The Enchanting Universe of the Experimental Cocktail Club / by Emilia Morano-Williams

A trio of cocktails

The exteriors are unmarked. Except for the line. It may just be two or three people, perhaps a few more on Friday evening, but savvy drinkers know to arrive early to secure their seat at the Experimental Cocktail Club. Started in Paris in 2007, this mini-chain — it has locations in New York and London — presents itself as an exclusive speakeasy. But this isn’t a Gatsby gaudy stage set. The Experimental Cocktail Club exudes an effortless style that allows both mixed drink aficionados and novices to assimilate subdued modern glamour for the duration of their drink.

Regardless of the specific city, ECC — as christened by their loyal customers — locates their bars in similar neighborhoods. They sit on the border of an ethnic enclave and hip area: the Marais in Paris; Chinatown/Lower East Side in New York; and Chinatown/Soho in London. The central location lets visitors feign exploration while lingering in their stomping ground.

This combination of the novel and familiar permeates the ECC universe. That seemingly unmarked entrance? Look closer; it’s a sign. In Pairs light glimmers behind blacks velvet curtains; in New York there’s a not-quite hidden restaurant hygiene grade; in London the door is worn down. Although these markings could appear incidental — people do knock on the door in London, the bar must display a hygiene rating in New York — the ECC atmosphere use these markings as tools that build a community in opposition to standard bars. Since their facades don’t resemble a regular restaurant, the visitor experiments when approaching the door. They ring an anonymous doorbell; they clank an unidentified knocker. Through experimentation cocktail lovers enter into a club of people that share an attitude toward drinking.

Once inside, the discomfort of experimentation disappears and the club enchants its members. From the tables and lighting to the drinks and the music, the Experimental Cocktail Club reproduces their bars like a global corporation, while maintaining an exclusive ambiance. Each location retains the same bar, the same low seats, the same glassware and the same beats. Low lighting hides the particulars, leaving a spectral glow of oriental opulence. Trendy tea lights on private tables and at the bar cast an orange-y glow over the space. Subtle variations keep the cookie cutter structure novel. Reorganizations of the proportions position New York’s as a cool American bar, London’s as an updated British gentleman’s club, and Paris’ as an artist’s haunt. The frame is streamlined, but the content is altered.

 Thus, it won’t shock visitors to multiple locations that each outpost’s menu riffs on a limited group of basics. There’s the drink with bourbon and an egg white; the one with rum, a spice and lemon or lime; there’s the sweet one with cognac. These aren’t Starbucks’ globalized offerings. The drinks mix the local accent into the set cocktails. New Yorkers get tropical, tiki inspired drinks, while Londoners sip updated classics. These variations serve the visitor an interpretation of the city in a glass. Entering an ECC incorporates the drinker into a club where cultural differences are experienced as novel twists on a familiar structure, emphasizing experimentation’s potential to bridge differences.

This hybrid of familiar and novel naturalizes the speakeasy gimmick. Although the hidden door satisfies an imagined prohibition nostalgia, drinking at ECC doesn’t feel contrived. Once inside, the speakeasy script finishes. Apart from a reservation, there’s no code word required to order a drink. There’s no insider knowledge needed to decipher the menu. It’s experimental. The bartenders don’t invent, but present riffs the familiar. ECC experiments with new accents in their different locations and invites their customers to do the same. It’s a club. And the drink’s just happen to be well-made. It’s a cocktail.