Nearly a decade ago, as the cocktail renaissance was gaining steam, a lot of drinks started developing a particular flavor note. It was a little bit pear, a little bit litchi, a little bit like you’d stuck your head into a roadside hedgerow and inhaled air thick with early-summer honeysuckle.
That was St-Germain, a lightly sweet elderflower liqueur that launched in 2007 and then broke and spread across the drinks scene like a slow-moving tsunami. With its mysterious flavor, its gracefully grooved art deco bottle and a lovely brand mythology about how its elderflowers were harvested by little old men on bicycles in some idyllic French-speaking location way prettier than wherever you were, it wore a costume of age and continental elegance but was actually a newcomer. It had behind it the passion and energy of Robert Cooper, who at the time was only in his early 30s.
Cooper died April 25 in California at the age of 39, leaving behind a wife and two children; the cause of his death has not been released. His loss is being widely grieved in the bartending and cocktail world.
Derek Brown met Cooper when they sat next to each other at the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) Educational Program nearly 10 years ago. Brown — at the time trained primarily as a sommelier, and there to improve his skills behind the stick — says he and Cooper shared a bond: “Neither of us were very good bartenders.” (Both initially failed a practical component of the program and had to make it up later.)
Now the owner of multiple D.C. bars and the president of beverage consultancy Drink Company, Brown says St-Germain’s success was hugely due to Cooper’s dogged work. “It wouldn’t have sold itself. It was a good product, and people would have picked it up in time, but Rob was a constant presence. I would see him everywhere — D.C., New York, New Orleans — supporting the product and getting it off the ground.”
Elderflower syrup has been a thing in Europe for centuries; Cooper first came across it in bars in England, where he was inspired to develop it into a liqueur. With St-Germain, many Americans encountered the flavor for the first time. Cooper was quick to credit bartenders for the success of the spirit, and rightfully so: They fell hard for St-Germain, which can elevate a mediocre sparkling wine, complement the tang of fresh citrus and blend beautifully with the botanicals of gin. If a drink lacked mystery, if a drink lacked that certain je ne sais quoi, for a while St-Germain was a bar’s cure-all, so common a source of drink-patching that industry folks began to refer to it affectionately as “bartender’s ketchup.”
“You hear that all the time, ‘bartender’s ketchup,’ and it’s just so true. I really can’t even think of a modifier in my era that had more influence,” says Brown, who well remembers the impact of the liqueur in his bars. “Vermouth was starting to come back, crème de violette came back, but St-Germain was new. We were all making drinks with it. . . . Even if you thought you were too good for St-Germain, you were going to have an army coming in and demanding it.”
I asked Brown about my impression that the use of St-Germain has been dialed back a bit over the past few years, that there was a mild bartender backlash against its ubiquity. After all, if you’re a chef, do you want to build your reputation on your use of ketchup? Sure, Brown acknowledged — but the most popular Beatles songs probably get a backlash, too. “It’s nothing to do with how good the product is, just the way the market works. All things ebb and flow.”
And St-Germain served as the rising tide that lifted all bottles: There’s little doubt that its popularity helped escort older, obscure liqueurs back into the glass. Liqueurs had been a near-defunct category in the United States, but the intrigue of St-Germain inspired many drinkmakers to delve into neglected European liqueurs such as Chartreuse and various amari to see what they’d been missing.
Cooper came from a family that has been making beverages since 1884, when Charles Jacquin et Cie Inc. — of which his father is president — was founded in Philadelphia. That company introduced the raspberry liqueur Chambord domestically and later sold it to Brown-Forman.
In the wake of that development, Cooper went out on his own to start Cooper Spirits and launch St-Germain. (His older brother John, also independently, brought the popular ginger liqueur Domaine de Canton to market.) Cooper Spirits sold St-Germain to spirits giant Bacardi in 2013, but Cooper continued to work with Bacardi as a “brand guardian,” and his company brought back several other historic spirits, including Hochstadter’s Slow & Low (a bottled rock and rye cocktail) and Crème Yvette, a mixed-berry liqueur.
Because of Cooper’s family history, Brown says, some in the industry may have perceived his success as the product of legacy, the way people tend to think the children of famous actors get a break. Brown disagrees: Cooper worked incredibly hard, he says, and would have been successful regardless. So many spirits get launched, and many of the ones that fail are decent but never get the market penetration Cooper got with St-Germain. If success in the competitive world of spirits marketing is a cocktail, it’s 1 ounce product, 2 ounces elbow grease.
To print a list of all the drinks in which St-Germain appeared over the years would probably require at least the full Food section. But one of its best-known roles is in the not-so-creatively named St-Germain Cocktail, which was invented by the company itself and has been unusually, enduringly popular for a drink of such provenance. A mix of the liqueur, champagne and sparkling water garnished with a lemon twist, it’s being raised by tipplers around the world to toast a force in the cocktail and spirits world and his most famous creation.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
A rare modern classic that comes from the company behind its titular ingredient, the elderflower liqueur St-Germain, this cocktail is refreshing and floral, a perfect spring drink.
Adapted from a recipe on the St-Germain website.
2 ounces champagne or other dry sparkling white wine
1 1/2 ounces St-Germain or other elderflower liqueur
1 1/2 to 2 ounces club soda or plain seltzer
Twist of lemon peel, for garnish
Fill a Collins glass with ice. Add the champagne, then the elderflower liqueur. Top with the club soda or seltzer, as needed to fill. Stir gently to incorporate.
Twist the lemon peel over the drink (to express its oils), then drop it into the cocktail.
Nutrition | Per serving: 200 calories, 0 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 10 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 17 g sugar
Recipe tested by M. Carrie Allan; e-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org