The Cooper Spirits Co. aims to revitalize the brand and honor its founder.
By Tanya A. Yacina
Well-known for his creativity and business aptitude, Robert J. Cooper co-founded The Cooper Spirits Co. and created the world’s first artisanal French liqueur, St-Germain elderflower liqueur. He passed away just over five years ago at the early age of 39. His untimely death halted the company’s momentum for a time, but his widow, Katie Cooper, as well as a well-honed team are poised to reawaken the Newport Beach-based Cooper Spirits brand and all that it represents.
“Rob always paid attention to the little details. He wanted to revive his family’s product with a rock-and-roll edge; he wanted to provide an experience,” says Katie, co-founder and now owner of The Cooper Spirits Co. “Our brand is about having a good time and making it approachable so people can have fun.”
Robert Cooper was a visionary in the craft cocktail movement in the early and mid-2000s and part of a family of liquor makers—his grandfather, Maurice J. Cooper, bought Charles Jacquin et Cie Inc. after the repeal of Prohibition, and his father, Norton Cooper, later headed the company and created raspberry liqueur Chambord (sold to Brown-Forman in 2006). Robert was no stranger to the creation of a good cocktail, which led him to start The Cooper Spirits Co. and develop St-Germain. This unique liqueur quickly gained popularity with bartenders and patrons alike, and became known as the “bartender’s ketchup.” In 2012, St-Germain was sold to Bacardi Ltd.
“Ideas were never a problem: Rob had a ton of them. When we saw that St-Germain was going to change hands, Rob started tinkering with a lot of his other ideas,” Katie explains. “He loved whiskey; he loved rye whiskey. He saw that rye whiskey was going to be the next big thing in the industry. Rob was always a couple years ahead of the trends.”
Robert’s insight into the history of liquor, including the demand for historic products, led him to revitalize Crème Yvette, a berry-violet liqueur discontinued by Jacquin in 1969, and revive the fading Hochstadter’s product line. He anticipated “old-school rye” coming back onto the bar scene, and launched Hochstadter’s Slow & Low—a pre-made Old-Fashioned mimicking a common 19th century drink called “rock and rye” and sold in bottles and 100-milliliter cans—in 2011.
Prior to this, Robert and Katie met Chad Solomon, a pioneering craft bartender at New York City bars Milk & Honey and Pegu Club, considered one of the most influential bars in the cocktail renaissance. Robert sought Solomon’s insight for his St-Germain creation, and later hired Solomon and his partner, Christy Pope, to develop prototypes for the name and taste of Hochstadter’s Slow & Low. The sale of St-Germain allowed the group to focus on the other up-and-coming products Robert had imagined.
“If you look back, at the time, there were only a couple of rye brands on the market and, out of those, only a few had distribution. We were fascinated, so we looked at how these drinks were made historically, and what would they look and taste like,” says Solomon, director of trade advocacy and innovation at The Cooper Spirits Co. “We wanted to restore what was lost, figure it out and modernize it. With Rob’s family history and being in the business forever, he knew that there are certain limitations to what can be stable on the shelf to be served over the bar.”
Current Concoctions and Future Innovations
“Rob watched this trend—he loved rye and the Old-Fashioned, and wanted to make an amazing Old-Fashioned in a bottle for everyone,” Katie says. “… He also loved the idea of having a cocktail in a can well before it became popular—he just thought that it was a radical idea that would be fun. With Slow & Low, you just need a bottle, or the can, and some ice or not.”
Katie, Solomon and Andrea Cromaz, who would become vice president of marketing, reconnected in 2019 and began discussions of reuniting the Cooper Spirits team to rebuild what Robert had started—an autonomous, family-owned supplier of lifestyle-centric spirits. Today, the company has 15 employees and continues to grow its talented workforce. To bring brand recognition out on the road, the company even has a customized Slow & Low whiskey van, a 1978 Chevy G20 with a walnut bar, orange tufted paneling and leather seating for events, taste tests and road trips.
According to Solomon, the company is modernizing these products that are rooted in history, with a focus on creating integrity-driven spirits and uses “the best sources to make the best products by using the best practices.”
Earlier this year, in January, The Cooper Spirits Co. launched Lock, Stock & Barrel, a 20-year aged rye whiskey with a limited distribution of 3,000 bottles. The whiskey is made from a mash-bill of 100% rye grain grown in Alberta, Canada, distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged in new, charred oak barrels in the cold climate of Calgary, Canada; before he died, Robert hand-picked the barrels and then continued to age the whiskey in them.
“Rob and Katie’s vision was so ahead of the times: They are looked at as innovators in the industry. It’s rare to have brand owners involved in every touch point of a brand, and that’s what set Rob and Katie apart from the rest—their connectivity,” Cromaz explains. “The Cooper Spirits Co. is carrying on Rob’s legacy and is now collaborating with [like-minded lifestyle] brands that are native to Southern California.”
“As an entrepreneurial company of our size, we have the ability for everyone involved to wear different hats, which is critical,” adds Katie, who is also a Southern California native. “… We’ve recruited a killer team and are looking to hire more.”
With several innovative concepts in the hopper, Katie, Solomon and the rest of the team are focused on extending the brand’s existing products, as well as bringing new offerings to the table. The company’s newest product under the Slow & Low brand—a collaboration with Intelligentsia Coffee—is slated to launch nationally in September. Inspired by Café Brulot, a well-known New Orleans coffee cocktail, the Slow & Low Coffee Old-Fashioned will bring together 80-proof aged straight rye whiskey, Intelligentsia Cold Coffee, raw honey, Demerara sugar, aromatic bitters and navel orange peel in both a 750-milliliter bottle and a 100-milliliter can. And this is just one of many creative ideas in the pipeline.
“Cooper Spirits has been a pace car for others. … That keeps us nimble, agile and there’s no lack for ideas within the group,” Solomon says. “We’re able to intake an idea and refine it, which bodes well for our future initiatives.”
A Proper Old-Fashioned
Concocting a spectacular Old-Fashioned has never been easier with Slow & Low Rock and Rye. Here’s all you need to make the drink yourself.
2 ounces Slow & Low Rock and Rye
1 large ice cube
1 orange peel for garnish
Angostura bitters, if desired
Using a jigger, measure 2 ounces of Slow & Low Rock and Rye over the large ice cube in a double Old-Fashioned glass. Stir with a bar spoon to chill and dilute the mixture. Next, use a peeler to express an orange peel to release the citrus oils over top of the drink and garnish with the peel. If you like extra bitters in your drink, add two dashes of Angostura bitters.