A Tale of Two Liqueurs

It is the best of liqueurs, it is the… well, also among the best of liqueurs, it is the crispest of spices, it is the smoothest of flowers, it is the apex of ginger, it is valley of the elderflower, it is the root of the orient, it is the bloom of the alps, we drink a bold, bright elixir, we drink a smooth, twilight potion – in short, we are examining poles totally unlike, yet bound in form, function, and quality in such a way that some of the noisiest authorities insist we must receive them, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
—With a nod to Chucky Dickens

My last post seemed like a good lead-in to some thoughts I’ve been developing about two of the more interesting, ultra-premium liqueurs in my inventory, St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur and Canton Ginger Liqueur.

Hey, where are the scare quotes around ultra-premium? You hate that phrase.

I hate it, it’s true, especially when applied to vodka. But every once in a while, you run into a product in this, as with any, industry that kinda deserves the label. Each of these liqueurs is fairly unique in the market. Each is several levels higher in complexity and refinement than the overwhelming majority of what we call liqueurs. Each can be used in a wide variety of applications. Each comes is a magnificent, display quality bottle. And each is tres cher….
Despite my photoshop, this isn’t really a showdown post. As I said, they are both top-notch products, and they really don’t taste anything like each other. The only things they ostensibly have in common is their color, and their status among the current aristocracy of booze. So why am I binding them together in this post?
What I wanted to share is the amazing fact that these two can be exchanged for each other with impressive results in an incredibly wide range of drinks.
I am in no way saying that one is a substitute for the other. What I am saying is that a drink that works with one of these very different liqueurs will likely also work with the other. The result will be a very different drink, but one of similar drinkability. And if you find a recipe using one of these two seems a bit too much… whatever, I think a great first step in trying to fix it is to switch one of these for the other. I liken this procedure to adjusting the color-balance in a photograph: Whether you will prefer the results will depend on your personal tastes.
I cite again my experiment in my last post with substituting Canton for the St. Germain in Gary Regan’s Botanical Breeze. I hardly claim to have made the cocktail better, I just claim to have made a drink that more fits my tastes.
I had made this switch a couple of times as experiments in the past when trying to come up with something on my own, but never thought about it much, as I never had a really successful result with any of the overall drinks. But I never really noticed what I was doing, and how often it worked until the Thursday Drink Night over at the Mixosoleum that was sponsored by Sandeman Port. (As an aside, I was amazed at how good a mixing ingredient port is in cocktails. I would never have thought it.) If you have never tried visiting TDN, and have the ability to follow seven simultaneous yet different, drunken conversations about the same subject in an internet chatroom, I recommend you check it out. At any rate, the excellent Dr. Bamboo suggested the following cocktail:


  • 1 oz. gin
  • 0.75 oz. Sandeman Founder’s Reserve
  • 0.5 oz. St. Germain

Build over ice and squeeze in a lime wedge.

I tried it and liked it. And then about 15 minutes later, I realized that I had made it with Canton instead of St. Germain! In my defense, TDN had been going on for a while at this point…. That night I was just embarrassed, but the next day, in looking over my notes, I was struck by how this worked. The Trans-Europe is also quite good with the St. Germain, but I personally prefer my accidental substitution:


  • 1 oz. gin
  • 0.75 oz. Sendeman Founder’s Reserve
  • 0.5 oz. Canton

Build over ice and squeeze in a lime wedge.

As to why these two dissimilar liqueurs can sub in for each other so often, I suspect it’s because each is about the same sweetness (not very), and the same strength of flavor (though very different). Similar coloring also keeps the switch from making an ugly mess of the result. Beyond that, I can only say, Just does, Mommy.
Aside from allowing for drunken substitutions that don’t end up wasting expensive liquor, this phenomenon is pretty cool in other ways.
Both of these liqueurs have their fans, but also their detractors. And they are both rather difficult to track down in some markets. So, you may have dismissed an otherwise interesting recipe because you don’t like or can’t get (for instance) St. Germain, but have a beautiful bottle of Canton in your inventory. Go ahead and try the Canton. Or, you may be the kind of drinker who usually just follows recipes; try this substitution as a first step in learning to tweak and invent your own creations. There’s a lot of fun and flexibility to be had here. Try it.
I’ll end with the admission that this is hardly a scientifically proven theory. I haven’t done exhaustive testing (though I’ve done more than I’ve written here), and I have done much more substituting Canton for St. Germain than I have the other way around. If you tinker with this, I’d love to hear your results, especially where it didn’t work.

UPDATE (3/3/09): Camper English writes of another fascinating convergence between these two liquors that I had not known. Apparently, the makers are brothers who “enjoy” a highly competitive and not wholly cordial relationship. I guess my graphic up top was even more cogent than I thought. You can read about the story in depth at The Wall Street Journal. (Wow, my first link to the WSJ….)

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