Five years ago in April, the man who changed what America drank died at the age of 39.
Rob Cooper was a spiritual entrepreneur and a visionary in the craft cocktail movement. He was both a friend and a student of the new top bartending group in the early to mid-2000s. He listened to their comments and complaints. He understood what they wanted, often before them.
In 2007, he developed the elderflower liqueur St-Germain, which quickly became a bartender’s darling. Sensing then a demand for historical products that had disappeared, he took the Yvette cream out of the crypt and relaunched it. When he heard bartenders enthusiastically talking about old-fashioned rye – a style of whiskey that was dangerously close to extinction – he found and acquired stores of pure Canadian rye, revived the moribund Hochstadter line and launched Lock, Stock & Barrel. And before canned cocktails were everywhere, Cooper launched Hochstadter’s Slow & Low in 2011, which was essentially an Old-Fashioned rye-based product sold in ornate bottles and a truncated 100ml can, since copied by d ‘other.
Cooper Spirits has been in a waiting situation since Cooper’s death and hasn’t shown the sparkle and ferment the founder brought to the business. “I think, for a second, the business may have been a bit rudderless after the devastating loss,” says Chad Solomon, director of business advocacy and innovation at Cooper Spirits.
Now a crew is aiming to get the rudder back on the water – with the craft driven in part by the people who helped put the Cooper Spirits under sail the first time around. This includes Solomon, who has been with Cooper Spirits for about a year. He is primarily responsible for channeling Rob Cooper’s vision, revitalizing the existing spirits line and developing new products.
“The spirit and the way Rob built the business are our benchmarks,” he says. “We are constantly looking for ways to be innovative.”
So, can Cooper Spirits bottle lightning again?
Solomon was part of the cadre of pioneering artisan bartenders. He worked at New York bar Milk & Honey in the early 2000s and was part of the Pegu Club opening team in 2005.
Among the patrons who entered the Pegu Club in the summer of 2006 was Rob Cooper. Cooper came from a family of liquor makers. His grandfather bought Charles Jacquin et Cie, Inc., a producer of spirits and liqueurs, after Prohibition. Her father became Jacquin’s product developer (and later took over the business). There, Norton “Sky” Cooper created Chambord, a hugely successful French raspberry liqueur that became a staple ingredient for champagne cocktails in the 1980s. (The family then sold it to Brown-Forman in 2006.)
Rob Cooper also joined the family business and, on a trip to London in 2001, he tasted a cocktail made with elderflower syrup. This made him think: why not an elderflower liqueur? He sought to develop it at Jacquin, but the idea failed to gain traction. As Cooper once said the Wall Street newspaper, her father would walk by and ask: “Do you still work on flower shit?”
Cooper therefore formed Cooper Spirits and released St-Germain independently in 2007. Like Chambord, it quickly became a staple ingredient, popping up in bars from coast to coast. St-Germain was like a character actor who appeared in every blockbuster movie; the flavor was instantly recognizable, but the name was more famous inside the industry than outside. (Recalling the saying about oaks and acorns, Cooper’s brother and rival, John, started his own business and created the Canton Estate, a popular ginger liqueur. It was later bought by Heaven Hill.)
At the Pegu Club, Rob Cooper spoke with Solomon. The two got along well – Solomon had asked him when he would bring back Creme Yvette, a violet and berry liqueur that Jacquin’s abandoned in 1969. Cooper sought Solomon’s opinion on St-Germain and sent him prototypes. for comments. And after Solomon and his partner (and later his wife), Christy Pope, started Cuffs & Buttons, a bar consulting firm, Cooper hired them to develop prototypes of the taste, name, and design of Slow & Low labels from Hochstadter. Then in 2013, Cooper sold St-Germain to liquor conglomerate Bacardi and began to focus on the other products in its portfolio and develop new ones.
At the end of 2019, after Cooper’s unexpected death, Solomon and Katie Cooper, Rob’s widow and business owner, reconnected. “We struck up a conversation about inventorying Cooper Spirits, rebuilding the team, and attempting to piece together what Rob had built,” he says. (Katie Cooper declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Salomon came on board, as did Pope, who was hired as Director of Commercial Marketing. Shortly after, former Regional Sales Manager Bryan Townsend returned as Vice President of Sales, joining Gerri Miller, Cory Seminowicz and Jack Pund, who had all been there since the inception of the company. “So you’ve got a core team where we all remember what the beginnings were like,” Solomon says. Think: Ocean’s 11, but a liqueur caper.
Before Solomon could set foot under him, the coronavirus came down. “The pandemic has clearly created a ton of challenges,” Solomon says. The close ties the company had forged with bartenders over the years became essentially meaningless when the bars closed. But the business was bolstered by Slow & Low sales to consumers through retail outlets. And the larger-format bottles proved popular in some bars that remained open but sought to reduce “touch points” when brewing cocktails. “Even with all of its challenges, 2020 has ended up being a very productive year,” says Solomon.
Solomon is optimistic that the craft bar world will regain much of its hustle and bustle as fears and realities of the pandemic begin to fade. “Coming out of that, we’re going to go through a period of familiarity,” he says, emphasizing the classics and the real ones.
“But then inevitably the pendulum will start to swing the other way, people will get creative and we will probably start the cycle again.”
Solomon and others are looking for ways to expand Cooper Spirits’ existing product lines, building on Rob Cooper’s legacy. “We’re looking at each of the brands,” he says, noting that they’re fortunate enough to be able to draw on a rich library of whiskey that Cooper had amassed for blending.
Among the first new products to launch, slated for April, is a collaboration with Intelligentsia Coffee, an old-fashioned café inspired by Café Brûlot, a famous New Orleans drink. More is in the pipeline. “We have some very, very cool plans for the Yvette cream,” he says vaguely, which will involve in-depth research into its French history. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
“We are making sure we have good momentum and are positioning ourselves to continue to grow and come back to what this company has done very well,” says Solomon. “These are great shoes to step into.”
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