Sullivan Doh on Le Syndicat, La Commune, and talking politics in the bar
Sullivan Doh, owner of Le Syndicat and La Commune, is a true bar entrepreneur. Since learning the trade at ECC and Sherry Butt, he’s built a reputation for creating bars with strong personalities.
When we meet in Berlin, Sullivan Doh has had one of those notoriously long mid-BCB nights. And with good reason – his bar Le Syndicat has just been announced as one of the World’s 50 Best, so he’s in a particularly celebratory mood and hungover to boot. He apologizes straightaway. “I don’t usually do this!” he says. “But one shot led to another, and another…”
All those shots notwithstanding, Doh is remarkably put-together – a relief not just for the two of us but for the entire BCB crowd who attended his talk on day two of BCB. I ask him how he feels about netting so many awards in the past year. “It’s amazing that we are receiving these accolades,” he says, smiling. “We don’t work for awards, but with the pressure afterwards, it helps us to push our standards even higher.”
Le Syndicat, La Commune, and Experimental Cocktails
Sullivan Doh (often called Sully socially) followed a classically circuitous route to bartending stardom. After ditching studying engineering – “too much sitting down” – he finished his studies at catering school before heading to London to work at the famed fine dining establishment Coq d’Argent. But it wasn’t the heat of the kitchen that piqued his interest. “I saw the bar scene was improving fast in London, and I became intrigued,” he says.
He moved around for a while, initially working in hotels and at the Experimental Cocktail Club, the bar which has served as a starting place for so many of the big names in Paris mixology since it opened in 2007. Their alumni include Carina Soto Velasquez (Candelaria) and Amaury Guyot (Sherry Butt). It was while working on the opening team at Sherry Butt that Doh learned how to build a business from scratch and cultivated his love for French spirits – from calvados to cognacs, and eaux de vie to armagnacs.
Le Syndicat: Reviving Classic French spirits
Le Syndicat, run by Doh and his friend Romain Le Mouëllic, is a bar covered in old posters and papers outside, with a bronzed industrial interior and pulsing hip-hop soundtrack. But most notably, it only serves drinks mixed with French spirits. From his work at Sherry Butt, Doh was well-versed in traditional French drinks, but felt Parisiens weren’t so well-informed when the bar launched in 2014.
But what’s the special attraction of French spirits? “Nothing really,” Doh says, laughing. “The idea was more to make a bar in Paris showcasing the diversity of France, because these products are not being used.” Le Syndicat is less about pushing the superiority of French products, and more about making sure they aren’t ignored on their home turf.
In a broad sense, the French don’t know what they have, but the rest of the world does. After all, 97% of Cognac is exported. Often, local variants of French spirits are used locally, but not across the country. He gives the example of Grey Goose, a French vodka, made in France with French wisdom – but 100% American-owned. “Let’s share this wisdom with each other,” he says, with absolute conviction.
French Spirits and National Spirit
Le Syndicat’s full name is a doozy: Le Syndicat – Organisation de Défense des Spiritueux Français. It means “The Union – Organization for the Defense of French Spirits.” That name could sound a bit militaristic to some ears, particularly with France’s growing nationalism and the rise of Marine Le Pen. But Doh prefers to avoid politics in the bar. “We want to make our customers happy, whatever they think,” he says. He rejects any suggestion the bar’s goal is nationalistic. “We are not saying we are closed to other products, I love tequila and mescal for instance, but we have amazing products here in France,” he says. “Loads of bars in Paris show all the other products. We needed a strong concept and this was it.”
Doh doesn’t spend much time at Le Syndicat anymore. He’s now managing his second bar, La Commune. But Doh has left Le Syndicat in good hands. His roommate and best friend Aris Makris is taking charge of the bar. “So I’m still involved and get the lowdown on what’s going on every night,” Doh says, grinning.
La Commune brings punch out of the 17th century
Nobody can deny Doh has an eye for a good bar concept. La Commune opened in January this year and has been turning heads with its focus on punches. After hearing a talk by David Wondrich back in 2011, Doh was fascinated by both the history and the flavor possibilities of punch. “The first cocktails in the 17th century were punches,” he says.
But Doh didn’t think Paris was ready for communal drinks just yet, so he played the waiting game until this year. Six years leter, it seems drinkers are still in need of a little education in the ways of punch. “People need to understand you don’t need to get drunk when you drink punch,” says Doh. There are tricks for bartenders, too. “Also, it’s harder to create texture and a strong taste with punches,” he says. For this reason, La Commune offers individual drinks as well.
Doh is also one of the first to take high-end mixology out into the 20th arrondissement, an area not known for its craft cocktails. “It was a tricky opening,” he says, sighing. “The bar next to us was selling all day a pint for €2.50 – the cheapest beer you can ever find in Paris! And then when you see €12 on our menu, you end up picking the beer.” Word-of-mouth was important for getting his venture off the ground, and thankfully Doh’s name has some real cred with barflies. “There are some customers that have followed me since ECC and come to my bars,” he says, smiling. “Someone even remembered me last week!”
Doh’s a natural teacher. He gives a crash course in punch and the bar to all patrons on entry. “It’s super important”, he says. “I want to take all my guests on a journey – it’s great to watch the customers go ‘wow’ when they come in.” What if they aren’t interested? “Then we do it super quick and fast, explaining the bar is about punch, conviviality and sharing,” Doh says, and smiles.
On the hunt for an escape
Given his fondness for them, does Doh think bars need concepts? “Not necessarily, but I like to do it,” he says. A concept is worthwhile “only if you believe in it.” Doh’s been to plenty of bars that treat the concept like part of the furniture. “You can tell when they have created a bar concept they don’t believe in, the moment you walk in,” he says. And in the Paris bar scene – unlike the saturated London one – it’s still possible to make a play. “There’s lots of new bars opening all the time,” he says. “If you have a good concept, you have your space.”
Not surprisingly, Doh’s constantly busy, but likes to visit Calbar in Paris – “these are my boys” – on his time off. He’s also a big fan of Chris Moore’s work at Coupette in London. Unsurprisingly, rather than a cocktail, he prefers a beer or a glass of wine when he’s not behind the bar. Just like the customers who come to Le Syndicat or La Commune, he needs an escape too – which he often finds in a nice wine bar. Despite his work schedule, he’s acheived two childhood dreams this summer: getting his skydiving license and riding his first motorcycle.
La Commune is still in its first year, so Doh doesn’t have any new bar openings planned. People have spoken to him about projects in the US, Japan, and London, although he flinches at the competitiveness of the latter. With his track record, it’s surely just a matter of time before Sullivan Doh comes up with a great new concept.
Foto: Photo via Birte Filmer.