Rob Cooper going against the grain
ASPEN Rob Cooper’s story sounds like one of a random moment instantly altering an entire life story. In 2002, on a business trip to the U.K., Cooper was taken to dinner at Hakkusan, a Japanese restaurant with a sophisticated cocktail bar, in London’s Fitzrovia neighborhood.
The bartender asked Cooper if he wanted to try something new and different.
“And I said ‘of course.’ Because I’m a sponge,” said Cooper, a 31-year-old who grew up in Aspen and now lives in the West Village section of Manhattan. “So immediately, a cocktail was thrust into my hand.”
From his first sip, Cooper knew something interesting was going on.
“I was mesmerized by the first flavor notes,” he recalled. “It had so many flavor notes I loved so much – grapefruit, pear and tropical fruits and that I couldn’t find in any other spirits on the market.”
Inspired, Cooper made the necessary inquiries. The concentrate that was the foundation of the cocktail was made from the elderflower, which grows ubiquitously across Europe. In a few months time, Cooper had switched his career focus, and found himself in the Haute-Savoie region of west-central France, in the foothills of the Alps, looking for a source of elderflowers.
The end product of that defining moment is St.-Germain.
The liqueur, made from fresh elderberries, is manufactured by Cooper’s New York-based company, Cooper Spirits. Cooper has put all his chips on St.-Germain, which presently is the only product the company is making. His wife of four years, Katie, helps out with publicity and marketing. The work is paying off: St.-Germain has earned several handfuls of awards, including Best in Show at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and Best New Product at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, which Cooper calls the Sundance of the spirits industry. St.-Germain has also won awards for packaging and marketing.
Cooper returns to Aspen this weekend to bring his creation to attendees of the Food & Wine Classic. He will be serving St.-Germain in the Grand Tasting Tent all weekend long, and at private events at Kenichi restaurant, and at the Access 212 House, the late-night retreat for Food & Wine chefs and other industry insiders.
One interesting facet to Cooper’s story is that, while Cooper basically stumbled across the elderflower, he had, in fact, been looking to devise a formula for a distinctive liqueur for several years. And that creating liqueurs and booze, generally, has been in his family for three generations.
Maurice Cooper, Robs grandfather, had a beer operation, Cooper Brewery, in Manayunk, Penn., just outside of Philadelphia. Prohibition hit the business hard, and like many brewers, Cooper tried to survive by selling near-beer, which had virtually all of the alcohol removed. His business survived when Cooper realized that enforcement was essentially nil, and that marking his barrels with the near-beer stamp didn’t mean he had to fill them with the ersatz product. He thought, ‘If I just fill these barrels with actual beer, people might enjoy them more,’ noted Rob. But Maurice’s passion was for spirits and cocktails, and he used his near-beer earnings to buy Charles Jacquin, a Philadelphia-based business that was the oldest liqueur-manufacturing operation in the U.S. Rob’s father, Sky Cooper, entered the business in 1952.
With designs to bring a more global perspective to the company, he added a branch that imported French products. In the 1970s, Sky developed his great innovation: Starting with the idea, and distinctive bottle design of Forbidden Fruit, a popular grapefruit-and-spice liqueur that went into decline in the ‘60s, he created Chambord. The liqueur, made of French wild black raspberries, became wildly successful in the U.S., especially as a cocktail mixed with Champagne.
A 1994 graduate of Aspen High School, and a former, two-year member of the U.S. Junior National Snowboarding team, Rob Cooper joined the family business in 1999, just after finishing his college career at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His primary job for several years was the international management of his father’s creation, traveling hundreds of thousands of miles a year overseeing the Chambord brand.
At the same time, he was surveying the larger liqueur industry, and not liking what he saw. Everything that was new was worse, he observed, decrying the use of corn syrup and fruit concentrates in spirits.
“I was looking for opportunities, surveying the landscape, to craft what would hopefully become an iconic spirits brand. I wanted to create a product that was impeccably high quality, and make a contribution to the industry. Integrity that’s something that’s been lost on the industry, the idea of stopping at nothing to create the finest product.”
Despite his experience in the business, Cooper had no idea just what it would take to achieve that lofty goal. That serendipitous moment in a London sushi bar would be the only easy step in the process.
After Cooper discovered the elderflower, he set out to find a source for it, which wasn’t nearly as simple as he figured. The flower grows everywhere in Europe, but is in bloom for only three weeks of the year, in late spring. Furthermore, he discovered that frozen, dehydrated or even cold-stored flowers were useless in terms of flavor. Finally, while he found small pockets of farmers who gathered the elder, these were small-scale operators, and they used the crop mainly for homeopathic remedies, teas and cosmetics. “It’s more an issue to find people harvesting the flowers than it is to find the flowers,” said Cooper.
It took two years, but Cooper finally met a man who led him to a group of Frenchmen who harvested the elderflower. And my jaw was on the ground, he said. There were about 60 dedicated French farmers who went out in the spring, from dawn to dusk, gathering the flowers, for two weeks.
More than the fact that there actually were people cultivating elderflowers was how it was done. The farmers harvested with impeccable care, making sure the flowers were fully developed. They transported bags of the flowers via bicycle to storage sheds and train depots.
“I thought, ‘How many things in the world are done that pure, that artisanal, with that much soul?’” said Cooper, whose logo for his brand features a man on an old-fashioned bicycle, and who uses vintage French postcard designs as promotional items for St.-Germain.
With his source secured, Cooper figured he was home free on the production side. Having found the elderflower farmers in time for the spring ‘04 harvest, Cooper said, “I was fist-pumping, thinking it would be on the shelves in the fall. But we botched the batch, so we had to wait another year. And then same thing the second year. I was ready to hang myself.”
Finally, in his third try, and four years after discovering the flavor of the elderflower, Cooper succeeded in making the liqueur he envisioned. The process involves rushing the flowers each day from the depot to the distillery; submerging them in an eau-de-vie spirit base, made of Burgundy grapes; adding 100 percent cane sugar; and letting it rest for five days before pressing the flowers. He makes one batch a year, in late spring.
It was a personal conquest, that you could make a product from this flower. But after four years, it didn’t look like I was going to be right, said Cooper, who parted ways with his fathers company and founded Cooper Spirits in 2006. (The Chambord brand has since been sold off.)
Cooper is pleased to find himself part of a counter-movement in the spirits industry, one that is emphasizing the highest quality ingredients, like making cocktails from fresh fruit rather than mixes. Bartenders have been warm to substituting St.-Germain as a liqueur in otherwise traditional drinks.
At The Little Nell hotel in Aspen, the signature cocktail is the Montagna Martini, which features Champagne, Van Gogh wild apple vodka, and St.-Germain, served in a martini glass.
“I’m a huge advocate of quality cocktails, and the good, old-school cocktails,” said Cooper. “Were moving away from bourbon and Cokes.”
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My sister was four years older so she dictated, and I mean that literally, many of my activities. That included preparing for Mother’s Day, except for my own attempt at personal gratitude.