Luciole and Bar Louise Put Cocktails Back in Cognac
Luciole and Bar Louise are two new venues bringing high quality drinks to the Cognac region. Despite the inventive cocktail lists, customers are realizing the real hero at both bars is cognac itself.
Welcome to Cognac, one of the most fabulous landscapes of French spirits: 75,000 hectares of vines, 4,500 winegrowers, more than 250 traders and 100 distillers, 900,000 hectoliters of production, and four large cognac houses. All that information and more is gathered by the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac), which is in charge of the economic development, protection, and promotion of this prestigious AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) brandy.
A professional organization dedicated to cognac
The vast majority – almost 98% of all cognac – is destined for export, and much of it goes to the American, Chinese, and Russian markets. For many decades, cognac wore very different clothes, depending on its brand, ranging from luxury à la française to the hip hop world. Today, the cognac appellation itself protects its own identity, separate from any single brand.
“We have developed a new angle for the appellation’s discourse, which will lead to a charter change on November 14th,” explains Claire Caillaud, Director of Communications at the BNIC. “We have returned to the cognac DNA: terroir, know-how, origin, traceability and authenticity, openness to the world. We are listening to the new attitude of consumers, including the millennial category, and the bartenders who are looking for meaning in the product, and interested in the upstream work of producers,” she says.
A focus on the cognac cocktail
As for the mixologist approach, cognac has long been the poor cousin of the back bar in its native country, despite a large repertoire of recipes dating back to the 19th century. For years, the BNIC has been campaigning through various actions to promote the aromatic richness of cognac for cocktails.
It had early success in 2008, with the International Cocktail Summit: an event which saw the creation of an iconic cognac cocktail, and the participation of many big names in the international bar scene. Since 2013, the Cognac Cocktail Connexion has been running a program which includes high-profile bartenders at prestigious establishments serving unique cognac cocktails. “Our mission is to sensitize bartenders to cognac and see that this AOC gets a place on the cocktail menus of this new wave of bars. For the past five years, we have been feeling a favorable trend,” says Caillaud.
In the midst of this educational campaign, two new cocktail bars have opened in the city of Cognac: Luciole and Bar Louise. Their opening was almost simultaneous and quite late, compared to the bar boom in other provincial cities, but was it just a coincidence? “We depend on the maturity of mixology in France. These two bars arrived at the right time with a real offer and a real demand,” says Caillaud. “Their appearance in the Cognac landscape is a perfect fit for the image that the BNIC wants to give today cognac.”
These two new bars are sure to stir things up in this small historic city of 20,000 people, and they have a common goal: a modern vision of cocktails and cognac. Incredibly, after being open for just a few months, Luciole and Bar Louise have become the new rendezvous points for the cognac houses to introduce their customers to all the aromatic richness of the spirit.
Luciole: a bar run by French and English mixology masters
On October 19th, Luciole presented its first masterclass, inviting bar professionals and journalists. This extremely refined bar opened in the city in June, but it quickly garnered national and international headlines. It’s no surprise – Luciole is the work of three musketeers of mixology and spirits. The first is Tony Conigliaro, an undisputed master of the London cocktail scene, the man behind the Drink Factory consultancy and numerous venues, including 69 Colebrooke Row and Untitled. Luciole is not Conigliaro’s first attempt at a bar in France – he was also part-owner of Le Coq in Paris.
Then, there’s Luc Merlet, a great friend of Conigliaro, and more importantly, marketing and commercial director of the family cognac and liqueur distillery Merlet Spirits & Fils. Merlet says he’s always had the desire to run his own cognac bar one day. The third musketeer is Frenchman Guillaume Le Dorner, who was bar manager for six years at 69 Colebrooke Row, bringing his French sensibility to the London bar. His nostalgia for his home country and the promise of a new challenge brought him onto the team. In 2016, this well balanced trio is came together, and the story of Luciole began.
A concept that highlights cognac in all its facets
Located in the popular district of Saint-Jacques, on the banks of the Charente, Luciole finds its home in an exceptional place: an old abandoned automotive workshop, inhabited by a flock of pigeons. After six months of work, the building looks great: a vast, modern, and warm space of 90 square meters.
Everywhere there are reminders of the materials of the noble world of the french brandy: the wood for the endless counter, the sober shelves of bottles, and the cognac library, all fashioned by the nimble hands of a local carpenter with leftover materials from the cooperage. Even the metal hoops have been used to make an incredible halo chandelier dotted with light bulbs – it’s a nod to the whimsical firefly, or luciole in French. There are also leather seats in the English club style. Opposite the bar, there is an illuminated display case containing a selection of beautiful bottles of cognac, from big houses small, independent producers. It’s a decor that plays on the luxurious style of the great cognac houses.
