Without question, the most lauded food trend of the past year has been the return of classic French cooking. All over the country, chefs have been channeling the birthplace of coq au vin, cassoulet and clafoutis, opening fine dining temples like NYC's Le Coucou, casual bistros like NYC's MIMI and everything in between like Seattle newcomer and instant hit L'Oursin. But while this traditional cuisine has primarily stolen the spotlight, the drinks have been having all the fun—and deserve your full attention.
Historically, French cocktails are light, floral and often wine based. They typically make an appearance as aperitifs before the meal, later replaced by bottles of wine once dinner is served.
Though French elixirs like Chartreuse date back to the 1700s, it wasn't until the arrival of Americans fleeing Prohibition that cocktails really took off in France, Doni Belau, author of Paris Cocktails: An Elegant Collection of over 100 Recipes Inspired by the City of Light, explains. Even then, "French cocktail culture was for most of the 20th century the domain of big hotels or bars opened by expats and stayed a bit 'foreign' in the eyes of the French," Belau says.
"Cocktail popularity has soared [in France], but this is a recent phenomenon," says Arnaud Tronche, owner of NYC's Racines NY, whose original location is in Paris. Only in 2007, when the American speakeasy-inspired Experimental Cocktail Club opened, did the craft cocktail trend start to catch on and become the full-fledged scene it is today.
Though French chefs moving stateside have centuries worth of culinary guidance, the nascent cocktail scene means they have to think outside the box. In New York, you can find Tronche mixing ingredients like pastis and génépy—two traditional French spirits—with artisanal American spirits, like Brooklyn-made gin and beet-infused vodka.
When Antoine Westermann, chef and owner of Le Coq Rico, another Paris offshoot, made the move to New York, he found himself playing catch up on the city's infamous cocktail scene. "Prior to opening, I was nervous about the idea of making cocktails for Le Coq Rico's bar. I began to visit all the famous cocktail bars in NYC to familiarize myself with the range of cocktail programs available in New York," the chef says.
On the flip side, American chefs celebrating traditional French dishes on their dinner menus have also had to get creative. For Zac Overman, general manager and head bartender of L'Oursin, that means veering from the conventionally sweet to something better suited for the American palate. You know, one that requires everything to be "bitter and dry," as Overman puts it. Take a Perroquet, which is traditionally pastis with peppermint syrup. "If you're sitting in Marseille on a hot day, that might make perfect sense," Overman says. "What we've done is add a bunch of fresh lime juice to that pastis and peppermint syrup, a little vodka to help the drink stand up, and just a touch of Giffard apricot liqueur for the hell of it."
Meanwhile, both parties have shifted to pairing French-inflected cocktails with the main meal, instead of how they usually come, "before a meal to stimulate the palate," Le Coucou beverage director Aaron Thorp says. As Ludo Lefebvre of L.A.'s Petit Trois puts it, "Americans love to eat [their food] with cocktails. When I moved here in ‘96, I was very surprised to see people here eating meals with cocktails."
This new territory—a restaurant that pays homage to traditional cuisine but whose drink program leans on American cocktail culture—turns the bar into an open slate. And every restaurant has its own approach. Le Coq Rico's long menu is divided into sections: inventive signature drinks, French inspired ones and cocktails for two. Petit Trois's list, on the other hand, is short and French-liqueur driven.
But we're not calling it quits on Chardonnay just yet. "Wines—like Champagne—are back on trend as ingredients in cocktails," too, Jonathan Pogash, The Cocktail Guru, notes (French 75s, anyone?). L'Oursin has mastered this concept with drinks like The Alsatian Cousin: blanc vermouth, manzanilla sherry and pear eau-de-vie.
"That drink kind of sums up this bar program, actually," Overman says. "Fortified wines and a little brandy, it looks and feels boozier than it is, and it's complex without trying too hard." Then there's the Stranger in the Alps: herbal wine punch laced with cognac, kirsch and thyme (see the recipe)—a drink so refreshing even if you order it with your main, you'll want to sip on it well into dessert.
This irreverent counterpart to such a classic cuisine makes for the best of both worlds: all of the technique and precision we've come to know and love from the French minus any stuffiness. Blame it on the booze, but we'll take another.