, whilst Casa Jaguar is a more modern, tropical experience.
Outside France, he says the London and New York are the capitals of the “experience cocktail culture” he mentioned earlier. They aren’t necessarily his favorites though. “For me, Tokyo is still a great experience,” he says. “For a long time, Japanese bartenders were very classic, and I love classic, but now I see young bartenders there working with creativity, too.”
The Ideas Man
It’s a great time to be in the bar biz. “As the market becomes more mature, my job becomes more interesting,” Castellon says. “My customers want to go further.” Plans aren’t his forte, but ideas are. “I always want to bring something new,” he says. Not long after our chat, he’s working on some glassware designs. He’s been working on some bar stations, too, as well as looking into creating a definitive bar outfit. “Chefs have a jacket, so do waiters have a uniform – where is the bartender’s identity?”
We talk briefly about Ginger, the magazine he ran until 2014. “It was too early then, but now maybe [the French market] is mature enough.” Nevertheless, Castellon still spends much of his time writing, with another book on the way, specifically about the evolution of the French bar. “Even just three years ago, nobody was looking at vintage French aperitifs,” he says. People like Castellon and La Syndicat owner Sullivan Doh have begun to champion French drinks, from Calvados to Cognac.
It’s hard to say just what the future holds for Castellon, but one thing’s for sure: it won’t be dull.
Foto: Dmitry Chuntul