By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
I love the corporate storytelling that accompanies the launch of so many spirits into the marketplace. The genre is well established: miraculous tales of rustic peasants gathering some obscure ingredient (Sorrento lemons for limoncello); secret recipes zealously guarded by monks who've taken a vow of silence (Chartreuse); black-and-white photos of the stern family patriarch carefully inspecting the goods (just about every Kentucky bourbon).
"Quintessential liquor industry puffery" is what Robert Cooper calls some of those stories. "I guess you could say it's romantic and that it allows the consumer to dream. They need to have a compelling story of some sort. A lot of companies probably feel that pressure."
Says Cooper, "I'm over the whole puffery thing."
Cooper, whose family owns Charles Jacquin et Cie distillery in Philadelphia, is launching an elderflower liqueur called St-Germain that will debut nationwide this month at a suggested retail price of $32.99. And after his observations about "puffery," it might surprise you to know that St-Germain has launched with a romantic story. It is a doozy.
According to the lavish marketing material, St-Germain uses only wild elderflowers picked in the French Alps. The flowers undergo a "highly secret" maceration process that extracts flavor "without bruising the flowers." It is "a carefully orchestrated sequence of events, which must be completed during the short three- to four-day span when the blossoms peak."
So, with only a few days to gather all the elderflowers needed for a year's production, how do they harvest the crop?
According to the company's tale, "bohemien" farmers handpick the elderflowers. "After gently ushering the wild blooms into sacks and descending the hillside, the man who gathers blossoms for your cocktail will then mount a bicycle and carefully ride the umbels of starry white flowers to the market," reads the marketing material, which includes photos of a man in a beret, his bicycle loaded down with satchels of blooms.
Says St-Germain: "You could not write a better story if you were François Truffaut."
Indeed. But some spirits industry insiders seem a little skeptical. When I recounted the St-Germain story to Frank Coleman, spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, he rolled his eyes and said, "Guys on bikes? Yeah, right." Then again, the council represents brands such as Bacardi, Pernod Ricard and Moet Hennessy, with which St-Germain -- not a member of the council -- is meant to compete.
I asked Cooper to show me his bohemiens on bicycles. He said the harvest was happening in early May, and because I was planning a trip to Europe anyway, I offered to drive from Geneva to see it.
Cooper rejected the idea. "I will not divulge the name of the town where the elderflowers are grown," he said. "I want to protect this brand." When I suggested visiting the production facility, he said: "I'm not going to show you. I'm not going to show anyone. Ever."
The elderflowers are on public land, Cooper said, and he worried that a multinational liquor company will swoop in on the action if it learns the location. I questioned that business model.
People in the Alps may pick elderflowers and use them in cooking and making drinks. You might even be able to find some kind of elderflower spirit made in someone's barn. But that's a long way from using fresh elderflowers, picked by local guys on bikes, for a liqueur that's having an expensive, PR-driven U.S. rollout.
What if the elderflowers didn't bloom one year, or what if he lost availability? "That's a great question," Cooper said, adding that he was sure that if he were working at a larger company, the risk management department "would have kiboshed the project."
So I offered to keep his Alpine town anonymous. I also told him that I'd visited many spirits distilleries with secrets and had never figured out, let alone published, their method or recipes. Still, Cooper would not budge.
He instead offered to send a man named Yves to meet me at my hotel in Geneva. From there, I would be driven into the Haute-Savoie region, to an undisclosed destination. "Are you going to blindfold me and throw a sack over my head, too?" I asked.
"Maybe we should!" he replied.
I would be forbidden to see his guys on bicycles and his production facility. Yves and I would drive around the mountains, have lunch and return to Geneva. I declined.
And so, for now, the idea of men handpicking fresh elderflowers in the French Alps for Cooper's new liqueur remains a good story.
(By the way, St-Germain is lovely to drink, sweet but lightly so, with a delicate but pronounced aroma. My favorite way to drink it is in the St-Germain Cocktail: simply 2 shots each of the liqueur and either sparkling or dry white wine, topped with soda, on the rocks, in a Collins glass. Just in case it matters to you.)
Jason Wilson can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.