Liqueurs, or cordials as they are frequently referred to in the U.S., are the products of the alchemists, physicians, apothecaries, and monks of Middle Ages in Europe. The first spirit-based libations, progenitors of contemporary liqueurs, were concocted by early experimenters, sometimes at the behest of the aristocracy, for the express purpose of transforming base metals and other common materials either into gold, medicines, or life-extending potions. Though the Arabs are widely credited with the development of pot still distillation during the period of 800 to 1000 A.D., it proved to be the Christian monks who took the distilling skill and turned it into an art.
The Islamic Moors, who for seven centuries occupied much of the Iberian Peninsula until 1492 when they were expelled, used their distillates for the making of cosmetics. The Christian monks, on the other hand, viewed alcohol more in terms of oral consumption in a medicinal sense. Throughout the period of 1000 to 1600 A.D., a bleak era rife with decimating plagues, the Christian abbeys that dotted Europe’s countryside were commonly employed both as hospitals tending to the sick who required medicines to treat their ills and as waystations for fatigued travelers who needed restorative foods and liquids.
Doubtless the ancestors of today’s liqueurs were most likely disgusting to the senses. In time the monks realized that the aromas and flavors of the spirit-based liquids could be improved dramatically when mixed with the essential oils of readily available resources such as herbs, honey, spices, fruits, and botanicals. The evolving liqueurs could also be used both as digestive aids (mint and caraway soothe the intestines) and as simple sources of comfort from the day’s trials. Thus, by the final years of the 17th century, liqueurs had become firmly established in Europe’s social fabric.
OIL, OIL, TOIL AND TROUBLE
The distinctive characteristics of every liqueur arise from the creation of a specific recipe of essential oils and base spirit. Any of a half dozen types of distillates can be employed as the underpinning spirit. That line-up includes neutral spirits (grain), brandy (grape), whiskey (grain), rum (sugar), eau-de-vie (fruit-based), and rice spirit (grain). The selection of a sound base spirit is crucial because it’s the spirit that gives the liqueur it’s structure, alcohol content, and primary complexity. An inferior base spirit can never be transformed into a superior liqueur, no matter how many flavoring ingredients are used as supplements. Just as a house builder will tell you that even the most expensive bricks can never conceal or compensate for the deficiencies of a weak foundation, so too with liqueurs.
The list of traditional flavorings utilized in the making of the world’s liqueurs is gargantuan. Flavorings are by their very nature often localized to the region of origin of the particular liqueur in question. The abbey liqueurs of medieval times were most probably pungent libations due to the raw spirit and the inclusion of scores of exotic flavoring ingredients. These primitive liqueurs were works-in-progress.
A prime example of a liqueur that’s been a long-term successful marriage of multitudinous high quality elements is Chartreuse, the venerable, brandy-based liqueur that’s been produced by Carthusian monks in France’s Haute Savoie district since the early 1600s. The top-secret formula of Chartreuse, reportedly known by only three monks who’ve all taken a vow of silence, boasts a minimum of 130 herbs including such arcane names as hyssop, craggy hyponoyde, bellflower, saxifrage exarata and alpine gentian. Benedictine D.O.M. incorporates approximately 75 herbs and plants with its cognac base while Liquore Strega is said to have over 70 different herbs in its recipe. What, no craggy hyponoyde in your pantry?
The best method of understanding the breadth of natural ingredients that contribute to the making of liqueurs is to break them down into seven easily-digestible categories: Barks, Flowers/Plants, Fruit/Nuts, Herbs/Leaves, Roots, Seeds/Beans, and Sweeteners/Others.
Barks include the following: aloe, angostura, cinchona, cinnamon, myrrh, sandalwood, sassafras.
Flowers/Plants: chamomile, citrus blossom, clover, elderberry, ivy, jasmine, lavender, lily, poplar, rose, saffron, violets.
Fruit/Nuts: almonds, apples, apricots, bananas, blackberries, blackcurrants, celery, cherries, coconuts, cranberries, dates, elderberries, figs, grapefruit, hazelnuts, juniper berries, lemons (rind), loganberries, mandarins (rind, in particular), melons, nectarines, oranges (rind), passion fruit, peaches, persimmons, pineapples, plums, quince, raisins, raspberries, red currants, rowanberries, sloe berries, strawberries, tangerines (rind), walnuts.
Herbs/Leaves: basil, centaury, genip, herb ivy, hyssop, marjoram, peppermint, rosemary, sage, spearmint, tarragon, tea leaves, thistle, thyme, wormwood.
Roots: alant, angelica, blackmasterwort, calamus, celery, cloves, curcuma, galanga, ginger, henna, liquorice, orris root, rhubarb, snake root, turmeric, valerian, zedoary.
