Le French Bar: How to Build Your French Cocktail Bar

Drinking of Kir Royal, French aperitif cocktail made from creme de cassis topped with champagne, typically served in flute glasses, with view on old French village

It’s August. And it’s been hot. And rainy. At the same time. And the news gets more terrible every day, which makes one want to unfollow anything with substance on Insta and just look at kittens or capybaras. Also there’s this profound feeling of summer-a-going, which makes even the most hermit-like of us willing to throw a little caution to the wind, forget all those diets to look better in our bathing suits we half-assed were trying in June and July, and mix up a pitcher of drinks and invite a few fellow hermits over, even if they, too, might be suffering from Summer Season Affective Disorder. Lots of carbs, tomatoes, peaches and luscious salads need to be in abundance as well as ice cold drinks to calm our nerves.

I have such an evening fast approaching in mid-August, and as I was day-dreaming of cold Aperol spritzes and thyme liqueurs, gooey cheeses and more chips than anyone should really eat, I realized I have no idea how to make cocktails, and, even more, I have no bar supplies, save for a prized bottle of Chartreuse my husband and sons bought me in France last year and smuggled home, an old, dusty bottle of whisky a friend left here, and some not-yet chilled Prosecco. I have thyme and mint and lavender and lemon balm and oregano growing like crazy in my garden, however. 

Think what you will about this statement but my co-editor, Cat Rickman, knows a lot about cocktails and a lot about French cocktails. She often spends weekends trying new recipes and testing them on her young, energetic friends. (Read: these kids can drink more than one and not need to go to bed, that kind of young.) So I asked her recently if she could help me stock a French bar and teach me how to make 3-4 cocktails to impress my guests, as, let’s face it, I am an editor at a French magazine and it would be great if I could whip up a cocktail or two with a little je ne sais quoi. 

Most popular cocktails set: aperol spritz, negroni, mojito, gin tonic and cosmopolitan, daiquiri, margarita and old fashioned on white background, top view. Hard light

How to Stock a French Bar Cart

Caitlin: Cat, my first question is this — I have been buying wine forever. Wine is easy. Someone else made it. I just need to make a good choice and pop the cork. Similarly with beer or cider–or craft beer! Or Piquette. Why do I need cocktails? I can serve a nice rosé, red, or white wine… a whole meal can revolve around French wines.

Cat: While obviously there is a lot to love about French wine, beer, cider, and piquette, cocktails are kind of like an exponential equation. Every ingredient that you add has the possibility to transform the drink completely. There are endless opportunities for improvisation and customization–it’s a lot like cooking in that way. It’s also a great way to explore regional flavors and expand your palate while cooling off after a hot day.

Caitlin: Do the French drink cocktails?

Cat: While the American craft cocktail boom kicked off in the early aughts, the French took a little longer to get on board. But France now has an incredible wealth of craft cocktail bars, and you’re just as likely to see a Parisian drinking an Aperol spritz as you are to see them drinking a Cab-Sauv. But also, a cocktail doesn’t have to be complicated. I have a recipe on here for what I call an “Old French Man Drink,” which is basically some sort of apéritif with citrus and soda water. Since there are so many complex elements in apéritifs like Salers, Cap Corse, and Blanc Vermouth, they don’t really need too much zhuzhing to release all those flavors.

Caitlin: Ok, so I’m diving into cocktails. What is the first thing you recommend I buy? (Or, should I ask, what are the first 3 or twelve things I need–keep in mind as I am on a semi-budget here and want things I can use in a fabulous 3-8 drinks, so that means great products that are versatile.)

Cat: Well I know you love a spritz, so I’d start by making sure you have a couple bottles of crémant, which is French sparkling wine made in the same way as champagne, but outside of the Champagne region. (It tends to be more affordable than champagne, but just as delicious.) Then I’d play around with some French apéritifs. I’m a huge fan of Salers, a gentian-based drink which is very bitter but versatile in cocktails. (Suze is similar and might be more widely available, however.) Another less bitter and more citrusy apéritif is Mattei Cap Corse Blanc, one of my absolute faves. French vermouth is obviously the next thing you should look for. While red vermouth and dry vermouth are standard, I’d suggest a bottle of Blanc Vermouth if you can find it. (Remember to keep your vermouth refrigerated after opening!)

