Coming of age with 21 drinks: A sophisticated St. Germain at Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar
The St-Germain cocktail at Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar.
Despite the proliferation of eager whippersnappers rushing to open craft breweries and distilleries, people have been working diligently to get us drunk for centuries.
St. Germain, for example, originated in France in 1885, and its exuberantly fruity taste, which benefits from that most European of herbs -- the elderflower -- makes for a cocktail with an astounding tang. And Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar makes an iconic cocktail that's worthy of St. Germain's Gallic spirit.
It's an amazingly simple drink. Champagne, sparkling water and St. Germain are all you need to evoke fin de siècle France. If the classy liqueur in the Art Nouveau bottle didn't cost as much as some top-shelf gin, the St. Germain cocktail would be an everyday drink that appealed to eccentrics everywhere.
According to legend, after the beloved Saint Germanus of Paris died in the year 576, his relics were carried through the streets in times of turmoil for nine centuries. Today, the St. Germain district is still considered the intellectual center of Paris -- but not so brainy that you can't enjoy a good cocktail there. Yet the St. Germain liqueur isn't the only drink to take its inspiration from here (more on that later).
A website devoted to the drink details the painstaking distilling process: elderflower blossoms are picked in the French Alps during the flower's brief growing season, and then a fleet of grizzled Bohemians drive bundles of flowers down from the hills on bicycles, where they're immediately macerated to preserve the flavor -- and then turned into St. Germain. It's a story that might be too good to be true (retired Washington Post spirits columnist Jason Wilson agrees), but the idea of an army of French farmers scouring the Alps just to fill my drink is pretty tough to resist.
Le Grand actually feels like a French fantasy, thanks to its brasserie fixtures and expansive bar. Though new chef John Broening shook up the restaurant's menu just a few weeks ago, the bar still serves St. Germain in the same iconic carafe with a spoon straw, although on my latest visit, I had to make do with a plain plastic straw, hence the photo above.
Le Grand typically uses a house sparkling wine in its St. Germain cocktail ($10); in this case, the bartender poured a Gerard Bertrand Brut, a mid-range wine that gave the cocktail a zippy, gently tingling flavor. The flavor of St. Germain itself is, as marketing materials stress, difficult to describe. Think of sunshine glittering off the river Seine, but with notes of lychee and Buddha's Hand citron.
Preceding the American debut of St. Germain by about eighty years, Harry Craddock, a barman at the Savoy Hotel in London, published a recipe for a St. Germain cocktail in his legendary 1930 cocktail compendium, The Savoy Cocktail Book. His classic recipe is a very different drink from the St. Germain cocktail that's now become popular, though its combination of lemon and grapefruit juice, egg white and green chartreuse evokes the same kind of old-world elegance that the bottlers of St. Germain try so hard to convey. Try both recipes and tell us what you think.
Keep reading for those recipes.
The modern St. Germain
1 and 1/2 parts St. Germain liqueur
2 parts Brut champagne, dry sparkling white wine or dry white wine
2 parts club soda
Lemon twist (optional, but recommended)
In a Collins glass, add ingredients to ice in reverse order. Serve with a twist. Smoke a clove cigarette and get into a heated discussion over Albert Camus.
The St. Germain classic cocktail (adapted from The Savoy Cocktail Book)
Juice of 1/2 lemon and 1/4 grapefruit
White of one raw egg
1 liqueur glass green chartreuse [1/12 oz.]
Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.
With every installment of Coming of Age with 21 Drinks, I'll be featuring a cocktail recipe cooked up by me or the bar itself. Have a suggestion for a place I should visit? Post it below.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.