Le Syndicat: championing French spirits
Founder Romain Le Mouëllic talks about his growth plans behind one of the best bars in Paris – Le Syndicat.
Walk too quickly down Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis in the 10th arrondissement of Paris and you are likely to miss Le Syndicat.
Posters and adverts adorn the bar’s façade, giving no sense of the reputation of the multi-award-winning venue.
Through the doors is where the magic happens, “where grandpa spirits go gangster”, as founder Romain Le Mouëllic explains.
The “grandpa spirits” he’s referring to are the French bottlings served behind the bar – Le Syndicat’s only liquor of choice.
Le Mouëllic is on a mission to breathe new life into French classics, such as Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados, which are, by his own admission, viewed as outdated and stuffy.
With his team of 15 bartenders, business acumen and banging hip hop beats, he is confident he can convince a new generation of drinkers that French spirits are très cool.
“The idea was not to do this with baguettes and that sort of traditional imagery of France, but to look at the modern world and find bridges between the two,” he says.
Le Mouëllic is all about “clash codes”, taking things that should not work together but somehow do.
A similar ethos applies to Le Syndicat’s sister site, La Commune, in the 20th arrondissement of Paris.
Concrete walls are contrasted by a marble bar, flecks of teal, and a shrub-covered patio. The Punch bar takes its inspiration from Africa, India and the West Indies, and uses French and French Caribbean-made spirits, like Cognac and rhum agricole.
“In terms of cocktails we try to create things that are colourful, with very precise textures and big originality in taste,” Le Mouëllic says. “But there is one thing that never changes and that is the use of French spirits. How do you use cocktails to make Cognac and Calvados and Armagnac, and these things cool in France again?”
The next level To take his project to the next level, Le Mouëllic says “it’s important to be in contact with influencers of cocktails”.
The most obvious ‘influencer’ is the bartender, which led to Le Mouëllic’s Barmen with Attitude project, a barware and glassware distribution firm.
“We work with Majestic in Cannes, the Paris Society, and all the big groups in France. We get information, we understand the trends, and we have contact with bartenders all over France,” he says.
The concept goes one step further: “Once you’ve influenced the bartenders, you have to influence fashion, so you have to put the drinks in the hands of stars,” he adds. “That’s why we created Le Syndicat Agency, which is an agency for cocktails.”
The agency has provided cocktails for a number of designer fashion houses during Paris Fashion Week, including Prada, Miu Miu and Dior.
“The idea is we can put some Armagnac and Calvados into people’s hands during Fashion Week, which was completely impossible a few years ago. It was impossible for a small Armagnac in the depths of France to go to fashion shows. But now it’s happening, and I’m really proud of us for doing that.”
Part of the agency’s offering includes marketing advice, and Le Syndicat Agency has collaborated with the likes of Pernod Ricard, Moët Hennessy and Rémy Martin. There’s also a “small magazine”, called Volubile, which aims to spread Le Mouëllic’s message.
“It’s a different attitude than you would usually read about Armagnac. Usually, it’s very technical, tasting notes – which I also like – but the thing is, you want some fresh views on all these things,” he says.
The project Le Mouëllic is arguably most excited about, however, is his ready-to-drink (RTD) brand, Fefe.
A shortening of the phrase ‘faire en France’, meaning ‘made in France’, Fefe launched last year with a range of hard seltzers, and Le Mouëllic has lofty ambitions for the burgeoning brand.
“Two years ago we understood something big was happening in the world of RTDs,” he says. “We saw it first in the US with hard seltzers growing and growing and growing. We realised it was something that could change our game because until now we were a bit stuck within our walls. So we thought, we can put our excellence, our expertise into something we can sell not only in our bars, but nationally.”
Le Mouëllic and his team decided to “commit to the RTD sector in France”, once again leading with the philosophy of advocating for French spirits.
“RTDs are what’s going to be the leading trend inside the cocktail sector,” he predicts.
Fefe’s range started with hard seltzers, and a new packaging design is set to launch this month.
The hard seltzers are made with organic French vodka distilled in Cognac, and botanicals from Grasse, while canning takes place in Cognac or the Pyrenees. Flavours include Fefe Cucumber and Eucalyptus, and Fefe Peach, Apricot and Ginger.
Le Mouëllic’s premium approach to the category is what makes Fefe unique, he believes: “Our vision was to create a place for hard seltzer ‘Champagne’, but to make it as a cocktail because with hard seltzers you mix spirits with infusion. You can think of this big new sector as mixology, so that’s what we decided to do.”
May will also bring two additions to the Fefe portfolio: RTD cocktails and Fine à l’Eau.
The cocktails – a Pornstar Martini and an Espresso Martini – are made in the South of France from unaged Armagnac, and Cognac, respectively.
While researching and visiting the houses of French spirits producers, Le Mouëllic discovered the hard seltzer concept was not a new innovation.
Fine à l’Eau – a mix of spirit and sparkling water – was consumed in France from the 19th century until 1960, he learned.
“We decided to create the real French hard seltzer, which is Fine à l’Eau, and instead of vodka, we use Cognac, Calvados and Armagnac,” he says. “The idea is to adapt the concept of hard seltzers through Fine à l’Eau, and to reinterpret it and make it very well known to French people.”
Fine à l’Eau’s launch is being backed by one of the biggest French rappers, Éserge. Le Mouëllic and Éserge visited Cognac to shoot a campaign for Fefe, once again tying together Le Mouëllic’s vision of old meets new.
“There is a clash code here again with a Marseilles rapper, who’s usually around big cars, flashy environments, but you bring him to Cognac and it’s something new and fresh,” Le Mouëllic says. “Once again, it’s not to reject the old traditions of Cognac and say, ‘you’re no good’. It’s just about finding a way to tell the story a bit differently, so that everybody feels involved. Because, for example, if you’re French with African origin, how can you be at ease with a 300-year tradition of French spirits, how can you talk about it? So this is where we try to create a bridge, and inclusivity.”
Growing the brand The next year will be focused on growing the Fefe brand in France and abroad, if international demand is there.
In 2021, Le Syndicat Group generated “about €5 million (US$5.4m)” in turnover, and this year, Le Mouëllic anticipates the RTD arm of the business could be “about €2m, which for a first complete year is quite exciting for us”.
The hard seltzers have already secured listings in some of the biggest French retailers, such as Carrefour, and Fefe will also be served onboard French railway line SNCF. Prices range from €2.30 for the hard seltzers to €4 for Fine à l’Eau and €5-€6 per RTD cocktail (which serves two).
Le Mouëllic is confident he can crack international markets – such as the US, the UK, the Nordics and the Netherlands – with help from the right investors.
Ultimately, the growth of Fefe will only bolster awareness of French spirits, which Le Mouëllic reiterates remain at risk of being forgotten.
“When you go to Armagnac, you see people suffering – the vineyards are shrinking,” he explains. “The vast majority of Armagnac houses can’t sell their products. They’re seen as old fashioned, the young generation don’t drink it, so every year sales go down.
“Yes we want to be successful and to see our brand everywhere but it’s not just ambition; we want to respect our social mission. That means helping the castles. You can’t grow only for profitability; we have to do things in the right order. This is what I’m really passionate about.”