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Brandy Ste. Louise: Cocktails’ Lost Spirit

Brandy Ste. Louise: Cocktails’ Lost Spirit

Photo credit: Laura Maddox

Sazerac, Sidecar, French 75, Cobbler, Milk Punch—cocktails that you’ve undoubtedly come across within the past twenty years either from a menu titled “Classics” or as a suggestion from a dapper bartender. There was a renaissance that occurred behind the bar that succeeded the Cosmopolitan and Appletini. It was time to harken back to a more romantic time exploring the origins of the cocktail and those who penned the books on hospitality and essential recipes.

Bartenders began to look to Jerry Thomas, Harry Craddock, and Charles Baker to explore the art of cocktails before the 12-year Prohibition threw the craft into a tailspin. Many of these recipes got lost to Bathtub gin and, well, anything available, and the old recipes never recovered—until mustachioed and vested bartenders came back into fashion. Undoubtedly, over one hundred years, some specs were untouchable, and others were a little iffy, but one thing was sure—some recipes called for spirits that didn’t exist anymore or those that fell out of fashion.

One of those lost to Prohibition was brandy. Some of your favorite classics may have originally been with brandy—as was the Sazerac or French 75 but replaced with more easily available domestic spirits such as rye whiskey, Bourbon, or gin. This was mainly because domestic distilleries were recovering and support for local businesses was of utmost importance. At this time, production of brandy—produced from grapes—had been decimated due to the phylloxera outbreak in Europe in the late 1800s.

Brandy made a slight comeback, but Cognac, Armagnac, and even more domestic brandies upped their price point, which made it tough to hit costs to put in a well. But there is one woman who went out to change that. Jennifer Querbes spent years in the industry before taking on the daunting task of mapping out pre-Prohibition cocktails and seeing the need for a brandy made for them. The stars aligned and Brandy Ste. Louise was born. Her female-run brand, along with her Sales & Development manager, Laura Maddox, is an homage to her roots, her family, the cocktail culture bred in Louisiana, and bringing back pre-Prohibition cocktails for bartenders and consumers alike.

Jennifer Querbes | Photo credit: John Troia

Rachel DelRocco Terrazas: Tell me about your career and what made you want to take on this project?

Jennifer Querbes: I’ve been in the industry for a long time. I’ve worked at distilleries, on the floor, in tasting rooms, as a brand ambassador. I’ve worked on a vineyard in Mendoza. For years, I wanted to start my own distillery. I wanted to make rye in Texas. I started a couple of distilleries, but I came to terms with the fact that it would take at least $10 million in ten years to be competitive and not just a vanity project. And I learned the value of not having investors, which if there’s any possible way to do that, that would be great. So maybe there was something to this import thing.

I met John Troia at Tempus Fugit. He’s making all these liqueurs and knows all this nerdy cocktail stuff that I didn’t understand. He asked, why don’t you help me out in Texas? I learned the processes from working with Tempus Fugit, and I learned a lot about cocktails. Typically I was really into agave and whiskey. I drank a lot of spirits, mostly neat, and a lot of wine.

We then started looking for holes in the market. I wanted to make something that there was a demand for, something lacking in the market. So John gave me a list of the top 20 most influential cocktail books recommended to him by David Wondrich. I got all of them plus about 20 more, and I put every single ingredient from every single recipe into a spreadsheet. I know there are apps for that now, but it was just a learning process for me. It took me three or four months to do. We found a few holes, for example, using Crème de Banane. A Banana Bliss from the 1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book is two to one, that to Brandy. That’s how it started.

I noticed the overwhelming proportion of Brandy-based cocktails. Two-thirds of these historic cocktails were originally Brandy-based. I thought, why don’t we hear about these anymore?

RDT: Where did the name come from?

JQ: My family is from Louisiana. My grandmother’s name was Louise, and she was all about her New Orleans cocktails. So I named it in honor of her. It’s also sort of an homage to Louisiana. I also found out later that I have a distant ancestor canonized in Lyon for sainthood. His name was Louis. It all came together.

RDT: Tell me about the product itself and how you were able to kickstart production.

JQ: A bunch of bartenders I knew said if you could make a well-priced Brandy, overproof, classic—it’s plug-and-play for those old recipes. The brandies and the Cognacs that we’re getting today are different than they were back then. Cognac is lovely and fabulous, but it’s delicate, and it gets overpowered in cocktails. It’s not cost-effective to put it into cocktails. We experimented, and 43 percent abv was the sweet spot. I love it on its own, but it also stands out in cocktails; it doesn’t overpower but elevates the other ingredients’ most attractive attributes.

