Liqueurs and aperitifs are almost always from another century, their recipes as fixed as the shapes of their bottles. Chartreuse liqueur was formulated in 1737 by French monks (who still produce it). Cointreau dates from 1875. Suze was concocted in 1889, and a young Picasso liked this aperitif enough to make it the centerpiece of “Glass and a Bottle of Suze” in 1912. Aperol, bottled since 1919, is a recent creation because it is less than 100 years old.
Two dozen brands seem to have been handed down from the distant past, arriving on the upper shelves of bars from Bangkok to New York. There they sit, waiting for a customer to order a Singapore Sling (requires Cointreau and Benedictine), a Negroni (requires Campari), a French Martini (requires Chambord), or an Aperol Spritz.
These little gems of the liquor business will never match the sales of a best-selling vodka or gin. But the niche is lucrative, because the costs of maintaining the brand and market share are low. They do not need to innovate their formulas. Unlike a vodka or gin brand, they have few or no direct competitors. And they are integral to cocktails known the world over, so the product is pulled more than pushed.
All of this raises a question. Why are there so few new liqueurs? Why are there so few new aperitifs? Certainly the old ones have made fortunes for their owners. Sales of Chartreuse continue to fill the coffers of the Carthusian monastic order. The Charles Jacquin company sold Chambord, the French raspberry liqueur, to Brown-Forman for $255 million in 2006. These drinks are skillfully blended. But they are nothing more than infusions of fruits, roots, peels, herbs, nuts, and flowers in alcohol. Was 1920 the last time that anyone could come up with an appetizing combination of botanicals?
Alex Kammerling, a London bartender, experimented for five years with the formula for Kamm and Sons, his bittersweet aperitif otherwise known as “Kamm’s.” It tastes like a mixture of Campari, gin, and honey. Ultimately it tastes like nothing other than itself. Kamm’s has developed a cult following in the London bar scene since it launched in 2011. Its modest volumes have doubled for two years in a row – from 3,500 bottles in 2012 to 13,000 in 2014 – despite the marketing staff consisting of Alex and sometimes one assistant. “It definitely has staying power,” says Ali Reynolds, bar managerat Hawksmoor Spitalfields, a popular London cocktail bar that mixes Kamm’s in three of its drinks. “In terms of quality it’s as good or better than the more established [aperitif spirits]. It fills a gap on the bar shelf, because making cocktails we want something that’s sweet but that also has some bitterness to it. Alex basically bottled that and it’s all ready to go. I can use it as a base or to tweak other flavors.”
Kamm’s is trying to become the breakthrough twenty-firstcentury aperitif. To do so it must become a distinctive British liquor brand like Pimm’s. Yet it must occupy a category of drink so un-British that there is not even a name for it in English – only aperitif or aperitivo.
“The ‘aperitif moment’ has been around in [continental] Europe for a long time — that moment when work is over, when you’re unwinding, but before you’ve started eating,” says Alex. “You have a light drink before dinner. Traditionally there’s some bitterness to the aperitif, because that creates the saliva that stimulates the palate and sends the signal to the stomach to prepare to eat.” Hence Campari, the most famous of aperitifs.
“The UK does not have that aperitif tradition,” says Alex. “But it’s growing.”
Supporting his view are British sales of Aperol, the Italian aperitif. UK supermarket Tesco recorded an 88 per cent annual jump in sales in 2014. The brand is synonymous with the Aperol Spritz, a blend of Aperol and prosecco that is a light afternoon or early evening drink. As more British people return from EasyJet holidays to Italy and France, they want to find that bittersweet flavor of an Italian afternoon. Its popularity has grown beyond the UK. Since the Campari Group bought Aperol in 2003 sales grew in the double digits for seven consecutive years.
By branding itself as “The British Aperitif” Kamm’s is signaling it is the British Aperol. “We’re trying to compete with Aperol,” Alex says, acknowledging that he does not have a fraction of Campari Group’s marketing power. The multinational can afford to throw lavish Aperol-themed parties in summertime, then frame shots of beautiful drinkers and plug the images into its social media.
Kamm’s might belong to the same category of Aperol. But they do not taste alike. The British Aperitif’s biggest challenge may be winning drinkers over to its distinct taste of … what, exactly?
Kamms’ key ingredient is ginseng. Manuka honey and grapefruit rinds are among the 40-plus botanicals blended in the formula. Sitting in a shed behind his house in north London that is Kamms’ headquarters, Alex describes the process of concocting an aperitif. It is not so far from the trial-and-error approach of 300 years ago, when French monks infused forest berries in spirits.
“I wanted to make something different,” Alex says. “I was led by my palate. But in terms of the concept for the drink I was led by my knowledge of the industry and where it was going.” He has been a bartender, drinks journalist, and British brand ambassador for Grey Goose vodka. His work gave him an expert perspective on bar trends – as well as a stellar network of tastemakers who later helped him land Kamm’s in London’s best bars and hotels.
“I could see that palates were going toward gin, toward bitters, so I thought: I’ll make a drink somewhere between gin and Campari and Pimm’s. It should taste something like that but be healthier, using healthier botanicals like peels and flowers.”
