When St. Germain founder Robert J. Cooper passed away last week, the cocktail community was shocked and bereft to have this visionary gone at the young age of 39. This was the man who took an elderflower liqueur, a flavor he discovered in London bars, and transformed it into one of the most ubiquitous and revered cocktail ingredients. The golden elixir became so prevalent since its introduction in 2007 that it was affectionately nicknamed “bartender’s ketchup,” as well as “bartender’s Band-Aid” for instantly elevating middling cocktails.
Upon his passing many in the industry remembered Cooper as an innovator, even as he came from a family of inventors: his father Norton J. Cooper was behind high-end raspberry liqueur Chambord while his brother, John created Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur.
We asked L.A. bartenders for their thoughts on how this flowery liqueur was able to become such a gamechanger.
Vincenzo Marianella, Copa d’Oro: “If you have been bartending for more than 10 years, you know that in a time where everyone was making either vodka spirits (where amaros were completely unknown) or fake fruity, syrup filled liqueurs, St. Germain was the only soft, floral, well-balanced flavoring agent in cocktails.”
Jeremy Lake, Lost Property: “[Cooper] definitely hit a nerve within the burgeoning L.A. cocktail scene seven or eight years ago. Looking back, it seems like every ‘sweet’ drink I made, in my first couple of years bartending, had a request for St. Germain in it. As an entrepreneur, what a dream come true that would be! Good on him for providing us with a solid product that helped introduce many consumers to another level of imbibing. Sad to hear that he passed so soon and at the top of his game.”
Aaron Polsky, Harvard and Stone: “St. Germain is a product that created a category, and it was one of the first to do so that our generation of bartenders had ever seen. It is innately balanced, floral with a scent that we had never smelled, and complex in a singular flavor. Rob’s intrepidness and resolve to make it a success cannot be overstated. Whether it found its way to drinkers via a dash into a vodka soda or a glass of champagne, or as a significant ingredient in complex layered cocktails, St. Germain made cocktails taste memorable, and was a stepping stone to people trying new spirits and drinking cocktails at unfamiliar bars. It helped us all come a little bit farther along.
“I met Rob twice: once at his office, and once at a Tales party that he threw at the Saint to launch Slow & Low. I’ll never forget the party, even though I should, because he gave each attendee a bottle of Slow & Low in a paper bag. It’s worth noting that before it was a glimmer in most of our eyes, he was selling really good bottled Old Fashioneds in liquor stores.”
Gabriella Mlynarczyk, Birch: “When I first starting being involved in the classic cocktail scene back in ’07 there were no sophisticated and tasty mixers. Rob Cooper was a visionary breaking ground into that field and paved the way for other producers to create or re-create old school style mixers such as falernum, or violette, allspice dram etc. My beer cocktail at ink was sweetened with St. Germain, I use it less frequently now but for a moment it was definitely my go-to mixer. Such a loss!”
Cari Hah, Big Bar: “I think back in the ’90s and even the beginning of the 2000s a lot of drinks were made with a lot of different ‘crappy’ liqueurs like peach schnapps, horrible triple sec, razmatazz, bad blue curacao, etc. Drinks really relied heavily on these liqueurs because people were trying to cover the taste of alcohol with these overly sweet ingredients. When the craft cocktail movement started happening hard-core in the mid-2000s St. Germain came out and I saw it as the first ‘crafty legit’ liqueur on the market. St. Germain really facilitated the transition from heavy crappy liqueur reliant drinks to the amazing fresh ingredient, fresh juice and homemade syrups/bitters/cordial type drinks that people enjoy today!”
Joshua Goldman, Soigne Group and Belcampo Meat Co.: “I think anyone who’s been bartending for a few years has had experience with St. Germain, it’s delicious. I’ve used it a bunch. I have a cocktail I came up with years ago called Pretty Ricky. It’s a vodka Rickey with St. Germain and champagne. St Germain is one of those ingredients that makes a lot of things better, but the only challenge is finding the balance between using St Germain and having St Germain dominate the cocktail.”
Ivan Pacheco, Ledlow and Baco Mercat: “St. Germain’s introduction to the canon allowed bartenders to expand their flavor profiles while retaining simplicity. It became an important ingredient for cocktails because it adds sweetness or floral notes or roundness without diluting through syrups. It adds depth. Just like ketchup or mayo in a sandwich binds together flavors, it binds spirits allowing one to try otherwise discordant ingredients. Besides, who doesn’t like a beautiful bottle around? Since trying it for the first time, I have found other liqueurs to add to the list of supporting ingredients. However, St. Germain remains in the top three. I never had an opportunity to meet Robert Cooper, but his contribution to the industry is not to be overlooked. I wish his family well.”
Beau du Bois, The Corner Door: “I remember being introduced to St. Germain back in 2008. I tasted the floral liqueur and immediately picked up on the bright citrus notes, like grapefruit. Since St. Germain balances wonderful herbaceous aromatics with a rich, silky texture, it wasn’t hard to see how it would brighten up any cocktail. Since then, I’ve used St. Germain in everything from shaken vodka cocktails to stirred mezcal cocktails. At that time, there wasn’t too many liqueurs/modifiers that brought a heightened level of craftsmanship, packaging and versatility to any bar.”