Nature in All Its Glory

Having a Drink with the Cocktail Alchemist of the French Riviera

by California Chaney
A spritz from Emanuele Balestra's edible perfume. All photos courtesy of Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic.

Let's go behind the scenes with the bar manager of Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic in Cannes to find out how his passion for plants led to crafting the finest cocktail program on the French Riviera.

CANNES, FRANCE — In its essence, scent is how we connect with the world. The strongest sense, connected directly to the brain, it also rules what we consume: 80 percent of how something tastes comes from its aroma. Smell is so evocative it can cause memories to come rushing in — with full clarity — from one mere whiff, transporting us to the school playground, to grandma's kitchen, to a happy, salty beach.

For Emanuele Balestra, the bar manager at the all-star Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic in Cannes, scent is the basis of his entire cocktail program. “I decided to move to the south of France eight years ago because it is the capital of the world for plants, for aroma,” Balestra told me when I spent a few happy days along the Côte d'Azur last spring. His passion extends beyond the bar: He has cultivated a thriving, breathing, and buzzing plant ecosystem within the walls and rooftop of the hotel.

For Balestra, scent is a storytelling device that celebrates the edible libations on Earth. The journey to his cocktails begins well before the first sip. In the early morning, as the party town sleeps off last night, Balestra strolls up to his rooftop oasis or along the hotel's boulevard, scissors in hand, inspecting his garden of edible verbena, sage, pink geranium, fennel, and lemon balm. He then dons his bee suit and greets the buzzing colony of insects that safeguards the ecosystem. After gathering his crops, he's off to his lab in the hotel basement to dehydrate and distill the plants and herbs into jellies, flower-filled ice cubes, tinctured, bitter syrups, and — his greatest endeavor — edible perfume made in an ultrasonic machine to extract the perfect essence. By happy hour Balestra is behind the bar, mixing his palette like a painter and lining up his concoctions for the lengthy menu of creations. As a final touch, as I'm about to take my first sip, he spritzes the rim of the glass and my hand with edible aromatic perfume, and I'm off on a special cocktail experience.

Balestra's rooftop garden. Photos by California Chaney.
Touring Balestra's edible world. Photo by California Chaney.

Balestra developed his deep connection to the natural world at a young age, way before mixology was a trend. “My creativity comes from the simplest thing we have in the world: nature. I grew up in the countryside next to Lake Maggiore and spent my time in the middle of the forest, in the woods, cutting plants, and playing the old way." Prior to arriving in Cannes, Balestra honed his horticulture craft at La Mamounia in Marrakech, where he worked closely with the hotel's famed chefs Jean-Pierre Vigato and Alfonso Iaccarino (a Fathom favorite of Don Alfonso 1890 fame) to build a three-acres herb garden and create his aromatic inventions to enhance classic cocktails and celebrate the vast botanical diversity of the world.

“The beautiful thing that we have with nature is that you cannot pretend to understand it. You have different seasons, but, from one year to another, plants don’t grow the same way. When you have leaves, plants, and flowers everyday on your hand, and you try to understand their character, you develop a sensibility.” To keep his garden lush, Balestra frequently ventures inland to Grasse, the world capital of perfume, with its own vibrant microclimate of flora from around the world. Grasse is where many of esteemed French noses (les nez) have been trained to distinguish over 2,000 varieties of scent.

For Balestra, incorporating two of the five human senses, taste and scent, into his cocktail experience isn't enough. In recent years, he has formed a partnership with La Verrerie de Biot, a multigenerational family-owned glass factory in a medieval village between Nice and Cannes, to incorporate sound and touch. Working with the master glassblowers, he designed his own Champagne and lowball cocktail glasses, adding a slight tilt that not only better aerates the aromas of the cocktail and edible perfume but also enhances the acoustics of Champagne bubbles.

Having changed the way his guests drink cocktails, Balestra is now passionate about reframing the way we order them. In the coming months, he will introduce an olfactory menu, Le Carte au Olfactive, to Le Majestic's Bar Galerie du Fouquet's — a living, breathing cocktail menu in the form of a ceramic tree with aromas and live plants.

“On every root of this beautiful tree, you will have a card with the name of the cocktail and the recipe. When we decompose the cocktail and recreate the aroma, the ceramic wooden tree will absorb its flavors. When you read the recipe, you have an idea, but by smelling it having the texture on your fingers of the leaves, you have another perception of what to expect. You can choose the cocktail solely based on its aroma. In this fun sensorial experience, the guest is playing with nature, using their nose, tongue, hands, and fingers. It's all about connecting with the beauty of nature together.”

While it was pure magic for me to experience Balestra's cocktail firsthand, I was happy to snatch a copy of his book Majestic Cocktails, which brims with recipes, secrets, and tips on creating your own edible  garden.

When I ask him the the essential ingredient of any cocktail, Balestra lights up.

"Passion!"

Want to know more about what goes on behind the scenes of this all-star hotel? We caught up with Gilles Bastoni, the hotel's head concierge to find out what it's like to cater to the whims and wishes of the world's biggest movie stars and most demanding clients.

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