Paris (CNN)When it comes to cocktails, it's hard to believe that food-centric Paris used to be a beverage backwater.
World's best bartender Jennifer Le Nechet's favorite bars
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Yet until a decade ago, you'd have to look hard to find an original craft cocktail in the capital feted for its wine and cuisine. Coq au vin, or mouthwatering filet de bœuf rôti, washed down with a glass of fine Burgundy: mais oui! But a real craft cocktail? The scene was decidedly parched.
But the times they are a changing.
Now you can take your pick of cool cocktail dens in the City of Light, as ambitious bartenders get creative with freshly sourced ingredients, rethinking traditional drinks and sometimes resurrecting the French spirits of yesteryear. (Think Bénédictine, Chartreuse and Suze, a 19th-century aperitif made with gentian, a bitter-tasting plant that grows in the mountains of the Jura.)
In a testament to how far Paris has come, the world's current cocktail champion -- as determined at the annual World Class competition -- is Paris-based Jennifer Le Nechet.
The prestigious event convenes the top bartenders from 56 countries, and for the first time in its history, a French bartender clinched the title of "World's Best Bartender" in September 2016.
Le Nechet also is the first female bartender to garner this award. No small feat considering nearly 10,000 bartenders entered the competition.
Held at the 1 Hotel South Beach in Miami, the international championship was a four-day series of intense challenges to winnow down the contestants to just six finalists.
When asked to dream up three "cocktails of tomorrow," Le Nechet focused on environmental sustainability: one concocted without ice or water to highlight the alarming state of the oceans; the second, made with hot gin and water vapor in a French press, referred to global warming; the third, sounding the alarm about soil pollution, recreated the scent of the forest after a rainstorm.
The six finalists had 24 hours to open their own pop-up bar, working with the same limited budget to envision the décor and ambiance.
While the other finalists rented equipment from a shop specializing in film sets, Jennifer and her team hit Target and Home Depot to source materials for her steampunk-themed bar.
"I wanted to recreate an old Paris metro station, and we picked up some household hardware materials to make 'train tracks' on the floor of the bar."
On the plane from Paris, she also lugged homemade syrups, bitters and colas -- painstakingly padded with bubblewrap. (Her three-person team helped with the 14 pieces of luggage.)
Now, as a Diageo Reserve Brand Ambassador, Le Nechet is globetrotting from Ghana and Greece to Turkey, Mauritius and Switzerland. Next up on her travel agenda? Canada, Colombia, the United States, Hungary, Lebanon, Israel, Russia, Mexico and, whew, Singapore.
"It's a lot of fun, but exhausting as well," Le Nechet said.
Between gigs as a guest bartender in places like Frankie Istanbul (the hip rooftop joint at the Sofa hotel), she judges the World Class national championships, selecting the bartenders who will represent each country at the 2017 World Class Bartender of the Year competition in Mexico City.
Between trips, we caught up with Le Nechet at Café Moderne, where she's shaken up cocktails that are oh-mon-dieu delicious for almost two years. Soon you'll find her behind the comptoir at her very own bar, a long-time dream that will come to fruition in 2018.
"Compared to the US or the UK, we didn't have a cocktail culture in France," Le Nechet said. "You had to go to a luxury hotel, one of the city's famous 'palaces,' to drink a good cocktail. The first wave of 'street cocktail bars' arrived about five years ago, and now the scene is exploding here in Paris."
Here are some of her favorite watering holes in Paris, and a few places she's discovered in her many travels.
Café Moderne, 19 Rue Keller, Paris
The cocktail queen rules the roost at Café Moderne in the hip 11th arrondissement just a short walk from Bastille. It sees a revolving door of regulars, not just for the creative libations, but also for the food.
Café Moderne specializes in ground meat: think tartare, burgers and meatballs. Diners choose the type of meat (lamb, beef, fish or a vegetarian option), the sauce and the sides.
To wash it down?
"There's not just one signature drink," Le Nechet explains. "Every cocktail is a creation made with fresh ingredients." To try one of Le Nechet's World Class cocktails, opt for "L'Amulette" -- a mix of walnut-infused Bulleit rye whiskey, homemade fig liqueur, Fino sherry and Cynar foam.
Gravity Bar, 44 Rue des Vinaigriers, Paris
It's not just the custom décor (an undulating ceiling made of plywood "waves," a cement bar poured directly on site) that creates the cool factor at the Gravity Bar, situated on rue des Vinaigriers near the Canal Saint-Martin.
"It's pretty new, just opened about 1.5 years ago, and the cocktails are extraordinary," says Le Nechet.
Her favorite drink? The "Câpre ou pas cap" which is a word play based on a French expression meaning "are you up for it, or not?" Câpre is also the word for caper, and -- true to its name -- this drink comes with fried capers.
Le Mary Celeste, 1 Rue Commines, Paris
Of the popular Paris bars run by Quixotic Projects, Le Mary Celeste is Le Nechet's favorite.
"The food is excellent: the little shared plates, the oysters and the deviled eggs, which are the best. The menu changes a lot, but the deviled eggs never come off the menu." Quench your thirst with wine, beer or creative hand-crafted cocktails.
Verre & Chope, 25 Rue de Rochechouart, Paris
"This tiny little spot on Rue de Rochechouart isn't just a wine bar, it also serves beer," explains Le Nechet. In fact, the name Verre & Chope alludes to the vessels in which you drink said wine and beer ("verre" is a glass, and "chope" is a beer mug).
"The food is good, too; the bar and open kitchen are behind a glass deli counter. And the charcuterie is sliced on demand."
Here you can dig into, hands down, the best Croque-Monsieur in Paris. "Clearly, clearly the best. The ham is freshly cut in front of your eyes, then topped with aged cheddar."
This isn't a party scene, but a tranquil and welcoming spot to enjoy during the day or at the beginning of your soirée.
Baton Rouge, 62 Rue Notre Dame de Lorette, Paris
"The decoration is magnificent at this New Orleans-inspired spot," says Le Nechet. "Voodoo, sorcery, the menu printed on tarot cards... This cocktail bar really stands out because of this cool, unique décor."
As they say in Louisiana (but, ahem, not in Paris), laissez les bons temps rouler.
La Distillerie de Paris, 54 Passage Reilhac, Paris
"This is the only distillery in Paris," says Le Nechet, "and you can make your own gin in the course of an afternoon ... adding ingredients and citrus zest, tasting at each step along the way."
The distillery can be privatized for events or spirit-making, but it is not routinely open to the public. The spirits produced there can be found at boutiques and restaurants throughout Paris.
Opened in 2015 by brothers Sébastien and Nicolas Julhès, La Distillerie is the first micro-distillery to arrive in the French capital since they all closed up shop at the end of the last century.
Since the launch, Nicolas has concocted more than 50 different recipes for gins, rums, flavored vodkas, whiskey and liqueurs from honey, agave and maple syrup.
In a few words: "Really good cocktails, really good music, really good ambiance," says Le Nechet. "Génial."
"Just a 15-minute walk north on Collins Avenue is The Broken Shaker," says Le Nechet. "It's like a little vacation village with a restaurant, backyard garden and a little pool if you want to swim. Rigolo."
"Greece was the first country I traveled after the World Class competition," explains Le Nechet, "and I was impressed by the quality of the cocktails there -- a really high level, and people don't realize that."
She particularly enjoyed the vibe at The Clumsies, a famous Athens spot.
"In the Czech Republic, I really like L'Fleur, a Paris-inspired place," says Le Nechet.
"There's a cocktail served as a pyramid -- as in the Pyramide du Louvre" (the now-iconic landmark designed by architect I.M. Pei in 1989).