Seeds/beans: allspice, angelica, aniseed, cactus, cardamon, caraway, cumin, celery, cocoa, coffee, coriander, dill, fennel, mace, nutmeg, peppers, vanilla.
Sweeteners/Other: beet sugar, cane sugar, cream, honey, sugar syrup.
The essential oils (the chemical compounds that impart flavor) of these natural raw materials are obtained utilizing four distinct, age-old procedures, depending on the materials themselves and the desired results: the pressure method, the non-volatile compound extraction method, the maceration/percolation method, and distillation.
Briefly, the pressure method is exactly what it implies — the employment of a machine that exerts pressure on raw materials, mostly the rinds or seeds of fruits and nuts in order to extract the oils. The non-volatile compound extraction method takes away the compound’s fatty matter with a solution such as alcohol. The maceration/percolation method involves steeping raw materials in cold spirit to reduce or extract soluble elements and/or going further by passing them through icy cold or heated spirit (again, depending on the desired results and the raw materials) to purify them. Finally, distillation is the boiling process whereby oils are arrived at by separating the volatile compounds from the non-volatile through vapor action.
Once the essential oils are procured, the liqueurist’s job is to marry the precious and concentrated oils with the spirit according to the established recipe. The oils on their own full-strength are uniformly pungent and disagreeable to the sense taste. The delicate art of the liqueurist lies in mixing them together with other oils in varying equations and then with the foundational spirit. Balance among the alcohol, the potency of the oils, and the required sweetness/tartness is everything in the creating of liqueurs. After the final mixture is completed, most liqueurs are aged, the best in oak casks. Following the maturation period, further stabilizing ingredients, like water, sugar, honey, or alcohol, may be added to ìfinishî the liqueur or to raise or lower the alcohol content. The liqueur is then filtered and bottled.
Some liqueurs are so unusual and distinctive that they should never be served as part of a cocktail while others beg for inclusion in a mixed drink recipe. Certainly, like with all mixology, the better the liqueur, the better the mixed drink. Using liqueurs that are inexpensive and, thus, cheaply made will reflect in the resultant cocktail.
Liqueurs are most often incorporated as a flavor supplement in cocktails rather than a mixed drink base spirit and, consequently, should be employed more with discretion than with heavy-handedness. Since the majority of liqueurs are mildly sweet to very sweet, a counterbalance ingredient must be included. Cointreau, the orange-flavored, liqueur, for instance, is balanced by fresh-squeezed lime juice in the making of a classic Margarita. Rarely do you find a cocktail recipe that calls for more than a half-ounce of an intense liqueur such a creme de menthe or creme de cassis. Harmony and flavor nuances are the goals of any cocktail. The great bartenders use an “easy does it” approach when concocting their mixed drinks, especially when liqueurs are involved.
Another prime example of a liqueur that needs a gentle touch is bitters. When Campari, Pernod, Pimms, Fernet Branca or Ricard are part of a cocktail recipe, like an Americano, Negroni or Pimms Cup, the easy-does-it rule applies. When highly concentrated bitters, like Angostura or Peychaud’s, are employed, usually just a dash or two will do.
An intriguing aspect of liqueurs in cocktails is that they add beauty. Take the legendary Pousse-Café, a multilayered cocktail that is built in a specific order for the purpose of not only tasting delicious but looking great. Or Blue Curacao, a drier version of triple sec, that turns warm weather drinks a cool azure tint. A large measure of the appeal of cocktails is their image. Liqueurs dramatically add elegance, flavor and visual appeal to scores of popular mixed drinks.
Liqueurs are as adept in the kitchen as they are behind the bar, in particular when desserts and coffee are being prepared. Two teaspoons of Godiva Chocolate Liqueur or Chambord over vanilla ice cream are standouts. Both Grand Marnier or Mandarine Napoleon lend a subtle flavor of bittersweet orange to soufflés.
When it comes time for specialty coffees, liqueurs must be close at hand. Italian Coffee has to have either Strega or sambuca added to it. Irish Coffee might have a little Irish Mist or Baileys. Monks’ Coffee demands a shot of Benedictine D.O.M. And, Mexican Coffee is nothing without a dash of Kamora or Kahlúa.
The contemporary liqueur category can frequently be the testing-ground for remarkably unpalatable libations as it is driven more by liquor industry marketing people than by liqueurists. Yet, in spite of embarrassing follies than have little resemblance to the classical liqueurs, the liqueur/cordial category remains one of the most powerful segments of the spirits industry, commanding nearly 12% of total case sales annually.
As society’s collective palate continues to grow in sophistication, the best liqueurs will thrive…as they have for centuries.
F. Paul Pacult is the co-host of “The Happy Hour,” a weekly radio program, wine columnist for Sky, Delta’s in-flight magazine, and the author Kindred Spirits.
