One evening in 2001, Rob Cooper finished his day’s work and dropped in to a bar in London. As the son of Norton J “Sky”, who inherited the American liqueur brand Charles Jacques et Cie from his father, Rob knew what he could expect from the bar to pep his tired spirits up. But this time he was in for a surprise. The bartender who harvested elderflowers had made a cocktail using their petals. Cooper had tasted elderflower syrups before, but he never thought the flowers could be fused into a cocktail. He was instantly bowled over. The flavour profile was amazing Rob noticed.
Back at home Rob thought hard about what he had drunk.
What if he could make a liqueur out of elderflowers! That meant he had to leave his family business of selling Chambord, a French raspberry liqueur in the US. Splitting away from home was painful, but his brother John Cooper had already shown the way. He too had to leave the nest, though sticking to home was considered horse sense. He consulted his father, Norton J “Sky” Cooper for advice.
Flowers! People won’t drink that flower shit! Father responded. But Rob insisted, he had already smelt his destiny redolent with the fragrance of elderflowers. Nobody had tried flowers before.
Two dozen varieties of plants in the Sambucas genus grow wild in different parts of the world. Some are even harmful for humans. Americans had an earlier meeting with the elderflowers. And it was not so pleasant. ‘Old Lace’ a successful broadway film of the 40s had in it a scene where two old spinsters perfect the art of spiking elderflowers wine with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide. The flowers killed people in the movie. Now tell me, would it be wise for him to throw all his assets chasing this fleeting beauty that bloomed only for a few days in spring?
The species that Rob tasted and now wanted was Sambucas Negra, used all over Europe to concoct a variety of syrups and flavoured drinks. After much deliberations, he decided to bring back the elderflowers to the US conscience, though it would not have any unnecessary ingredients this time. The Savoi region in France was the perfect breeding ground for his kind of elderflowers, Rob found out. He later said that it was not difficult to find the flowers, but the real challenge was to convince people that there would be a market if they could harvest them.
More challenges followed.
The flavour of elderflowers like other blossoms lies on its sensitive petals. Extracting the essence without hurting is a tricky business. If you press the petals too hard they yield bitterness and green matter instead of the desired essence. Dehydrate or freeze them, they lose their magic. That means they can use only fresh petals to make the liqueur.
The way they make perfumes.
Well, after repeated failures Rob hit the sweet spot, the quintessence of elderflowers met the spirit, harmoniously.
Extract the juice when the flowers are fresh. You get a crude drink, the first step to the new liqueur. There was no precedent for this kind of a ritual in the spirit industry. The new product St. Germaine Elderflower liquor had this mystic and exotic air around it, and you know how legends, myths and stories become a sure recipe for success in the spirit industry.
Now Rob’s new drink had oodles of it.
Today if you check the St. Germaine website you would see the captivating images of Frenchmen wearing muttonchops sideburns, picking blossoms at the foot of Alps by hand before preparing them for transport downhill where they would be macerated to tease out the fresh floweressence.
Could you resist such a narrative? Could you turn away the drink?
Sky, Rob’t father reluctantly wished his son well, and asked him to get back after a year if his flower shit would not work as he imagined. But Rob, he soon proved, was more than right. All he had to do was to convince bartenders across the country to test the new liqueur with their customers. A new rage caught on.
The spirit won the grand gold medal at the Monde section in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 in the liqueur category.
Sip it. You’d get a mouthfeel of lychee, passionfruit, pear citrus, and grapefruit. Beyond them your palate would touch and wake up the clean, sweet tang of elderflowers. Close your eyes. You’ve reached the foot of Alps. It is spring. See, they’re picking the blossoms. The journey begins.