Above: Illustration for Tradition. Illustrations by Laura Sheldon; photographs by Tom McGeehan
A new cocktail menu from the team at Little Red Door in Paris means two things; one: a deeper than average thought process behind its conception, and two: an entire list of tastier than average drinks. We jumped on a Eurostar from London to meet with Rory Shepherd, Group Head of Operations & Creativity, Calvin Politi, Bar Manager, Emily Reynolds, Senior Bartender and Louis Lebaillif, bartender, to check it out ahead of its official launch.
Setting the scene.
It’s called the Menu of Universal Values and it’s a biggie. 30.5cm x 22cm in fact. Despite the fancy name, it’s bold, bright and playful – designed to look like a kiddies book. Remember those annuals that we all collected back in the day? Or a fancier than average colouring book? That’s the look you get here, complete with a strokable matt finish and extremely pleasing embossed font.
Delving inside is a delight – like taking a stroll to another world. While the designs are enchanting, so too are the drinks. We spoke to the team to find out more.
A menu of universal values could have been very serious, why did you approach it in a childlike way?
Rory: Because that’s the point at which we all start – everyone can relate to it. The size was always important too… When you come into Little Red Door, it’s small on the outside, big on the inside – it’s a little world of its own. That’s what we wanted to do with this: the menu is cosy, there’s nothing threatening about it; it’s not in your face. The concept could be seen as pretentious but there’s no way that you see this book as pretentious. We’re fun, nice people and this is something we all believe in. Presenting it in an accessible way was the initial must-do.
What’s the story?
Calvin: Every menu we do here is completely different and for this one, we wanted to create something as relatable and accessible to as many people in the world as possible. We’re such an international bar, our team is and so are our guests, so we wanted something that connects with people, no matter what their upbringing or cultural background. We hit on the idea of universal values, a Theory of Basic Human Values by Shalom H. Schwartz. The study found 10 different values that everyone has felt at least once in their lives.
And they are?
Rory: They’re broken down into Self-Direction, Stimulation, Hedonism, Achievement, Power, Security, Conformity, Tradition, Benevolence, Universalism and Spirituality.
The full menu of drinks
We’ve all felt those emotions but we haven’t experienced them in a drink – how do you go about translating them into liquids?
Rory: We worked in pairs and all of us brought our own stories and upbringings to inspire our drinks. Some are memories, some are feelings, some are more abstract in terms of the imagery and some are visual. For instance the image for Strength, or Power (below), is of a dam in Scotland which I remember standing next to as a child. I remember being overwhelmed by the power of the water. So it symbolises strength through personal experience but there are other themes like Hedonism that are more abstract. That one looks into the idea of something being a moment of pleasure that might not last forever – which when you think of it, is what a cocktail is.
Were the working pairs chosen or did you all decide on them for yourselves?
Calvin: I was going to go random with it, then we realised that half of the team were new, which meant that most of them didn’t know each other, so we paired them up. It worked really well as it reinforced the idea of everyone having felt these emotions, even if they speak different languages and come from different backgrounds. We sat down and discussed the definition of the word – some are quite complex, and can mean multiple things.
The Little Red Door team
Coming to a meeting of minds between the pairs must have been quite a challenge. How did it work?
Louis: For Charlotte and I it was quite difficult sometimes – we’re both hotheads so we often clashed. It was fun though. Take Achievement for instance. First we defined what the word meant to us and we had a rough idea straight away but developing ingredients relating to that, was very difficult because we both had different ideas.
The research is usually the fun part but it can also be very difficult – particularly with something like this, how did you go about it?
Calvin: We met every Tuesday as a team for the last eight months and talked about everyone’s ideas for the menu – it was like a group think tank. Those meetings then turned into tastings – some would go really well for people, others wouldn’t but we all discussed it. It wasn’t just me and Calvin dictating everything, everyone’s opinions counted.
Rory: For the first couple of months we said not to make any drinks, we just wanted everyone to understand the concept.
Which values were the most natural to translate into a drink?
Rory: For me, Security because I knew I wanted a very classic drink. In terms of flavour I wanted to relate back to childhood and I immediately thought of something creamy, very easy-drinking and comforting, although this one is very light and fresh. I also wanted to hint at a slightly medicinal side, like Calpol, so I needed something bitter to make it all work. Then I added milk and honey which was what I always had before I went to bed. It took me quite a while to think about my angle for Strength because you can go really far with it but that can get messy. Or you can do what we aim to do here: on the surface it can be a really pretty, colourful menu allowing our guests to enjoy the drinks for what they are. But if you choose to sit and geek out about it, you can do that too.