St. Germain is very popular for sweeter cocktails, and crème de cassis is like a cocktail cheat code. Cointreau is good to have, though I’m convinced no one has ever gone through an entire bottle in their lifetime, so get the smallest one you can find. For spirits, I’d go for cognac and gin. And I’d recommend always having lemons and simple syrup on hand.

Caitlin: What is the most crowd-pleasing French cocktail I can stir up with minimal fuss and will impress my guests? 

Cat: A Kir Royale is pretty hard to beat for ease. Just add sparkling wine to a champagne flute (or any glass you prefer) and top with a dash of crème de cassis. The proportions can be easily adjusted depending on your preference, but I’d stick with half an ounce of cassis to a full glass of champagne. Honestly, popping a shot of any French liqueur into a glass of sparkling wine is a great cocktail hack. Absinthe, Cap Corse, Salers, St. Germain, etc.

Caitlin: What are the instruments I need to make it all look effortless and easy and also to make it actually effortless and easy?

Cat: A cocktail shaker, for one, along with a cocktail spoon for stirred drinks. And I think a nice set of glassware makes a big difference in how fancy your drinks look. Maybe get a couple nice rocks glasses and a few chic coupes. Go to your local flea market and see if you can find some vintage glassware on the cheap.

Caitlin: How much ice do I need on hand? 

Cat: In my opinion, when it’s hot out, you can never have too much ice. But I’d say minimum two full standard ice trays. You could also get some fancy ice trays if you want to step up your aesthetic, like one for large, one-inch square cubes.

Boozy Refreshing French 75 Cocktail with Champagne and Gin

French Cocktail Recipes

Kir Royale

Ingredients:

  • 5 oz chilled sparkling wine
  • 1/2 oz crème de cassis

Directions: Mix the wine and cassis for a pink-colored drink. (You could also sub St. Germain in for crème de cassis for something a St. Germain Spritz, which is more floral and less tart. Or pop a shot of absinthe in your sparkling wine with a maraschino cherry–I’m partial to the ones from Luxardo–for a Death in the Afternoon, allegedly Hemingway’s creation.)

French 75

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 oz lemon juice
  • 3/4 oz simple syrup
  • 1.5 oz London dry gin or cognac
  • 2 oz champagne or sparkling wine

Directions: Add gin, simple syrup, and lemon juice to a shaker with ice. Shake for 30 seconds, then strain into a glass and top with champagne.

*Note: You can also make a French 75 with cognac instead of gin, which would be a more traditional version. You could also swap the simple syrup for crème de cassis or St. Germain.

Sidecar

Ingredients:

  • 1 oz cognac
  • 1 oz Cointreau
  • 1 oz lemon juice

Directions: Add cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice to a shaker. Shake vigorously, then strain into a coupe glass. You can add a garnish of orange peel or a sugar rim if you like.

White Negroni

  • 1 oz gin
  • 1 oz Salers
  • 1 oz Blanc Vermouth

Directions: Stir gin, Salers, and Blanc Vermouth with ice, and strain into a glass. If making a Sbagliato, stir Salers and vermouth with ice, then strain into a glass and top with champagne.

*Note: You could sub cognac in for gin for an unexpected twist on a Boulevardier. Or sub champagne for gin and make it a White Sbagliato. You could even ditch the Salers and swap in half an ounce of St. Germain.

Basil Gimlet

  • 1 oz fresh lime or lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz basil syrup
  • 2 oz gin
  • 1/2 oz St. Germain

Directions: Make a basil simple syrup by adding equal parts water and sugar to a saucepan with a handful of basil leaves. Stir until the sugar has dissolved, then strain out the basil leaves and store in your fridge for up to a week. Once you have your syrup, shake gin, St. Germain, citrus juice, and basil syrup with ice. Strain into a coupe and garnish with a basil leaf.

*Note: If you don’t have basil, but your garden is full of something else, feel free to make substitutions. Rosemary would work just as well, as would thyme.

White Lady

  • 2 oz gin
  • 1/2 oz Cointreau
  • 1/2 oz lemon juice

Directions: Shake gin, Cointreau, and lemon juice with ice, then strain into a coupe for this drink, which is basically a gin Sidecar.

Old Man French Drink

  • 2 oz Salers, Blanc Vermouth, or Cap Corse
  • 2 oz soda water
  • Twist of lemon, orange, or grapefruit

Directions: This is what old men in the South of France drink. Choose your favorite apéritif and serve it over ice and topped with soda water for something simple, low-ABV, and refreshing. The citrus twist makes all the difference.

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