‘You are okay? You are not in a hurry, non?’ says Jean Bernard Fernandez-Versini, teetering excitedly on the edge of a barstool. The restaurateur, who is opening another one of his raucous Versini rooftop ventures in Cannes this weekend, has invited me to be a fly-on-the-wall as he and a pal at Grey Goose brainstorm a new cocktail to pair neatly with all those sunglasses and supermodels. Not a bad job, on the face of it. But then again, I’m not sure most flies-on-the-wall are expected to take 22 cocktails to the face at short range and live to file the copy. (I say 22 – it was one of those afternoons when the body count could have been anywhere between 16 and 130). Excerpts from my tasting notes below.
A modern take on the 1930s New York stalwart the Gypsy Queen. Vodka softened by both ginger ale and ginger beer and a stab of herbal, honeyed Benedictine. Smells a bit like a Christmas morning, more specifically the ones I used to spend on a chaise longue at the bottom of my uncle’s bed. A good start, Jean Bernard says – but we’ve got no time for good.
A cone of vibrant orange liquid that looks part way between a Berocca and a Lamborghini (and if either of those plugs are going to yield fruit, at the moment I’d rather the former.) The colour comes from a thimble-full of turmeric and a shaving of fresh ginger. Smells like a Brick Lane korma, but in a good way. For the first time, Joe McCanta – the Grey Goose master cocktail maker with a nose as exacting as a sniffer dog at Nice airport – begins to gently perspire.
A silky and herbal concoction, spiked with benedictine and vermouth, and swirling prettily with crushed coriander seed. Lovely, actually, but you can’t imagine Gigi Hadid asking for seconds. At this point, our female test subject suggests we veer sharply away from the avant garde ingredients and instead add our own twist to an established classic. And anyway, the Versini Martini has a nice ring to it. (Wish I’d thought of that.) This could be a moment to tell the grandkids about, I think to myself, before having a minor crisis of conscience over my non-existent grandkids’ school fees.
A menage-a-trois of vodka, Noilly Prat, and a slither or two of ginger (‘this is my favourite ingredient in the world’ says Jean Bernard) with a pip of absinthe dropping by just when you think it’s okay to stand up again. Punchy but elegant. My cheeks have turned a shade I believe Farrow & Ball have trademarked under ‘Blushing Piglet’. ‘I feel like we’ve lost our way,’ Jean Bernard says, lassoing in passers-by at the bar and urging them gently to take a sip. ‘Just make us a straight vodka martini again to cleanse the palette’.
A wonderful, lively take on the Martini – deathly cold vodka muddled with strips of fresh ginger, topped up with dry vermouth and, crucially, a sprinkling of orange bitters. We’ve broken through what marathon runners like to call ‘The Wall’ now, only with much more sweat and slightly less chafing. Jean Bernard says: ‘But I am a perfectionist, so…’
A stunned silence has lately descended on the bar, strewn as it is with martini glasses, ice cubes, and gallic shrugs. Since we last spoke, cocktail master Joe has hit on the idea of suspending two spindles of ginger down the sharp-incline of the glass, forming a triumphant ‘V’. For Versini? Victory? Very, very relieved? Take your pick. The tincture in the glass is an elegant, spritely combination of gelatinously-chilled vodka, orange bitters, a drop of absinthe, and – ingeniously – Martini Ambrato vermouth. The latter rounds things out beautifully, adds a touch of oak and a light champagne colour, and precipitates hugs all round.
My handwriting becomes slightly illegible from here on out. But all you need to know is that the Versini Martini steps out for the first time this weekend, like some debutante heiress, at the restaurant in Cannes that bears its name. Do come give it a test drive if you’re in town. Best enjoyed responsibly; then irresponsibly; and then fully clothed in someone else’s swimming pool.