The Shell: Low Alcohol Cocktails in Paris
The Shell is the Experimental Cocktail Club’s first foray into the emerging low alcohol cocktail scene. Experimental Group head bartender Maxime Potfer talks about this trailblazing Paris bar.
Just in time for Paris Cocktail Week last January, The Experimental Group – the team behind the Experimental Cocktail Club (ECC) – opened the doors of its latest hotel bar project: Hotel des Grands Boulevards. It follows in the footsteps of the Grand Pigalle Hotel, The Experimental Group’s first hotel concept featuring a top-quality cocktail bar.
The three trendy boys of the ECC, Olivier Bon, Pierre-Charles Cros, and Romée de Goriainoff, picked an old house built just before the French Revolution, hidden away off the busy avenue Grands Boulevards. Its concept: a reference to the pastoral style of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon in Versailles, mixed with contemporary style cues. The winter-garden-style patio is the focal point of the hotel, framed by an open bistronomie kitchen and the cocktail bar named The Shell, which is ready to usher in a new cocktail era to the Paris bar scene.
The Shell Breaks Into Low Alcohol Cocktails
With wine-colored walls, a hypnotic bar illuminated by a cloud of bright balls, and a view of the restaurant crowded with gourmands, The Shell looks like a peaceful setting to sip a drink at any time. However, it offers a trailblazing menu that breaks with the tradition of most Paris bars. Maxime Potfer, head bartender of The Experimental Group, spent many months building and fine-tuning it. “This hotel is the largest project of the group. For the cocktail section, the three boys wanted to meet a current demand for alcohol-free or low-alcohol drinks by highlighting seasonal fruits and vegetables, French terroir and a healthy side. This offer made sense in a hotel where the bar is open from midnight until two in the morning,” says Potfer.
Low Alcohol Cocktails Are a New Way of Thinking
Lover of good products and flavors, Maxime Potfer was inspired by international big names in the bar but also in the kitchen, to create a cocktail menu “off the beaten path,” where fresh ingredients take precedence over spirits.
“I am a fan of the work of Japanese bartender Gen Yamamoto, who focuses the taste experience on a single seasonal product such as clementine. As for gastronomy, I loved the Danish restaurant Noma. It offered a pairing menu around wine and non-alcoholic cocktails. This one proposed a different approach on the scales of tastes which were totally new for me. I also picked up some ideas from the amazing book from the Swedish Magnus Nilsson ‘Cooking the Nordic Countries,’” Potfer says.
“Creating cocktails with low or no alcohol requires another way of thinking. You need to put aside our basics, to get out of our comfort zone, review all the proportions and find a new balance of flavors. Alcohol will just be a vector of taste and not a main ingredient,” adds Potfer.
The other key element to Potfer’s creativity behind the bar is Sylvain Grundlinger, founder of Trouvailles et Terroir, a supplier of new seasonal products and terroir from across France. “I love this man. He arrives at the bar with his van filled with beautiful seasonal products, picked from different producers. We never know what he will deliver but he always reserves surprises, allowing us to imagine stunning creations.”
Cocktails For All Tastes
To guide the customer, Maxime Potfer has chosen to divide the cocktail menu under three headings: No Shell, five cocktails with no alcohol; One Shell, five cocktails with low alcohol; and Two Shells, five cocktails with a typical volume of alcohol. For the no alcohol cocktails, Potfer worked as follows: “For soft drinks, we worked with new acidity scales around verjus, vinegar, and kombucha not to depend on citrus, and a less sweet side with ‘cordial’ instead of syrup. We have made a big effort on prices ranging from €6 to €8.” You can discover amazing drinks with distinct flavors such as Akoya, an original drink made with purple carrot and coconut cordial, verjus, and kombucha. Or try the Clear Water, a long drink made from cucumber juice blackened with charcoal, honey, basil, lime juice, and smoked salt.
For the second section, Potfer “bet on fresh and accessible cocktails with a different spirit each time. The alcohol level is between 12 and 15 percent instead of 18 to 25 percent for classic cocktails. The cost price is not higher than a cocktail at the ECC, because we lower the proportions of spirits to add fresh ingredients. You will not use a spirit with no alcohol like Seedlip here. Our job is to show that we have a real added value with our own homemade products.”
On the low alcohol cocktail program: the Winter Colada with Rum, Denoix Quinquinoix walnut liqueur, pumpkin and almond milk, maple syrup, an licorice bitters, or the Atlantic Rim, a tequila paired with wasabi agave syrup, lime juice and mandarin tagette salt, sourced from an urban rooftop farm in Paris. And for customers with a more conventional palate, The Shell has not skimped on the originality of its more typically alcoholic creations, which are made with a range of local fruits, aromatics, and spirits.
Getting Inspiration From The Restaurant
Maxime Potfer is already looking to the hotel kitchen, with a multitude of ideas for the next menu, including borrowing the tools and the team of chef Sho Ashizawa (formerly of Richer, one of the essential Paris restaurants). “Seeing and tasting things with the kitchen team, I spotted some culinary equipment like the Josper oven to work with smoked fennel juice or a bain-marie appliance to make soba juice reduction.” The next menu at this Paris bar could be even more explosive!
The Shell Strikes a Chord with Cocktail Lovers
A month after opening, The Shell has received widespread praise from the Paris bar scene, but has also attracted a loyal clientele in search of another mode of consumption. “We have already gained 20% on the demand for a cocktail without alcohol. Customers generally order a non-alcoholic cocktail during the day, with a low ABV drink as an aperitif, and a classic mixed drink after dinner,” says Potfer.
He believes the range of options at The Shell is perfect for modern drinkers. “People are now more experienced and receptive to this new style of cocktail. This trend follows the evolution of the renaissance of mixology. At first, geeks consumed strong alcohol mixtures, like old fashioned style. The neoclassical movement of mixed drinks has resulted in a drop in alcoholic degree. Today the cocktail is democratized and can be drunk throughout the day with lower doses of alcohol,” he says.
But Potfer has his eyes firmly focused on future innovations. “It’s our mission to subtly work and control ingredients, alcohol and fresh produce, but it takes much more effort than traditional cocktails,” he says. The low alcohol wave of the cocktail revolution is on its way.