Talk us through a few of the drinks
(Talisker Storm, charred orange leaf, white vermouth, grain)
Calvin: I worked with Antony on this. At first we thought of the basic ideas of tradition, like climates. Then we thought of more general traditional things like fire and dancing. We settled on the idea that most people around the world have experienced being outside in an open space where there’s the smell of a fire and that’s the idea of this drink – being outside. We added Talisker Storm and charred orange leaf to give the charred and smoky effect and it’s served in a very traditional style cocktail glass.
(Plymouth Gin, aquavit, Dolin Blanc, oyster leaf, kombu, black radish)
Emily: This is one of Ollie’s drinks. It’s based on a childhood experience of going to Plymouth and playing in the rockpools, which is why he’s used Plymouth gin as the base. But for me when I drink it I think what he was trying to create is that big hit of salty sea air, with the minerals and smell of seaweed that you get when you first get off a train or the car and arrive at the sea. The visual for this drink takes you there.
Hedonism illustration and drink
(Botanical red wine, Lot 40 Rye Whiskey, apple, green chilli, flowers)
Calvin: This was really difficult – there are so many directions to take it – we could have gone modern and sex, drugs and rock and roll or looked back to ancient Greece. In the end we settled on the idea of indulgence, that bittersweet feeling of aiming for fulfilment but not quite getting there. It’s an almost sexual route with the idea of forbidden fruit – we’ve used a botanical wine and a bit of chilli for heat. The other key thing about this drink is that all the ingredients are natural aphrodisiacs.
(Bruxo No. 1 Mezcal, chlorophyll, porcini mushroom, Cap Mattel Blanc, citrus)
Emily: I wanted this one straight away. It’s based on a moment of my travels when I was in a nightclub in Berlin. The entrance was a dimly lit hallway and as I went along, I could hear the bass kicking in then when you opened the door at the end of the corridor, it just exploded. It was like sensory overload with lots of light, big sounds and smoke everywhere. Trying to condense a night into a liquid is difficult so what I did was search for ingredients that were all stimulating in their own ways. I’ve added chlorophyll which is a natural stimulant which basically increases your sensory abilities. Porcini is a flavour intensifier, like salt and brings an umami element which increases everything else in the drink. Then there’s mezcal for those big, punchy flavours. But overall, the drink is fresh and zingy – the texture makes your tongue roll around your mouth.
Conformity illustration and drink
(Soma tea, herbal tincture)
Rory: In terms of description, this one is quite abstract. Soma tea is not actually a tea, it’s a ritual in Hindu cultures. They sit around and drink herbs and spices like turmeric and eucalyptus that are meant to mellow you down – it’s very meditative. I wanted to find a natural balance to that, so the drink is a dry vermouth infused with turmeric cordial with thyme and eucalyptus, and a bergamot liqueur, topped up with IPA. I wanted it to be really fresh and mellow, very sessional and naturally balanced.
(Ketel One Vodka, meadow flowers, Champagne)
Louis: Charlotte and I started out by referring to personal experiences, but in the end we ended up looking at the global idea of achieving, going back to when you’re a kid at school, growing up, getting a degree and the obstacles in between. One of the most obvious drinks that you associate with achievements is Champagne. We then looked at nature as a whole to see every single part of the journey, adding vodka infused with minerals for the soil, a classic Little Red Door ingredient, gentian, for the roots. Then for the wood, we used a cedar perfume which we sprayed on top, and for the floral aspect, we made a blend of three different flowers: camomile, marigold and hibiscus cordial. For the fruits, we’ve used verjus, then finish with Champagne. Like all of the drinks the glass is related to the value, its a subtle trophy.
Which leads us to the glassware. Are they all bespoke pieces?
Calvin: Every single glass comes from a different supplier. Security is a pair of cupped hands in a delicate baby blue colour; for Conformity we’ve commissioned a ceramicist to make these wonderful square vessels, we wanted to stick with a quirky feel. The rest, we went on our own little missions to find the best glassware/vessels that fit.
Tell us about how you worked with the artist?
Rory: She’s called Laura Sheldon and I’ve worked with her on various projects for the past seven years. It was really important that the people making the drink had a big input in the design itself, so everybody put forward a brief which we went through together before sending it on to Laura. Sometimes she got it straight away and at other times it would take longer but that was part of the challenge. She has an incredible imagination and there’s a great satisfaction seeing someone else’s interpretation of your idea.
There are a lot of creative minds at work here, was it difficult?
It could have been three of us but we have such a multi-cultural team, why not use that? Everyone has different knowledge in different areas so everyone learned from our many and varied experiences.
The artist had a brief for each of the drinks, what was the brief for the cover?
Rory: That was really hard. At the time, I was getting into surrealist photography and that was the original brief and to have a strange perspective land with lots of cities and trees – it just got overcomplicated. There’s a very small reference to the Little Prince walking into the background and then we just wanted it to imply an over the hills kind of journey. Simple.
Try the Menu of Universal Values at Little Red Door the next time you’re in Paris.
60 rue Charlot, 75003, Paris. lrdparis.com