herbal liqueur

Battle of the Stags

Hirschkuss-Petra Waldherr-Merk_dpa
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  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The German liqueur market is Europe’s largest. Including imports, industry sales most recently reached €4.6 billion, or about $5.2 billion.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Last year herbal liqueurs sold more in Germany that most other popular liqueurs, according to the GfK market research and consulting firm.
    • Owner Petra Waldherr-Merk first produced mountain liquer Hirschkuss in her kitchen. Today it is produced in a small plant.
    • Hirschkuss recently expanded into the United States.
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    Audio

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The popular herbal liqueur Hirschkuss is in a new branding battle with yet another company using a stag as its logo. But this time the challenger is a newcomer like itself, trying to make a name in a lucrative market.

Bavarian-based Hirschkuss — German for “stag kiss” — started out some 10 years ago as a small-batch drink brewed from an old family recipe handed down to owner and managing director Petra Waldherr-Merk.

At first Ms. Waldherr-Merk produced only a few bottles from Great Aunt Lena’s formula, for sale to customers in her home accessories store. The drink — made from herbs and roots native to the surrounding Alps — proved so popular that a flourishing operation developed.

But the newcomer drew the ire of mighty German distiller Mast-Jãgermeister. Its biggest seller, Jägermeister, is a dark brown digestif sold the world over.

Now a new beast has arrived on the herbal liqueur market. It’s called Hirschrudel, German for “pack of stags,” and tastes and smells remarkably like Hirschkuss — sweet with a hint of vanilla.

Like Hirschkuss, Jäger features a stag on its logo so the big distiller filed a complaint over brand infringement. Hirschkuss insisted their stag was actually based on the coat-of-arms of a neighboring municipality, Lenggries.

In the end the smaller company altered its label and both sides were satisfied — but the David vs. Goliath duel brought Hirschkuss a lot of free publicity and boosted sales.

Now a new beast has arrived on the herbal liqueur market. It’s called Hirschrudel, German for “pack of stags,” and tastes and smells remarkably like Hirschkuss — sweet with a hint of vanilla.

Ms. Waldherr-Merk accuses businessman Dirk Verpoorten — youngest scion of a dynasty famous for its advocaat egg liqueur — of copying great Aunt Lena’s herbal formula. She also doubts the story behind his newly rediscovered drink.

On Hirschrudel’s website, Mr. Verpoorten describes how his Grandma Elly once chanced upon a pack of deer eating herbs near the edge of a forest path. Totally fascinated, Elly revisited the magical place again and again to watch the deer. She collected and pressed the herbs in an album as a memento, and later was inspired to make a herbal liqueur for a family anniversary.

That formula, according to the story, was long forgotten in Grandma Elly’s trunk in the attic until her grandson Dirk discovered it. Mr. Verpoorten tried it out and a few months ago began to market it.

Hirschkuss claims a laboratory analysis has determined that “the aromatic profile is virtually identical in both products.”

Mr. Verpoorten, however, said the accusations are “totally unfounded and plucked out of thin air.”

The sweetness and alcohol content of the two beverages are different and Hirschrudel’s consistency is better, he said. And the bottles and labels aren’t similar either. Ms. Waldherr-Merk, he claims, is only trying to increase the name recognition of her product.

And though his family is famous for its Dutch egg liqueur, Mr. Verpoorten insists that compared to Hirschkuss, the company producing Hirschrudel is just a small enterprise.

Legally, recipes like Aunt Lena’s can only be protected if they are spelled out at the patent office. Ms. Waldherr-Merk admits that Hirschkuss has not registered the family formula because it’s a secret they don’t want to divulge.

Hirschkuss bottle_dpa
Staying in the family. Source: dpa

But she claims Hirschrudel’s total package — the stag, bottling by hand and similar taste — clearly is cause for confusion. Above all, Ms. Waldherr-Merk fears consumers will think the lower priced Hirschkuss is a cheap copy instead of the original. For that reason, the company has filed a petition for cancellation of the Hirschrudel brand name.

There’s a lot at stake in the profitable business. Last year herbal liqueurs sold more in Germany that most other popular liqueurs, according to the GfK market research and consulting firm.

The German liqueur market is Europe’s largest, reports the Federal Association of the German Spirits Industry and Importers. Including imports, industry sales most recently reached €4.6 billion, or about $5.2 billion.

No wonder that now and again someone new takes a try.

When Hirschkuss started out, Ms. Waldherr-Merk first mixed it up it in her kitchen and then moved to her parent’s cellar. Today it is “handcrafted in small batches” in a newly constructed plant in the Bavarian town of Lenggries.

Last year sales increased 10 percent to €3.5 million. It is now sold by 1,000 dealers, as well as in ski lodges on Mt. Brauneck, high above Lenggries, and in the famous Hofbräuhaus in Munich.

Several times a year, investors propose takeover bids, though Ms. Waldherr-Merk said the aim is to remain a small family company.

But not too small. Hirschkuss recently expanded into the United States, where Jäger shots are especially popular with young drinkers. It is available exclusively from Miami-based All Star Imports.

 

Axel Höpner is the head of Handelsblatt’s Munich office. To contact the author: hoepner@handelsblatt.com.

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