My home bar is minimalist: one shaker, an array of bitters, and rarely more than a bottle of budget whiskey (I’m typically content making Old Fashioneds). Occasionally, I invest in a bottle of sweet vermouth or a clear liquor, but any variety in my cocktails depends on what I can forage from my fridge. I am the René Redzepi of drinking at home.
Part of me, though, longs for the variety of liqueurs available at a full bar. How nice it would be to have the space and patience for a bottle of Campari to make a Negroni whenever the mood suited me. Or Baileys for the occasional Irish Coffee. Maybe a bottle of Fernet when I want guests to leave.
None of these, though, are as lovely as St-Germain, a French liqueur made from fresh-picked elderflowers in the Alps. St-Germain is fragrant, floral and delicious in Champagne and every artisanal cocktail I’ve ever tried it in. But I had no idea how to actually use it.
So, I conducted an experiment: I committed to a whole bottle of it, documenting my attempts to use it with my limited bar. No looking up drink recipes. No additional purchases just to make a specific cocktail. Just 30 days of fumbling around with spare ingredients like a Chopped contestant.
In the liquor store, I consider the 375-milliliter bottle—I’m a cost-conscious person, and how much flowery syrup do I really need? But no. I’m here for journalistic purposes, and I grab the towering 750-milliliter bottle in all its Art Nouveau glory. I WILL NOT BACK DOWN FROM FLOWERY COCKTAILS.
A note on opening a bottle of St-Germain: Steel yourself for war. The sugary liqueur seals the cap on tighter than Gorilla Glue, and the cap is flared at the top, creating a ridge that can painfully dig into even the most calloused hands. I improved my grip on the cap by wrapping several rubber bands around it, and it finally succumbed.
My first inclination is to make a twist on a Manhattan, substituting the vermouth with St-Germain. I mix two ounces of whiskey with a half ounce of St-Germain and a dash of Peychaud’s bitters, but there’s a little too much bite (likely the effect of using budget bourbon). I add another quarter-ounce of St-Germain, but now the drink lacks balance. I counter with an orange peel and a few more dashes of Peychaud’s, and I finally have a drinkable cocktail.
GRADE: B-. Whiskey mixes nicely with St-Germain, but not as a strict duo; there needs to be a third ingredient that can carry more weight than bitters. Speaking of which, Peychaud’s was the wrong call; orange bitters would have paired better with the floral aspects of St-Germain.
In search of a third ingredient that can marry whiskey and St-Germain, I mix one-and-a-half ounces of whiskey and three-fourths of an ounce of St-Germain with three-fourths of an ounce coconut water over ice, then add a sparkling water float. I enjoy coconut water as a mixer—it’s refreshing, lightly sweet and subtly flavored, so it tends to soften a drink without taking it over.
GRADE: B. The ingredients may sound odd, but the result was similar to a whiskey and ginger ale, albeit with a slightly syrupy aftertaste.
Due to my limited options, I go back to trying to tweak the Manhattan recipe, this time only doing a partial swap of St-Germain for vermouth. The tweaked recipe:
2 oz bourbon
.25 oz sweet vermouth
.25 oz St-Germain
A few dashes of Angostura bitters
I mixed the ingredients with ice and served it with an orange twist (a cherry seemed too sweet; a twist of lime, too acidic).
GRADE: B+/A-. With better bourbon or slightly different personal tastes, this might be preferable to the standard Manhattan—it keeps the sweet and spicy tones of the classic cocktail, but adds a subtle floral component. (It also reflects what I’m quickly learning about St-Germain: a very small amount goes a very long way.)
Sometimes you’re watching sports, so you’re drinking a little. Then you get angry at the sports, and you drink a lot. And then you’re out of beer AND liquor, so you mix an ounce of sweet vermouth with three-fourths of an ounce of St-Germain, and fill the rest of the glass with soda. And it’s … not bad?
GRADE: Incomplete. But there’s promise here: It’s sweet, bubbly, only lightly alcoholic and genuinely refreshing. At least, I think so. I was pretty drunk.
I try to revisit and refine the previous day’s concoction. One ounce sweet vermouth, one ounce St-Germain, and … I’m out of soda water. I poke around the fridge. Ginger ale? Sure, ginger ale.
GRADE: Look, who’s to say that all grades have to be letter grades? Maybe I’m taking the class pass/fail. Who are you, the dean of bartending school?
The missteps of Days 8 and 9 paved the way for the single greatest truth of St-Germain: Its perfect partner is soda water. Over the course of several days, I tried variations, and it all worked. A shot of St-G in a Collins glass filled with soda is the kind of drink that belongs at a sidewalk cafe on a sunny day. St-Germain is also a welcome addition to the staid old Vodka Soda, softening the drink’s bite and giving it sweetness and depth.
GRADE: A. If you see a drink on a bar menu, and two of the ingredients are St-Germain and soda, order it.
I mix some good whiskey with apple cider and a little bit of St-Germain. I can’t measure everything all the time, OK? I have this onerous yellow beast on my bar, and I just want to make delicious drinks without trying so hard all the time.
Grade: B+. I might be onto something if I can refine the proportions and make it slightly less sweet. Apple cider and bourbon is one of very few perfect two-ingredient drinks, but the elderflower liqueur is a welcome addition. It adds a nice bouquet without interfering with the flavor profile.
Follow-up to the previous attempt: two ounces bourbon, two ounces apple cider, half-ounce St-Germain, dash of bitters. I garnish with a lemon peel, but it’s too acidic. Should have gone with orange.
Grade: A-. I would definitely make this drink for guests.
We have our neighbors over, and I blow them away with the following recipe:
1 oz bourbon
1 oz grapefruit juice
1 oz St-Germain
6-8 sage leaves
Muddle the sage leaves and stir all the ingredients with ice. Serve with a large ice cube and garnish with an additional sage leaf.
This is cheating, by the way. I never have grapefruit juice or sage leaves in my fridge; I bought them specifically to recreate a drink that a bartender engineered on a whim for me years ago. We called it the Transcontinental, because it tastes like a Florida citrus grove took a train to a Northwest pine forest, picking up bourbon in Kentucky and elderflowers along the way. It is a balanced, nuanced and deeply delicious journey.
GRADE: A+. YOU try stunt-bartending with St-Germain for a month and see if you don’t feel like bending the rules a little.
I have a rough day at work, so I pour the last of the St-Germain into a glass and drown it with ice and soda. It is easy and sweet and makes my day just a little better—not just the drink, but at last getting rid of the bottle.
I learned three lessons while drowning in St-Germain for a month: (1) However much you think you might need for a drink, use a little less. (2) Pair it with soda and you’ll be happy. (3) You probably only need a 375-milliliter bottle.