Today marks the start of London Cocktail Week, in which the robust of liver can traverse the city and sample a dizzying variety of alcoholic offerings. We got some inside info on the world of cocktails from Julien Lafond, who is UK Brand Ambassador for Grand Marnier as well as keeping his hand in with the odd bar shift.
So how did you become a mixologist?
I always wanted to do that. As a kid I had an older sister who was spending a lot of time in bars with her friends and took me with her as my parents were always working and everybody was so nice with me. It was always the highlight of the day and I had free video games and Coca-Cola. What else do you want when you’re seven? My parents didn’t know though!
I started bartending about nine years ago in a Toulouse hotel - they didn’t have a proper bartender so the maître d’ taught me a few of the classics. After finishing my catering degree, I took a bartending course, then went to Paris to work as a trainee in a cocktail and whisky bar called Bar Le Forum.
Do you have a signature cocktail? What's in it?
I would say at the moment it’s The Grand Breakfast, a twist on a classic called The Breakfast Martini created by Salvatore Calabrese (Bar Guru) that I adapted for a national competition and re-adapted when I started with Grand Marnier:
35ml Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge
20ml vodka or gin
25ml fresh grapefruit juice
20ml fresh lemon juice
2 dashes of peach bitter
3spoons of orange and tangerine marmalade
10ml egg white (for the smoothness and to bind the ingredients together)
Dissolve the marmalade in a shaker with all the other ingredients, shake without ice to get the egg white to blend together and foam, fill the shaker with ice, shake hard and pour into your martini glass. A real treat for Sunday morning or any other day of the week.
Tell us how you come up with new recipes. Is it trial-and-error or does something new come to you in a blinding flash of inspiration?
Usually by twisting classic recipes using different ingredients. Classics are here for a reason and 150 years ago bartenders didn’t have all the ingredients we have now so it’s always a base. Nowadays, going around bars and using different chef's flavour combinations helps a lot but you still can have a flash of inspiration. Most of the time, I have to work on the recipe though, it never happened to me to get an idea right straight away.
Which other mixologists do you admire? What do they do that's special?
There are too many to name them! Every bartender’s got his/her own style I think and for the best bartenders it's their personality that makes the difference. There is so much you can learn from books, working hard and watching others but your personality will be the difference. When I started the knowledge wasn’t as widely spread as now, but you’ve got now a quantity of blogs, magazines and books that have helped young bartenders to develop as good mixologists, but it’s only one of the side of the job. I think hosting is what a bartender needs to master to reach the top level.
Tell us what bars you like to visit off-duty (don't worry, we won't come and pester you for cocktail recipes).
Too many to name them all but Callooh Callay and The Hawksmoor are all near where I live so I guess I visit them more than others. Then Mahiki, Artesian at The Langham and ECC Chinatown are probably the one I always go to when I am in Central London. A bar I appreciate particularly is Happiness Forgets, a great little cocktail bar in a basement on Hoxton Square.
What are you doing for London Cocktail Week?
I will be organising an event called Le Grand Bal by Grand Marnier. Follow the link and book your tickets, it’s going to be Grand! See you there!
Shaken or stirred?
Difficult again! But I’d say stirred if I make the drink and shaken if I am drinking it.
Finally, tell us about your best day and your worst day as a mixologist.
My best day is probably when I made a Rob Roy for Sean Connery when working at Bar Le Forum; he came in sat down and everybody in the bar went quiet. I couldn’t believe it was him – we had a regular who looked like him - I left the counter and went to take his order. He ordered a Rob Roy straight up so I went back to the bar and made it. He paid, read his newspaper for 10 minutes and drunk his Rob Roy in three sips (as it should be), said goodbye and left as quickly as he came in. The only James Bond for me!
The worst was when I just started at Bar Le Forum. It was my first day service on the bar without my head bartender and I was really proud to have such responsibility. Two really good regulars came in (Bar Le Forum regulars are real characters). They sat down and asked me which drink I could serve them according to the colour of their ties, which were brown and green. I wasn’t expecting that question so I hesitated before suggesting a Mojito. They looked at me with contempt and left straight away without a word.
I was really embarrassed and thought I made a big mistake but when I told the story to my head bartender and the owners of the bar, they laughed and said that they would be back. The customers didn’t come back for three weeks and I was feeling worse every day. When they finally came back they had forgotten about it and couldn’t believe I had spent three weeks worrying!
London Cocktail Week runs from 7-16 October. See the website for details, timetables and tickets.