Today, St-Germain; tomorrow, ginger liqueur

I was going through some old files the other day when I came across a press kit for Lichido, a liqueur that launched in 2006, around the time I began writing about spirits. I only vaguely remember Lichido, a “unique fusion of the exotic fruits of Asia and the sophisticated flavors of France” that was a blend of cognac, vodka, essence of lychee and guava, and “a touch” of white peach juice.

Does that ring a bell? At the time, the influential industry newsletter Spirit Journal gave it four stars and called it “racy, stylish, and fun.” Nearly six years later, I recall almost nothing about Lichido except its pink-and-purple bottle and unbelievably cloying taste.

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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But no matter. Lichido’s Web site is now defunct, and the spirit seems to have disappeared from the market. As have so many other odd liqueurs that were launched with great fanfare and PR flourish.

The liqueur business has always seemed strange and unpredictable. In the 1980s, who could have guessed that Jagermeister would grow to be so ubiquitous? Ever since then, so many would-be liqueur tycoons have attemped to duplicate the Jagermeister model.

Would you have believed, for instance, that a liqueur made from elderflowers, launched less than a year after Lichido, would be a hit? Well, there’s no denying that St-Germain elderflower liqueur is one of the great success stories of the mixology renaissance. By 2011, sales had grown to 77,000 cases, with this past year’s total estimated to be more than 100,000 cases.

This week, liquor giant Bacardi announced it was acquiring the brand from founder Robert Cooper and taking St-Germain global. Industry sources say the deal is worth more than $100 million.

Now, I’ve often been critical of St-Germain, mostly because of its infamous initial marketing campaign implying that bicycle-riding Frenchmen wearing berets hand-picked the elderflowers and pedaled them to the distillery in baskets. Over time, though, I have come to enjoy the product, and it is usually in my own home bar.

Yes, a lot of wags began calling it the “bartender’s ketchup” because for a while it seemed to be used in so many recipes. But by now, it clearly has taken its place among the standard-bearer liqueurs of the world, along with Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Benedictine and their ilk. (When I congratulated Cooper this week on his success, he told me, “I want to go ride bicycles with you someday and pick flowers.”)

Cooper, who will stay on as a St-Germain “brand champion” after the sale, had a leg up in the liqueur business: His father sold Chambord to Brown-Forman in 2006 for more than
$250 million. Still, I figure he has as much insight into liqueur success as anyone. “The most important thing is to have something genuinely unique, that’s never been done before. And it’s got to be made with integrity,” Cooper said. “Then you have to be willing to walk through walls to show people how this product is relevant. It’s got to have applications.” In other words, bartenders and consumers have to want to mix cocktails with your product. “How many bottles are on a back bar? You have to bump one of those bottles. What are you going to do? Bump Tanqueray or Ketel One off the back bar?” he said.

So what is the next liqueur success story? I predict it will come in the suddenly burgeoning ginger liqueur category. Interestingly enough, in 2008 Cooper’s brother John was the first to launch a high-end ginger spirit, Domaine de Canton, which is still the one most widely available. As did his brother’s product, the other Cooper’s 56-proof Domaine de Canton has the usual precious marketing narrative about being produced “in small batches by hand” using a “selection of only the finest fresh baby Vietnamese ginger.” Still, it, too, is a fine-quality mixer.

Other companies have flocked to the ginger category, including Art in the Age with its Snap and DeKuyper’s ginger spirit, part of its “Mixologist Collection.”

In my opinion, the best ginger liqueur is the deliciously spicy and tingling King’s Ginger, which also has the rich back story of having been created by London’s Berry Bros. & Rudd in the early 20th century for King Edward VII. The King’s Ginger launched in the U.S. in 2012. What sets it apart is its higher proof (82), which brings bigger flavor to cocktails.

As with any liqueur flavor, ginger is still searching for its application in a truly classic cocktail. I’ve used it in recipes such as the Gingered Rum Toddy and the Joe Riley to good effect. And I’ve experimented along with rye in a Manhattan variation, and in a strange mix of apple brandy and genever. I include both recipes here.

As for whether any of the ginger liqueurs on the market will experience the success of St-Germain or suffer the fate of Lichido? Check back with me in another six years.

Wilson is the editor of TableMatters.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boozecolumnist.

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