Smith Sign
Eau là là: the coolest bar in Paris right now

Food & drink

Eau là là: the coolest bar in Paris right now

At Herbarium, former perfumer Oscar Quagliarini is shaking things up with cocktails that could almost double as cologne.

Kate Weir

BY Kate Weir6 August 2016

The coolest bar in Paris right now, by a nose, is Herbarium at Hôtel National des Arts et Métiers. Mixologist and former perfumer Oscar Quagliarini has dreamt up a scent-sational concept, where you pick your poison after wafting perfumed paper strips under your nose – a delightful new take on joining someone ‘for a snifter’.

Herbarium is a low-lit basement space attached to one of Paris’ current hottest boutique hotels. It evokes a vintage apothecary, with tiers of vintage-style perfume bottles, and panels of artfully brûléed wood and leather. We visited for a spritz and sip, and to question Quagliarini on his, frankly, fragrant disregard for the rules…

Hi Oscar, you smell great. First off, can you tell us how you developed this concept?

I started by looking at the way a ‘nose’ (an artisan who composes scents) works in the perfume industry. I try to create a situation and evoke an emotion using the head notes, then use the heart and base notes to build a drinkable fragrance. In Herbarium I developed a concept I’d been studying for six years, but to me it’s not a real ‘hotel bar’, it’s set apart from the hotel as a bar in its own right.

When I interpret a perfume as a cocktail I start with my edible spray fragrances, which become the head notes. The heart notes are introduced as a foam or mousse covering the top of the drink. For the base notes, I use a higher density of ingredient to sit in the body or at the bottom of the drink.

Which are your favourite scents? And how do you translate them into flavours?

I love fig, bergamot and vetiver, and it depends what effect I want to achieve. If the scent is an introduction to the drink, a continuation of the flavour, or to create a contrast.

Which scents evoke strong emotions for you?

Fig is the scent of Paris for me, because the first fragrance I bought when I arrived here was Premier Figuier from L’Artisan Parfumer. Oud (a richly scented resin from the agar tree), which was one of the most recent ingredients I discovered, but I loved it so much I used it in my first eau de parfum. And tobacco, which brings to mind the most important loves of my life – most of my girlfriends have been smokers.

Aside from Gitanes, what’s the sexiest scent on a partner?

Bergamot, orange blossom and sandalwood.

And which scents are least likely to grace your cocktail shaker?

Patchouli, styrax (a pungent tropical shrub) and cloves.

Ok, hold our patchouli, clove and styrax martini. While we reset our ‘nose’, tell us what’s key when picking a signature perfume?

First, smell the perfume several times on a paper tester, and at different times later on in the day to understand how it’s going to evolve, then do the same on yourself, because the scent will react differently with your skin.

We’re fans of Annick Goutal’s perfumes (and may have swiped the bathroom minis at Villa Cora and the Lakes By Yoo); the family mentored you when you started in the industry. What’s the most important thing you learnt from them?

Everything. I learnt so much from Camille Goutal and Isabelle Doyen about a world I didn’t know much about. I also studied a lot of old and new books myself – books that explained both technique and the mentality behind building perfumes.

And now you’re building a cocktail dynasty – tell us about your line of fixings and spirits?

They’re totally natural and free from artificial colours. They’re different from the classics, because I used ingredients from the perfume industry. The bitter is inspired by West African flavours (spicy notes of ginger, cedar and quassia, and citrus notes of orange and tangerine). It’s great in a negroni. I’ve created three kinds of vermouth too: white, red and dry, and a fourth – a type that doesn’t exist yet – is in the works, plus two more bitters and a premium apéritif similar to Aperol. My first eau de parfum, called the Night Is My Kingdom, will be released soon, too.

Have your drinks experiments had unexpected results?

Yes, many times, especially when I’ve used raw materials that I’ve never tried before. For example, when I first made the edible perfume for my Irkutsk Lake cocktail, using Siberian pine. Often I’ll have the idea for a scent in my head, but it doesn’t work when I try to extract the flavour, by boiling the ingredients or steeping them in cold water. It can be the same with the ‘liquid kitchen’ trend in bars, where ingredients that are good to eat don’t work as well in a drink.

Aside from your own, which bars would you prop up?

I love Operation Dagger in Singapore, but my favourites are those created by Tony Conigliaro (the famed mixologist who designed the Zetter Townhouse’s cocktail menu in his – actual – lab): 69 Colebrooke Row, Bar Termini and Untitled. When I’m off-duty in Paris I return to my former bar Grazie (where I still work for 12 days a month) or go to Café Moderne. The Tippling Club in Singapore is one of the strangest I’ve seen, but very cool. They give you a bag of gummy bears, each flavoured like a cocktail on the 12-strong list, to try before you order.

We’re there – if you could pick a drinking buddy (anyone, alive or dead) who would it be?

The bartender at Schumann’s in Munich, Charles Schumann, who’s been a boxer, surfer, gymnast and couture model, alongside serving excellent drinks to a stellar crowd.

Say Schumann keeps you out later than planned… What’s the ‘hair of the dog’ for you?

Warm water with the juice of half a lemon when I wake up in the morning. Then during the afternoon, sparkling water with dash of angostura, squeeze of lime and a little sodium bicarbonate.

What’s the most ordered drink at Herbarium?

Histeria, a passionfruit-spiked bouquet of cloves, cardamom and violet, and Le Grain De Beaute (‘Beauty Spot’), a gin- and vodka-based concoction of lime, ginger and chocolate bitters, with a heart of woodruff and vetiver. My personal favourite is L’Enfleurage de Florence: jasmine flowers muddled in Fair juniper gin, with a dash of my white vermouth and bitter, with a spritz of thyme.

You’ve worked your way around the world, what scents did you fall in love with along the way?

Masala and incense from India, vanilla and ylang-ylang from Madagascar, ginger and lemongrass from Thailand, hibiscus from Benin and mint from Morocco.

What kit would you pack for mixing drinks on-the-go?

I actually created a compact travel kit four years ago: the ‘ MatriOscar’. Similarly to Russian dolls, it had three cocktail jiggers, two shakers, a mixing glass and strainer which all fit neatly together. If I was checking luggage, I’d bring my inox mixing glass, and a Parisian-style shaker from Schott Zwiesel.

And, what do you drink when you’re on ‘airport time’?

Just a beer!

We’d love a drink that captures the essence of our favourite French getaways. Can you design one for each of these classic Gallic breaks:

A romantic weekend break in Paris
Half a sugar cube dissolved in Champagne Fleury, topped up with a home-made peach bitter.

Sunbathing on the beach in Cannes
Champagne Fleury muddled with Rosa Palent liqueur.

Lording it up in a Provençal château
A drink built on a potent base of Sassy cidre from Normandy.

Skiing in the French Alps
Start with a Bourgoin Cognac base, then add cacao and tobacco scents.

Wine tasting in Bordeaux
Wine! What else?

Absolutement… Santé, Oscar! And thank you, we’ll be back to reapply soon.

All photos courtesy of Herbarium