Nicolas Julhès: The Mad Scientist of Spirits
Since founding La Distillerie de Paris with his brother, Nicolas Julhès has built a reputation for innovative and unorthodox distilling. Now, he’s aiming to bring cocktails into restaurants and cafés with no bartenders required.
A mix of the fragrances of rum, gin, and other spirits hovers above number 54 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis in the heart of Paris. In a corner of this bustling street are a grocer, a liquor store, a roaster, and a bakery. The alcoholic activity isn’t the work of an underground distiller, but the creative labor of Nicolas Julhès, who installed La Distillerie de Paris behind the shops of the Julhès family estate in 2015.
Nicolas Julhès: Family Roots Marked By Good Taste
Nicolas Julhès is part of an Auvergne family that rapidly made a name for itself in food and drink retail. The Julhès family launched its first store in eastern Paris in 1996. “With my family, we created the Julhès business by concentrating initially on two stores only. Today, our production space is spread over 1000 m2 and we have several stores, with the last opened a few months ago rue Saint-Maur…Our company vision is not dedicated to business but especially to quality products,” he says. In just 20 years, the Julhès group has become the mainstay of epicurean Parisians.
Mixing Work With Whisky
In the 2000s, while in charge of purchasing for the stores, Nicolas Julhès discovered the world of spirits. “From the age of 22-23 years, I tasted many spirits including great whiskies. I discovered another universe of liquids more stable and complex than that of wine,” says Nicolas. Thus began an association with Diageo, where the Julhès stores launched food pairings with single malts, dubbed Classic Malts & Food. “I met the best distillers and celebrities of gastronomy,” says Nicolas Julhès. At the same time, he built up a whole collection at Julhès of bottles highly prized by whisky connoisseurs. “It was the Eldorado of whisky. Old whiskies of closed distilleries were quite easy to find.”
La Distillerie de Paris: the first distiller in the capital for a century
His multiple meetings and investigations in spirits, the development of his palate, plus his love for perfume from his childhood, awakened all the intrinsic creativity of Nicolas Julhès. “I need to venture into what fascinates me and understand its mechanics. I had done a number of technical researches around distillation. I already felt very comfortable with this universe. In 2010, I told myself that I had to open my own distillery. I did not want to do cognac in Cognac, like any other, because I think there are delicious things on the market. I felt there was a need to do something in spirits,” he says.
A brilliant idea emerged from Nicolas Julhès’s brainstorming: to open a distillery with his brother in Paris despite the city’s old prohibition on producing spirits. “The concept of a distillery in Paris was perfectly in tune with the times, because our capital wants to reinvent itself as a producer. There is a connection of aesthetics here that is essential for this project. We had the location, but five years were necessary to obtain the special status to open La Distillerie de Paris.” To finance the venture, Nicolas Juhlès and his brother turned to crowdfunding. The process was still quite new at the time, but the campaign was a success.
Changing Our Ideas About Distillation
Since its creation, La Distillerie de Paris has claimed its place in the evolving French spirits market. Sheltered in a passage, far from prying eyes, the young spirits company has used the Rolls Royce of stills – a Holstein made to measure – to release more than 90 different products.
“My ultimate goal is to give to people an aesthetic proposition,” says Juhlès. His first creation: Gin Batch 1, today his bestseller with a production of 12,000 to 13,000 bottles. “As I am passionate about perfumery, I took inspiration from [perfumes in the style of] Le Chypre. It is characterized by a great power in juniper and bergamot,” says Nicolas Julhès. He regularly works with unique products, such as maple syrup from Quebec, molasses from Guyana, or concentrated cane juice from Marie-Galante, and his rum is aged in oak barrels from Seguin-Moreau.
In fact, Julhès’s unorthodox techniques initially drew skepticism from rum purists. “When my three rums, Distillery of Paris Galabé, Distillery Petite Marie and Distillery of Paris Ambré were referenced in ‘Le Guide Hachette Des Rhums’, written by the journalist Christine Lambert, this completely changed people’s perceptions.” Being featured in the book validated Julhès’s approach and gave him the confidence to continue. Now, vodka, brandy, rye, aquavit, and more have been given the Distillerie de Paris treatment. His next project: a drink based around coconut sugar.
Cocktails On Tap
A great lover of mixology, Nicolas Julhès has also created a collection of bottled premix cocktails, in collaboration with the Paris Cocktail Week team, Thierry Daniel and Eric Fossard.
His next move into cocktails was a little more technical: Julhès wants them on tap. “I started this cocktail style with Algebra [Drinks] in association with Yves Cosentino. I think the project arrived too early on the market and the equipment was not ready,” says Julhès.
Cosentino and Julhès went their separate ways and now Julhès has launched his own Paris-based venture, Ayam Cemami, to market premix bottled and tapped cocktails to restaurants. “My source of inspiration for the cocktail is based on the place, the mode of consumption, and the gastronomy. I work with raw materials that will be processed for the cocktail.” The new company has partnered with wholesaler and distributor Millet to help sell and install the cocktail tap systems. Early customers include the Eden Park Pub group, and gourmet burger chain PNY. “We offer classic recipes, Negroni, Espresso Martini, a creation around fermented agave but also bespoke drinks.” Nicolas Julhès and La Distillerie de Paris won’t be slowing down any time soon.
Foto: La Distillerie de Paris