When Julien Escot won the 2012 Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix, he was already an experienced bartender, mentor to many and owner of one of France’s best know bars internationally, the Papa Doble. The natural thing — one assumed — would have been to ride on the success, mind his business and keep on doing what everyone knew he was good at. Two years ago, though, he decided to sell his interest in his bar and move on — but move on to what? Surely, he wouldn’t become a photographer — one of his passions? Or retire? And where would we get our cocktail fix whenever visiting Montpellier (where, as it happens, we do go often)?
In fact, Julien put the last couple of years to good use, doing something few bartenders his age dare to do: he reinvented himself. At Papa Doble, he had introduced craft cocktails in a most unlikely town. The bar was the culmination of his career thus far and offered drinks of a quality you’d barely get in a city such as Paris at the time — it remains to this day the only French bar outside of the capital to have featured on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. Because of his restless personality, though, he felt it was time for him to go one step further, moving away from the codes of the cocktail world to try and conjure a more inclusive experience. Aperture is the result of this process.
From the start, the idea was to do a restaurant that could be a bar, a bar that could be a restaurant. Blurring the lines, the bar, while still central, shouldn’t be the centrepiece, the bottles should be hidden and the shakers mostly unused. The cocktails, created by Julien and his long-time bartender Rémi Bataillé (and 2016 Grand Prix finalist), were to be pre-batched and served without further ado, much as a glass of wine would be poured. The food, meanwhile, would use some of the flavours and aromatics used in the cocktails.
To create a place that would do justice to the concept, Julien enlisted the services of Pierre-Cyrille Acquier, a regular at Papa Doble, who had designed his last book Cocktail Now. Bold and futuristic, his design match the bare medieval walls typical of Montpellier’s historical centre with a metal and mirror design that French observers like to call ‘épuré’ (pared down). In keeping with the name of the bar (aperture is the opening of a lens through which light passes to enter the camera), the light scheme slowly evolves over the course of the evening. And the team worked with a perfumer to develop a signature scent for the bar…
In practice, the place delivers on its promises. Julien has always put bold, pure flavours above everything else. And although many of the drinks are built on simplicity — two to three ingredients, discreet garnish — this guiding principle remains. On our visit earlier this month — the menu changes regularly — we were stunned by the Fig Negroni (with fig leaf-infused gin), the very sleek Campari and Bergamot combo or the quite crazy nameless aperitivo based on dry vermouth, coconut water and elderflower liqueur. But while those cocktails follow the initial philosophy of Aperture, many clients were actually looking for the style of recipes they first fell in love with at Papa Doble. Initially reluctant to indulge them, Julien and his team have recently decided to open up a little bit. For a revolution to make business sense, you often need a gradual approach. And so the Blonde Bombshell — one of Papa Doble’s bestsellers — has made a return. And new cocktails that still match the aesthetics and ethos of Aperture were created with a more conservative clientele in mind. The Frozen Mai Tai proved an instant hit — we expect to see it imitated very soon by smart bartenders. Another stunning crowd-pleaser is the Melon Colada, based on pastis (!). Julien, who featured a quite simply amazing Piña Colada at Papa Doble a few years ago, has actually included the Colada within the type of drinks that will always remain of the menu — with the Negroni and the Sangria — in seasonal variations.
Beyond the city’s limits, people are already taking note. Earlier this summer, Aperture was named by Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards as one of the Best New International Bar of the year. Quite a feat when you’re out of the media limelight in Montpellier. This bodes well for Julien Escot’s new project. And although the cantineros will miss the Hemingway references, they can rest assured that Julien’s cocktails remain as tasty as they ever were, even when he’s keeping an eye on the industry’s future.