Luciole’s revolutionary menu
Behind the bar, a striking duo sakes things up: the maestro Guillaume Le Dorner, accompanied by Victor Hoepffner, armed with a solid experience at Little Red Door and Lulu White. The two have drawn up a menu inspired by the Conigliaro-style approach to cocktails. Luciole’s concept: approachable cocktails aimed at the local people, for whom it’s more customary to enjoy a simple glass of cognac than a classic Sidecar or Sazerac. There’s much less of the scientific or experimental spirit which defines Conigliaro’s London venues.
The menu is simply divided into three sections at very affordable prices – all cocktails are just €8.50. For those looking for something to surprise them, there are sophisticated creations in the Conigliaro mould, using VSOP cognac as the base. These include the Spitfire (VSOP Cognac, peach cream, lemon, cane sugar, and white wine) and Avignon, from a series of drinks around meditation (VSOP Cognac, chamomile syrup, and house Luciole incense). There are reinterpretations of the Old Fashioned or Cognac Gimlet featuring vine leaf syrup. For traditionalists, there are cognac classics including the highly aromatic Harvard (VSOP Cognac, martini rosso, and orange bitters) made using a sous-vide machine at low temperature. And there are even some very approachable non-cognac cocktails, including a Ramos Gin Fizz.
Another strong point of Luciole: the cognac menu, ranging from €6 to €120. Despite Merlet’s involvement, Luciole is far more than just a showcase of his own distillery. Luciole’s three owners are passionate about the terroir and the product – they wanted to present the widest range of brands and bottlings existing today, featuring the new emerging generation of producers, which is shake up the codes of the stately brandy. For several months, Le Dorner went to meet independent, less well-known cognac producers. “The interest is to show things that do not exist anywhere else, next to better known houses,” says Le Dorner. It’s a small revolution in the staid world of cognac. The team invites us to discover nuggets run by fans like Paul Giraud (XO or Très Rare), Fanny Fougerat, Organic Pasquet XO, or Bourgoin but also more famous houses, including Hennessy (XO and Paradis) and Courvoisier (XO and Napoleon). Luciole is like a small museum of cognac.
Bar Louise: a place animated by two cocktail globetrotters
For years, Bar Louise was the only qualitative offer of cocktails with the domestic brandy. Set up inside the four-star hotel François Premier, the bar offered all the great classics without sophistication in a sober decorum, orchestrated by the head bartender Alexandre Lambert. After Lambert crossed the Atlantic to get a taste of the New York bar scene, Bar Louise moved into the old bank adjoining the hotel. Same name but new look, new owners, new spirits, and new cocktail menu. The instigator of this metamorphosis is Germain Canto. After travels through Australia and India, the young bartender decided to bring his shakers to the city of Cognac. With his wife, Magalie Brullé, he set up an event and marketing-communication company dedicated to cocktails and spirits. He was also named a cognac educator by the BNIC to preach the good word about cognac everywhere. In 2016, as the reopening of Bar Louise was in its early phase, Canto called in his fellow bartender and traveler from Lille, Damien Verryser, to join him as a partner.
Bar Louise brings a real breath of fresh air
Open since September, Bar Louise wakes up the city center every evening with the rhythm of its shakers. While Luciole plays the cozy spirit with natural materials, Bar Louise is adorned with a soft blue color – a symbol of France and royalty – along with large windows for daylight and a spacious bar station of chevron oak wood where the customers can slip behind the counter. Bar Louise has its own giant showcase of bottles, with the most precious ones set on either side, behind mesh, and the bar will soon house 400 bottles of cognac. The rest of the decor aspires to tranquility and comfort with its long cream banquette and round restaurant-style tables.
“Cognac is a city where time stops,” says Canto. Past the door, we let ourselves be guided quietly by the two owners of Bar Louise. If you try the “100% cognac” option, Canto returns to his cognac educator role and clearly takes great pleasure in sharing his knowledge about all things cognac, from le Guilde du Cognac to La Maison Augier. If one opts for cocktails, the menu extends its offer well beyond cognac, but without the technical focus of Luciole. The first page is an introduction to the world of cocktails, with an innovative twist: you can choose the quantity of the spirit (between 3 and 6 cl). The Bar Louise menu comprises cocktails with a fruity flavor, classics revisited, such as the Jasmin Collins or the Cognac Mule, and creations inspired by the two owner’s travels, mixed with homemade products, shrubs, and vacuum-infused fruits or syrups. Bar Louise is a 100% democratic bar with a cognac touch.
Foto: Bar Luciole Buit // Bar Lousie