David Lebovitz, the Paris-based pastry chef, blogger, recipe writer and memoirist, has come a long way since the days his parents made whiskey sours using little packets of powdered Bar-Tender’s brand mix in the suburbs of Hartford, Connecticut.
Today, Lebovitz is a cocktail connoisseur and an avid student and sipper of everything quaffable, especially if it’s French. His newest book, Drinking French (Ten Speed Press), is both an ode to the drinking culture of the country he’s called home since 2004 and the apotheosis of an interest in cocktails that began when he was working as a pastry chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.
“Making good cocktails is a lot like good baking, since the formulas are written down, and what really matters most is using the very best ingredients,” said Lebovitz.
Researching his book — which is organized around café drinks, apéritifs, liqueurs and infusions, cocktails and apéro snacks — Lebovitz became fascinated by those old-fashioned French apéritifs advertised by faded signs painted on the walls of buildings in back-roads France and enameled plaques found in flea markets.
“So many of these drinks, like Byrrh, Suze and Chartreuse, have such fascinating background stories,” he said. “Byrrh, for example, was originally promoted as a ‘hygienic’ drink in France’s tropical colonies because it was made with quinquina, and the part of the factory that produces it near Perpignan was designed by Gustave Eiffel.”
If he admits that the long days of testing and tasting necessary to write his book often left him wanting to drink nothing but kombucha by dinnertime, he still has a weak spot for a Le Boulevardier. This personal favorite was invented in Paris during the 1920s by an American publisher named Erskine Gwynne and is made with rye or bourbon whiskey, sweet vermouth, and Campari with a garnish of an orange twist and an amarena or maraschino cherry.
Looking toward the next round of holidays, including Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah, Lebovitz recommends stirring up an El Presidente, which is made with golden rum, white vermouth, triple sec and grenadine syrup with an orange twist and an amarena or maraschino cherry for a garnish. “It’s a great sipping cocktail when you’re feeling scared of goblins or bored by relatives,” he says. Santé to all that!
David Lebovitz’s 5 Favorite Only-in-France Apéritifs
The Carthusian monks have been making Chartreuse in the mountains of the same name near Grenoble for four centuries and have indeed perfected it. Chartreuse has achieved cult-like status and is still a top-secret recipe made with 130 medicinal aromatic plants and flowers. The actual recipe is known to only two monks (who never travel together, lest something happens to both of them at the same time and the recipe is lost), but they are training a younger monk and sharing the secrets with him, to keep the liqueur flowing. Available in yellow and green, Chartreuse has had a recent resurgence due to popularity of The Last Word cocktail.
Maison Ferrand Triple Sec Curaçao:
The American cocktail historian David Wondrich challenged distiller Alexandre Gabriel to recreate the “original” recipe for this spirit, and he succeeded magnificently with this orange-based liqueur with hints of spices. (And no, it’s not blue either!). Made by Maison Ferrand, which is famous for its Cognac, it’s produced with three different distillations using the Lahara orange and is based on a 19th-century recipe.
Pineau de Charentes:
This is one of the many French apéritifs that’s not very well-known outside of the region where it’s produced. It’s great that it’s becoming better known around the world, along with its cousins Pommeau, which is made with apple juice, and Calvados, the Norman digestif distilled from apples. Pineau de Charentes is made in Cognac, with one-third of it being Cognac and two-thirds juice from local grapes. The legend goes that it was born by mistake when a distiller accidentally added grape juice to a barrel of Cognac. He put it away and let it age for a while, then took a sip and realized he’d come up with something special.
Champagne gets a lot of fanfare, and deservedly so, but the price can make it a “special occasion” drink. Crémants are local sparkling wines, produced in various winemaking regions around France, including the Loire, Burgundy, and the Jura. These sparkling wines are made the same way as Champagne, but with local grapes. Their approachable prices make them easier on the wallet, and a friend of mine who conducts impromptu tastings with her guests at dinner parties in Paris, pitting Champagne versus crémant in blind tastings, says her guests often can’t tell the difference.
“My grandmother keeps a bottle in her cupboard” is what almost everyone in France will say if you mention Suze. This bracingly bitter apéritif has become the darling of the cocktail movement, in France and abroad. This gentian-based liquor works remarkably well in a cocktail paired with other spirits, including gin and yellow Chartreuse. (The Yellow Cocktail in Drinking French is one of my favorites and features them both.) In France, it’s usually enjoyed straight-up on the rocks and is especially welcome on a hot summer day. It’s very thirst-quenching, and I prefer it to pastis, so I opt for Suze if I get challenged to a game of boules when I’m in the south.
Alexander Lobrano was European Correspondent for Gourmet magazine from 1999 until it closed in 2009, and has written about food and travel for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and many other publications in the United States and the United Kingdom. He is the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 110 Best Restaurants, and a Contributing Editor at Saveur Magazine. His second book, Hungry for France, was published by Rizzoli in April 2014. He has won several James Beard awards, and in 2011, he was awarded the IACP’s Bert Greene award for culinary writing for his article “Spirit of the Bistro” in Saveur magazine.