How Paris‘ Modernist Happy Hour Came to Be

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While very few drink orders can rival the rich prowess of a French wine list, nowadays a good night cap of the mixed variety isn’t so hard to find in Paris. Just hop into a dimly-lit lounge off Rue Saint-Sauveur or an after hours hang spot near the Arc de Triomphe.

The art of cocktail making, in fact, has had a rich history in the City of Lights since the very first assortment of bar recipes were published in 1889 by Emile Lefeuvre. In his new book French Moderne pubished by Rizzoli, Franck Audoux, a late-in-life mixologist formerly of the city’s Le Chateaubrian, traces the birth of France’s modern cocktail culture—which truly took shape at the conclusion of World War I—and its rise thereafter.

The year was 1918, and while most of the world was still healing from global conflict, France was, as Audoux describes, „jubilant.“ Though ravaged from years of war, the country entered into a period of euphoria. „It was pleasure intensified by new entertainments, new dress codes, new music, new dance, new artistic approaches,“ writes the author, and, of course, „new drinks.“ Parallel to the Prohibition movement then taking over the United States (where the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages was banned), France was flooded with an influx of immigrants, who had come during the war to work in the defense factories and after, following the signing of armistice in Paris, to visit the „capital of victory.“ On November 11, 1918, the Champs-Élysées saw one of its largest victory parades to date.

At the same time, France was nurturing an artistic boom in its rise of jazz halls and birth of movements such as Cubism and, later, Dada. This mix of mass tourism and new realm of artists and patrons of the arts resulted in a burgeoning social scene where happy hour soon replaced cocktail time. On France’s Basque coast, the seaside town of Biarritz was one of the first to introduce cocktail-making contests, where aristocrats and social celebrities tested out alcohol-infused concoctions before a merry crowd of the peers at the Hôtel Miramar. Soon the trend swept to the lavish salon of Paris, where, „New York“ bars encouraged an array of American-style drinks, drawing patrons from sports enthusiasts to intellectuals at the like of Henry’s Bar and Hôtel Chatam. By the end of the decade, when France (along with the rest of the world) was hit by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Parisians found themselves taking refuge in the same hotel bars and tipsy cocktail lounges that they frequented in years past that, reminding them of better times.

In addition to the 60 recipes of cult-favorites that follow, the rest of French Moderne considers the cocktail and its often-debated relationship with French identity. In 1930, the humorist Paul Reboux famously said that „the cocktail is an offense to taste and to good taste,“ while many leading critics of the time argued one could not appreciate fine cuisine after drinking three or four „of those industrial mixes that saturated the palate.“ Yet still, the mixed drink is proven to be pleasurably and inherently French.

As Audoux points out at one point: it was Napoléon Bonaparte himself that favored a centuries-old Bordeaux recipe that consisted of a mix of wine and eau de vie. Its name? Coquetel.

French Moderne: Cocktails from the Twenties and Thirties with recipes is available online now.

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