So he began infusing botanicals in alcohol to isolate the flavors. He did it in his flat during his spare time. “I tasted and made notes: woody, spicy, earthy, floral. I had an Excel spreadsheet of all the botanicals and what they’re traditionally used for.”
“Ginseng really stood out – Red Korean ginseng. I never tasted it before. It has this unique flavor: rooty, earthy. It’s a perfect base note. Then it was about layering lighter notes on top of that: more citrusy, floral notes. That’s where the grapefruit peels and the honey came in. Manuka honey simply tasted better than the other honeys.” He markettested the spirit by serving it free at weddings, asking for feedback from guests of all ages and then tweaking the formula.
Alcohol is a poison, but ingredients like ginseng position Kamm’s as a healthier poisonthan most. The London Evening Standard this month called Kamm’s “a virtuous potion” – despite its alcohol-by-volume level of 33 per cent (three times the level of Aperol). “One thing that’s great about the drink is that it’s medicinal,” says Ali Reynolds, the bar manager at Hawksmoor. “It’s heavy on all those ingredients like Manuka honey, camomille, echinacea, ginseng that people take a shine to when they’re not drinking.”
On a shoestring budget, Alex has relied on grassroots marketing like pop-up bars as well as friendly bartenders, bloggers, and journalists to achieve the brand’s momentum to date. He makes presentations to bar staffs around London. Most of his presentations are about aperitifs in general, not Kamm’s.
“To build brand recognition you first have to build awareness of aperitifs and this concept of ‘the aperitif hour’. I talk about the French and Italian brands, the uses of aperitifs and the moods for them. Then I say ‘Here’s this one we make: Kamm and Sons.’ I know what it’s like to have some guy come in the bar who pushes a product on you and you think, ‘Who is this dude?’ But if you convince your audience you know your stuff, they follow up.”
Having gained plaudits from London’s food-world cognoscenti, Kamm’s is now bringing in distributors. “They’ll do what I’d love to do myself but can’t, because it’s bloody expensive:” have a sales force sell the drink wholesale to supermarkets and other merchants. This should expand Kamms’ distribution beyond niche retailers such as the food halls of Selfridge’s and Harvey Nichols.
Sitting in his shed-office, Alex sees international expansion as a faraway prospect. All of his energies are focused on making “the British aperitif” stick in its home country.
“I can’t take it global because I don’t have the experience,” he says. A sale to the likes of Diageo (which has no Campari-like spirit in its portfolio) would be the best outcome if Kamm’s takes off, he admits. “I can introduce it globally, and I can stay involved. Everyone likes a face behind a brand. But from there it would have to be a bigger player.”
By marketing the “Brit Spritz” (Kamm’s, prosecco, elderflower) as the brand’s signature drink, Alex is stepping firmly on the territory of Campari Group. Alex is not concerned about their reaction, however. “We’re on the radar of these big companies. But they’re not really interested unless you’re dipping into their market share, and our volumes simply don’t register.”
The real competitors to Kamm’s, Alex says, are other artisanal London distillers. Sipsmith and a handful of other craft gins are “trying to walk in the same doors and talk to the same journalists,” he says. “There’s a ridiculous amount of gins on the market now.”
He looks up at a row of unbranded Kamm’s bottles that line his office. They look like prototypes from the early days.
“If I had done a gin instead of an aperitif, I would probably be doing much better,” he reflects. “But I think gin is boring. I wanted to do something different. What Kamm and Sons enabled me to do is create a stronger identity for the brand. We will be better off in the end if there is nothing else like it in the beginning. And we’re the first British aperitif. That’s a fact. That’s important for brand longevity. I want to be in this for the long haul. I want Kamm and Sons to be around in 150 years.”
In 150 years Kamm’s may have joined the spirits shelf alongside ancients like Cointreau. Perhaps future drinkers will assume it came from the nineteenth century like all the others – instead of from a British bartender at the dawn of the digital age who, in his spare time, isolated the flavor of Red Korean ginseng and thought it would make the base of a good new aperitif.
New Liqueurs Sell
St-Germain, the elderflower liqueur, looks like an old French liqueur brand. It is in fact a US brand that is less than a decade old. Its rapid development and sale to Bacardi shows the market potential for new liqueurs.
Robert Cooper introduced St-Germain in 2007, when he was under 30 years old, after experimenting for years with fresh elderflowers. The liqueur caught on instantly in New York’s bars, where it was hailed as a versatile mixer in cocktails. Sales grew rapidly.
Cooper’s extensive connections in the drinks business and drinks media helped. His family owns Charles Jacquin et Cie, the US drinks company that owned Chambord liqueur until they sold it to the owners of Jack Daniel’s in 2006. “I am extremely grateful to my friends in the bar trade who have supported St-Germain from the start,” he said in an interview with a trade journal. “Bartenders are everything.”
After a few years of promoting the brand in the US and internationally, Rob Cooper sold St-Germain to Bacardi in January 2013. The private companies did not disclose the sale price. He continues to work with St-Germain as the face of the brand and as its “guardian and inspiration,” according to Bacardi.