With classic cocktails like the French 75, the Kir Royal, and the Sidecar rumoured to have been dreamed up in the City of Light, and classic spirits including Cointreau, Cognac, Grand Marnier, and Triple Sec originating in the Gallic homeland, foreigners can easily be forgiven for assuming that Paris has always been home to a thriving cocktail culture. With Parisians’ strong opinions on gastronomy and wine, it isn’t difficult to imagine smoky, pint-sized bars filled with passionate, red-faced local alcohol enthusiasts exchanging heated and hearty opinions on how to make the perfect kir or tremblement de terre (earthquake), literary-salon-style. Yet for years, Paris lagged behind its big city counterparts when it came to modern mixology. In 2007, that all changed with the advent of the Experimental Cocktail Club (ECC), a bar-turned-hospitality group that has influenced and directed the evolving face of the city’s dynamic drinking revolution. With its impressive portfolio of bars, hotels, pop-up events, and parties (now also in London and New York), the ECC’s directors—Romée de Goriainoff, Pierre-Charles Cros, Olivier Bon, and late addition Xavier Padovani—are on the ride of their lives, with no sign of slowing down. Here, Olivier Bon discusses experimenting, entrepreneurship, and evolution.
How did you all meet?
We [Romée de Goriainoff, Pierre-Charles Cros, and Oliver Bon] met at primary school and, over the years, bonded over our evolving passion for food, parties, and wine.
What brought each of you towards mixology and cocktails in particular?
We’ve been best friends since we were kids and have always loved good food and good products. On a trip to New York and Montreal when we were 20, we discovered cocktail culture.
What are your backgrounds in the bartending world?
No background! Back in France we finished our studies: fashion for me, finance for Romée, and business for Pierre, before deciding to go in a very different direction and opening our first cocktail bar. For one year we trained ourselves at home: reading books, looking for the best spirits… we also reached out and had the opportunity to trade tips and stories with some of the best bartenders around the world.
How and where did the original three founders meet Xavier Padovani? How did he come to be brought into the fold?
Xavier heard about our first cocktail bar in Paris [Experimental Cocktail Club] while still in London. So he came over to check it out and fell in love with the place. At the time he was working for Hendrick’s Gin, and together we organized together some very unusual parties at the bar. The Hendrick’s parties were a huge success, so we then organized some in London and then New York—which led to the idea of working together on a cocktail bar in London.
What were you seeking to do with the original Experimental Cocktail Club? Were you responding to a niche that needed to be filled, or was it simply a desire to bring innovative mixology to Paris?
Paris is well known for gastronomy and fine wines, but it was very hard at the time to get a good cocktail that wasn’t a vodka-and-juice or whisky-and-coke. So we first did it for us. We wanted to get good cocktails in a nice place at an affordable price. It very quickly evolved from a niche phenomenon to a Parisian obsession.
How did Parisians respond to ECC? How has the response to your latest endeavours been?
At first we had a lot of foreigners coming to the bar—they were looking for cocktails, as they already had a taste for this culture of mixology. But Parisians quickly caught wind of the place, stopped in, and became very interested in tasting all kinds of cocktails and spirits.
You work very closely with interior designer Dorothée Meilichzon. How did that come about?
Dorothée was working for a local design company when we launched ECC and helped us by designing our logos and menus. When she quit her job to launch her own company in 2009, it was right when we were buying the Prescription Cocktail Club space, and we asked her to design the interior. Since then, she has designed all of our places.
With projects like the Grand Pigalle hotel, are they undertaken entirely by ECC or are you approached to collaborate with developers?
Usually all of our projects are owned and created by us, but recently we’ve had the opportunity to launch restaurants and bars in two hotels: the Hotel Bachaumont and the Hotel Mathis, both owned by other entrepreneurs.
Who have you consulted for? What is your strategy when it comes to consulting?
Experimental Group is a strong brand in every aspect of the hospitality industry: from cocktails to wines, food, and beds, not to mention late-night parties. So each time we have the opportunity to expand this savoir-faire to unknown territory (such as the 8th District in Paris where the Mathis can be found), we go for it.
What do you think of the cocktail scene in Paris today?
It’s huge! There are more than 40 good cocktail bars that have opened in the last five years. Even in restaurants, it isn’t unusual now to be presented with a cocktail list.
Any projects or successes you’re particularly proud of?
ECC Chinatown [in London], our first bar abroad. It was a turning point in our adventure.