Singular Sensations

America’s bartenders have a sweet tooth. Well actually, it’s a semi-sweet tooth, or is that a bittersweet tooth? OK, it’s definitely a bittersweet tooth, and one of its telling symptoms is a love affair with a set of new, glamorous and swanky liqueurs.

The spirits world is buzzing with chatter surrounding a handful of imaginative liqueurs that offer unique and exotic flavors. Most notable are St-Germain, a complex and striking elderflower blossom liqueur, and Domaine de Canton, a ginger liqueur with a Cognac base. The amount of attention given to these liqueurs by mixologists and beverage insiders is vastly disproportionate to their sales. While these spirits enjoy great popularity, the raw sales figures would leave a vodka brand manager contemplating a leap from a tall window. However, the creators of these new spirits are encouraged by their success.

The rapid ascension to stardom leads some to believe we may soon be up to our shakers in new, interesting liqueurs. I disagree. Surely we will see more entries in the category but nothing like the flood of other spirits that have followed a tremendous success story. The cost and development time of award-winning liqueurs cannot be understated — it’s far more than most drink companies wish to swallow. It’s no surprise that the critically acclaimed products we see today are the result of a labor of love. It is far from a get-rich-quick scheme and, besides, the marker has been laid down.

Now that the standard has been set, it will be a hard act to follow. The greatest supporters of this new category, bartenders, are the toughest sell. Bartenders are raising the bar themselves by making their very own concoctions: tailor-made liqueurs designed to add excitement and dimensions to their cocktails.

“I think bartenders are really heading toward adding their own nuances to spirits but will work with a liqueur if it’s well done and subtle. Modern liqueurs have really opened mixologists’ eyes to the possibilities of future liqueurs,” relates Aidan Demarest, director of beverages and spirits at The Edison, an eclectic lounge in Los Angeles. There, the Brass Flower cocktail combines gin, elderflower cordial and grapefruit bitters with a touch of sparkling wine, while An English Afterthought marries muddled blueberries and ginger with gin and St-Germain. The lounge’s namesake cocktail involves hand-crushed mint and lemon mixed with “a spirit of your choice, and smoothed over with Grand Marnier,” according to the menu descriptor. Cocktails are priced at $13.

With new, quality liqueurs available, bartenders have seen what is possible, and looking back is not an option. San Francisco-based consulting mixologist Jacques Bezuidenhout sees it like this: “The liqueurs that we have had to work with that are nothing but colored sugar and cheap alcohol need to rethink their brands. Bartenders are looking for new, interesting flavors that are balanced with sweetness that is not dominating. Brands like St-Germain and Canton work so well because they are not over-powering or cloyingly sweet.”

The San Francisco Effect

Not wishing to evoke a philosophical debate akin to the chicken and the egg argument, I won’t suggest the “Best in Show” awards from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition catapulted St-Germain and Canton to stardom. It is curious to note, however, that these liqueurs won the honor in consecutive years (2007 and 2008, respectively). Should this year’s winner, Coole Swan, expect such stardom? I believe so. This new liqueur is made by folding melted Cote d’Ivoire dark chocolate into fresh dairy cream from Ireland’s Lakeland district. Vanilla from Madagascar, selected for its sweet, fruity character, is added and then joined by single malt Irish whiskey. The accolades for this liqueur are rolling in while distribution of the product is still in its infancy. This is not a unique issue.

The “darling class” of liqueurs has been created by relatively small and independent entities. They simply don’t have the distribution muscle of the big boys, such as the Hiram Walker and DeKuyper lines. St-Germain, despite its widespread acclaim, is in fewer states than it is not. The same holds true for Domaine de Canton, although its marketers anticipate being in 30 U.S. markets by year’s end. Ditto for Coole Swan: it’s distributed in just a handful of markets.

Another creation is VeeV, an acai berry liqueur, which appears to be equipped to make a national run in the near future. VeeV is available in eight markets and, by no coincidence, its marketers have chosen the top mixology centers in the U.S.

In the world of up-market liqueurs, it seems slow and steady wins the race; most successful brands build their bartender and consumer fan base slowly, typically by hand-selling, tasting and educating. In the case of Canton and St-Germain, they have become instant classics. It is important to remember that the category is far less fickle and fluid than other spirits categories. The classic brands of decades past — Grand Marnier, Cointreau, Drambuie, Frangelico and Chartreuse — are as popular today as ever and are in a small, elite group of proprietary liqueur creations. The top vodka, Scotch, bourbon or tequila from three decades past is not held in the same regard today as it was in its day, which is another reason to doubt a flood of brands will come into the liqueur category.

In a world that is changing in the blink of an eye and everything seemingly traveling at warp speed, the steady nature of fancy liqueurs offers an oasis of peace and tranquility as well as great flavors. It’s a great time to be in the drinks business, as quality is the greatest and most enduring of trends. Besides, when some young gun comes to take our place many years from now, we can regale them of stories of when the new classics were born. They likely will have a sweet tooth as well. NCB

Sean Ludford is director of (Beverage Experts), captain at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and a judge at the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

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