I worked for HINE so I knew a cellar master over there who helped source and produce. I would bring back different iterations to bars. I’d bring them to bartenders in New York, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, and worked with them on the flavor profile and its functionality in cocktails. So this is truly a collaboration. Bartenders—they’re the ones buying, selling, and telling consumers what they like.

Laura Maddox | Photo credit: Sung Joon Koo

RDT: How are you able to work in and around the confines of Cognac?

JQ: I was going for a 19th-century flavor profile with the same production they were using back then. It’s a blend of ten different Eaux-de-vies, all aged three to ten years. The cellar master brings them in as clear spirits and then ages them at the cellars in Cognac. The producers have been farming this land for hundreds of years, same family, and the cellar master is 5th generation as far as he knows, maybe longer. He loves doing it because he’s being used to being in the strict confines of Cognac. He can experiment; we can distill off-season, and he doesn’t have any of the rules.

But we follow the actual production as Cognac; it is double distilled in a Charentais copper pot still. I get the majority of my grapes from right outside the AOC in southwestern France. That’s the sole reason why you can’t put Cognac on the label because the grapes are just right outside the lines. About ten percent of it is Ugni Blanc from Grande Champagne in Cognac, but the vast majority is Ugni Blanc from right outside the AOC in southwestern France.

A lot in Cognac is already being used and you can get the same grapes from across the street for a lesser price. But same terroir, same production with a little bit of grapes from Northern Spain and Northern Italy.

There are five or six producers, and the cellar master is the one that kind of picks them out and puts them together.

I employ the French négociant tradition, as you know, was customary until relatively recently in the past couple of decades. Historically, Cognac producers didn’t own their vineyards, and they would select the best of what was available for their blends. I am so incredibly proud of the result, I wish I could take credit, but all I did was follow centuries of tradition.

Brandy Ste. Louise | Photo credit: Laura Maddox

RDT: Tell me more about your family inspiration for the label.

JQ: The label is an original 19th-century French Brandy label. And then the bee—my grandmother collected bees. It’s a tribute to her and the Napoleonic bee. Funny story: they were showing a video of the bottling line, and in the background, there was a huge Napoleonic bee. It was fate. And then I have my fleur-de-lis on the back as a tribute to New Orleans.

RDT: Where they still put Brandy in their Sazeracs?

JQ: I’m glad you brought that up because that was my number one. It had to make a killer Sazerac. That’s my all-time favorite drink, and when I go into bar, it’s my benchmark. I judge them by it.

RDT: You wanted this for bartenders but a lot of this environment has changed. How has that affected your business model?

JQ: A lot of people want more cost-effective strategies and products. I hate to say value because that makes you think it’s lesser quality. That’s not true; there is nothing of this quality at this price point. I want everyone who puts their hand on this to make money.

My initial business plan or my strategy was to on-premise bars, bar managers, and even chefs—there’s been many people cooking with it. I wasn’t too concerned about social media. I wasn’t too worried about retail. Consumers are not that aware of a French brandy at the moment, but bartenders will help me educate and dictate consumer education and preferences. So I was using that, but now I need to market directly to consumers and focus on retail and social media.

We had to flip—social media became important, how to market to retail. This isn’t easy because people are going out and buying the comfort brands or the big brands, and not many people are going out to look for an overproof, 19th-century style French brandy. We’ve been partnering with a lot of bars across the country who are doing to-go where it’s legal. We’re working with USBG and other industry organizations to figure out how to get it into the hands of consumers and industry professionals. I’m pleasantly surprised about consumers’ reaction and that was a different whole lens.

Photo credit: Laura Maddox

RDT: Are bartenders still supporting it?

JQ: During the holidays, we had bartenders posting viral egg nog recipes. They were selling to-go and gallons of it. Everyone now is doing so many exciting things—home bartenders have been stepping up their game. To see what people are doing with it is just crazy.

RDT: How has your consumer base changed since the pandemic?

JQ: I made it about them and not me. It’s about the product, the history, and the bartenders; I was behind-the-scenes and that had to change too.

Relationships going through this pandemic bring people together. I think the ones I’ve had had developed and strengthened—like, remember when we did that together? It’s not the volume of the relationships but the strength of them.