What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon in Paris than by learning the secret of the perfect cocktail from one of the world’s greatest barmen? So I jump in a cab to that most exclusive of addresses, the Ritz, and almost get lost in its labyrinth of gilded corridors before arriving at the mythical Hemingway Bar, hidden away right at the back of the hotel. This is the domain of Colin Peter Field, whose accolades run from being voted world’s best barman by Forbes magazine, to becoming the first bartender to make it into the French Who’s Who. He is even recognised by the Guinness World Records for preparing the world’s most expensive cocktail, the Ritz Sidecar, costing a quite frightening €1,250 (it features a rare fine Champagne cognac that dates from the 1850s).
Field is bilingual and runs his weekly cocktail course in English and French – the French tend to swoon at his accent. On the day I attend, I find myself surrounded by a dozen chic Parisians, all desperate to discover how to create the cocktails that have earned the Hemingway its reputation.
“Simplicity is the secret – the best recipes stretch to only three elements,” Field confides, holding court behind his bar as we sit before it in hushed silence. “First, there is the alcohol – the star of the show. Never put two alcohols in one cocktail, it will just be like Muhammad Ali fighting Joe Frazier, a brawl that never ends till they cancel each other out.”
He goes on to explain that the next element is what he calls an agent profumateur – a fragrance, which could be a liqueur such as Grand Marnier or Angostura Bitters, or fresh mint. Finally, there is the body – tomato juice for a Bloody Mary, red vermouth for a Manhattan, and so on.
“All the great, classic cocktails have balance between the three elements, such as the classic Sidecar, created in 1922 at Buck’s Club, combining cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice,” he explains. “It soon became the inspiration for the White Lady, where the cognac was replaced by gin, and then another bartender switched gin for tequila, replaced lemon with lime, and the margarita was born.”
Field is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to cocktails, and this month published an authoritative book on the subject, with a preface by Kate Moss. He insists that this isn’t just a typical celeb puff-piece to boost sales, but that she really is a regular habitué at the Hemingway and a personal friend.
I try to steer the conversation towards the model, but Field is not one for gossiping about his clients, and subtly changes back to the grand theme – the psychology of cocktails. It seems to boil down to how he decides which drink to suggest for which client – the classic, strong recipes for the stressed-out businessman, something sweeter and longer for the young couple on a date, and so on.
Everyone wants Field to explain when a cocktail should be shaken or stirred. “There is a simple golden rule. Think of the shaker as a blender, and use it when a cocktail recipe includes eggs, cream, milk, syrup, marmalade or any fruit juices. Everything else must be put into the mixing glass and stirred. So, a martini is stirred, and a margarita is shaken – regardless of how James Bond orders his favourite cocktail.” (Apparently, his insistence on shaking was Ian Fleming’s way of marking out Bond’s anti-establishment leanings).
As he speaks, we taste a rather delicious cognac, followed by one of Field’s favourite cocktails of the moment: Grey Goose pear vodka with clear apple juice (“Close your eyes, smell the drink – you should be seeing green – and then the first sip is like biting into a crisp pear ... ”). By this stage, everyone is getting pretty relaxed, but then Field announces it is our turn to do some work: we must invent our own cocktail. Divided into two groups, we have to follow Field’s “psychology” principle: invent a hero or heroine, explain their background, say where they will drink the cocktail and why, what sort of glass it should be served in, and come up with the ingredients.
Field will then make the cocktail, and after tasting it, we must announce its name. Fired up on creativity (and pear vodka), everyone is soon getting carried away. The other group tells us their fictional heroine is the female director of Vogue magazine, in Florence for a relaxing weekend after the Milan fashion shows. They ask Colin to prepare an iced flute and shake a mix of cognac, amaretto and lime juice. He is suitably impressed. “VSOP or XO for the cognac?” he asks, and before anyone can reply, he says, “Oh, let’s go for the expensive one – XO it is. Just a drop though,” as he pours what looks like half the bottle into the shaker. Their name for the concoction – a Firenzetto Triple – equally impresses, and now it is our turn to surprise.
Our group, perhaps influenced by Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy, enthusiastically invent a middle-aged Swedish journalist who stumbles into a bar in Manaus, desperate for a drink after three months in the Amazon tracking down a story. Selecting an ancient bottle of Venezuelan Aniversario rum from the bar, wood-aged sugar cane juice and a squeeze of lime, we ask Field to shake what we have decided to call a Saudade Sour, our take on a classic cocktail, that will hopefully raise our hero’s morale. It certainly tastes pretty good.
The course ends with Field signing a certificate for each of us and handing out a souvenir Ritz cocktail glass. Better still, we can now impress friends with our own cocktail recipe, created on the very spot where, so the story goes, the Ritz was symbolically “liberated” from the Germans by Ernest Hemingway, who stepped up to the bar and ordered a round of dry martinis for his comrades – stirred, not shaken, of course.
Colin Peter Field’s cocktail course at the Ritz Paris costs €150 (www.ritzparis.com)
‘The Ritz Paris: A History of Cocktails’, by Colin Peter Field is published by Editions de la Martinière at €25