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