At the French final of the 2016 Havana Club Grand Prix, Guillaume Leblanc did not go unnoticed. Surrounded by what we would call a tiki entourage, his pumped up presentation summed up what the manager of Paris premier tropical lounge, Dirty Dick, is all about: high-energy, full-on passion and lots of love. It’s weird to think that the whole tiki connection came late – and was meant to last a mere few weeks.
Indeed, Guillaume only landed at Dirty Dick to work a few shifts before heading to Australia, the promised land of so many young French bartenders. This was June 2014, and the bar, opened the previous year, had developed the habit of sheltering Paris bartenders on the look for short-term work before moving on to their new project. In this case, it was love at first sight. But more on that later.
Unlike many bartenders who sort of “fell into bartending”, Guillaume’s desire to work in the hospitality industry was long standing. He studied the trade at an official hospitality school, where he was specifically trained to bartend. The French bar scene had not taken off yet, Guillaume told us. “At the time, it was mostly hotel bars and it didn’t move enough for me”. In 2005, he joined L’Alcazar, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a fun experience that he credits with making him definitely fall in love with bartending – it’s during his stint over there that he made his first infusion and created his first cocktails.
Fast-forward a few years: after an extensive trip through Argentina and a couple of years at Paris’ Kube Hotel, Guillaume ended up at the Prescription Cocktail Club, one of the bars that spearheaded the city’s widely commented cocktail renaissance. The bar scene had nothing to do with the one Guillaume had discovered almost ten (!) years earlier and things were about to get even more fun, as he got picked to open the same group’s Experimental Beach Club in Ibiza for the 2013 season. Away from Paris, under the Spanish sun, you could feel the tropical revolution approaching.
The following winter, Guillaume travelled to India (ah, the spices!) and dreamt of Australia. And so we’re back at Dirty Dick, when he realized that maybe, just maybe this could be his home. “At the time, there was a big exhibition on Tiki Pop and I felt the concept had a lot of potential. I also realized that a lot of what I had been doing over the years was tiki: the whole idea of blending spirits, preparing homemade syrups, etc.” The reputation of Dirty Dick also allowed for important meetings: “David Wondrich and Beachbum Berry came here, and we had great chats that sort of made me want to discover tiki’s archaeology”. It also did help that rum is Guillaume’s favourite spirit, together with tequila and mezcal. “It’s magic. You can really talk about ‘terroir’, which is very important for the French consumer. It’s a spirit with character, closely linked to the people of the country where it comes from”. And of course, it makes great cocktails. But, one might ask perfidiously, since tiki is so focused on its authenticity, where can it actually go next? Guillaume’s disquiet mind has the answer: “I’d like to come up with a menu of dry tiki drinks. We’re always working with syrups, so it’s something that’s lacking. We already have a barrel-aged cocktail that’s a Negroni-meets-El-Presidente”. Other new tiki tricks would involve using techniques such as fat-washing (with coconut oil) or milk clarification.
Wherever Guillaume’s love for tiki takes him next, though, one thing is sure: handcrafted products will take centre-stage: “It’s what attracted me to cocktails. I’ve always wanted to make stuff with my own hands. Ever since I was a kid, when I was watching my grand-father, a charcutier (pork butcher), transforming produce with his hands and tools”.