Eating spaghetti with old whores in the cheapest restaurant we could find. Packing in sufficient fuel for the next round of wandering. Searching for a leather jacket in the flea market, scrawling orders on the table cloths, trying to be blasé about the great dazzling expanse of Paris. Carousing through the backstreets, staying in African hostels, we fenced with baguettes and lost our train fare home on a Dolly Parton pinball machine and the cheapest and largest bottle of red wine we could find, waking with teeth that taste of metal.
Eventually, as all drinkers do, I discovered Harry's. Over the years I worked up from beer to cocktails to whisky and back again. Sat there hoping that osmosis might filter through the wood and into the pen.
Now, after many years a return. The street smells of sardines, the neon is still red, the bartop softened by years of elbows. Order a daiquiri, let its sharpness bring some life back to a dulled palate. Think of Whisky Live Paris and how it used the extreme to underline whisky's quality. Not just the collector's items and rarities on every table, but how the cocktails had to be eaten rather than drunk, how the tea was a Pu-er vintage which smelled of a dunnage warehouse.
The extreme gives perspective, opens up new possibilities.
The mind goes back to Shiseido's black marble salon in the Palais-Royal where Serge Lutens' fragrances have taken perfume to its most intense and hallucinatory. Of how his Cuir Mauresque has a connection with the oldest of whiskies at the show; the intensity of soft leather, tobacco and spice hanging in the air.
These are wonderful drams, but am I going to drink them everyday? No. In the same way as I wouldn't wear Cuir Mauresque every day, or only drink Pu-er. It is one reason I love Harry's. It is democratic. Tonight there are people drinking Perrier, beer, Old Fashioneds. Later, the cabinet of rare whiskies will be opened and bottles will be opened and genuinely appreciated. The bartenders seem remarkably sanguine about these varied demands. Unlike establishments of similar nature in London or New York, Harry's allows people space to be themselves, which is what every great bar should aspire to.Emphasising chic and fashionable at the expense of the good is ultimately counterproductive.
Yet there are signs that whisky is losing sight of this fact. France, like the United Kingdom, is an oddly schizoid whisky market, the prisoner of the supermarkets at the bottom end, where heavily discounted brands are the equivalent of my plate of spaghetti and two-litre headache.The top end is well served by specialists and bars with stellar ranges. The future success of the market cannot lie at either of these extremes, however. It exists in the middle, with good quality, fairly priced brands which people will return to regularly.
I had a real merchant banker sitting behind me on the train who, among a catalogue of other complaints, bemoaned the lack of taxis in Paris, wondering how it was possible in a free economy. He was the type who believes that the market will decide when it comes too pricing. I'm not denying that malt has been underpriced for too long, but 'the market decides' has always seemed a strange ethos. Do you simply double prices and keep on doubling until sales begin to fall? If they do fall, do you cut price and dent your image? Do you not actually know what your whisky is worth? It plays into the hands of the greedy (producer) and the deluded (consumer) who believe the more expensive the better.
That isn't the market deciding, that's seeing how much it will bear, making a quick buck and having no thought for the long-term consequences. Malt whisky should never be the preserve of the uber-rich. It should never be just extreme. If it continues to be dazzled by the flashiness of the new markets then it is danger of waving goodbye to the people who helped to build it.