What Is That Flavor?
amaretto (all brands)
B & B
cassis (all brands)
curacao (all brands)
kirsch (all brands)
kummel (all brands)
maraschino (all brands)
ouzo (all brands)
sambuca (all brands)
sloe gin (all brands)
The Liqueur Portfolio
The following collection of brief taste impressions includes a few of the classic liqueurs mixed with a handful of modern winners. They are listed alphabetically, not in order of preference.
BAILEYS ORIGINAL IRISH CREAM
Ireland (17% Alcohol by Volume): The world’s leading liqueur is also one of the best. The spirity/cinnamon-laced bouquet is milky and rich. Luxurious texture. Faint flavors of spice and toffee.
BAUCHANT NAPOLEON LIQUEUR
France (40% ABV): A best kept secret, made in Cognac. Orange rind/tangerine aroma is tart yet plump and juicy. Sweet, luscious marinated orange flavor. Truly delicious.
BENEDICTINE D.O.M. LIQUEUR
France (40% ABV):Created circa 1510. A bona fide classic. Nose is delicately herbal/earthy/floral. The flavor of honey is balanced by the tartness of citrus peel and mild herbs, especially basil, sage, and rosemary. Nothing short of magnificent. Top five.
CAROLANS FINEST IRISH CREAM
Ireland (17% ABV):The potent honey/cream/cocoa aroma is a standout. The rich texture is like melting ice cream. Spirity punch on palate is balanced by taste of cream.
CHARTREUSE GREEN LIQUEUR
France (55% ABV):Mesmerizing nose is multilayered with seductive scents of anise, basil, flowers, spearmint, and more. Spirity, sweet flavors of key lime/peppermint/banana are one of the greatest experiences.
CHERRY HEERING LIQUEUR
Denmark (23.5% ABV):Bouquet is seed-like, vegetal, viney, and slightly medicinal. Sweet without actually being sweet. Ripe cherry taste stays long in the throat.
France (40% ABV): The exotic nose is all about freshly cut oranges. The taste is remarkably fresh and orangey.
DI SARONNO AMARETTO
Italy (28% ABV): The story here isn’t the bouquet as much as it is the lush, compelling, roasted almond flavor. The generous texture coats the palate. Luscious.
Scotland (40% ABV):The Scotch base is highlighted by seductive aromas of fresh herbs and honey. The taste is sweet, but laden with layer after layer of top-notch malt whisky. Name means “drink that satisfies.”
DR. MCGILLICUDDY’S VANILLA SCHNAPPS
Canada (24% ABV): One of the savoriest new liqueurs. The bouquet focuses more on vanilla bean than vanilla extract. Tastes like cream soda. Glides easily down the throat.
Italy (28% ABV): Bouquet is equal parts nutmeat and butter with a sprinkling of dried herbs. The succulent taste features hazelnut and butter. Classy, delectable.
GIOVANNI BUTON SAMBUCA
Italy (40% ABV):Incredibly intense and delicious aromas and flavors of anise and caraway seed are underpinned by peppercorn. Dry, elegant to the taste.
GIOVANNI BUTON GRAN CAFFE ESPRESSO
Italy (26.5% ABV): The coffee aroma ripples with potency and vigor. The flavor is concentrated with espresso/coffee bean tastes. Off-dry. The best coffee liqueur, period.
GODET BELGIAN WHITE CHOCOLATE LIQUEUR
Belgium (15% ABV): Nose is milky, chocolatey, not in the least sweet, with a hint of vanilla in the distance. Classy flavors are of milk chocolate and cream. Superb.
GODIVA CHOCOLATE LIQUEUR
USA (17% ABV): Sweet, but acidic bouquet offers scents of cocoa beans, herbs, nut meat, even anise. Ultravelvety texture. Dark chocolate taste is sublime, not overly sweet.
GRAND MARNIER CUVÈE DU CENTENAIRE 1827-1927 LIQUEUR
France (40% ABV):The nose shows more fine old cognac than triple orange — a perfect liqueur aroma. Exquisite balance in the mouth.
IRISH MIST LIQUEUR
Ireland (35% ABV):The alluring, honey, parsley, leafy, garden fresh nose is vibrant and prickly. The herbal/whiskey/honey flavor is focused and remarkably mellow. Superb.
KAMORA COFFEE LIQUEUR
Mexico (26.5% ABV):Nose of Macadamia nuts and fresh brewed black coffee. Oodles of roasted coffee flavor, plus cocoa and mint.
KALULUA LICOR DE CAFE
Mexico (26.5% ABV): The flavor bursts with a luscious taste. Stylish and user-friendly. Deserves global popularity.
Italy (24% ABV):Pungent, sharp nose reeks of almonds. The luscious, pronounced flavor of nuts/nougat generously coats the tongue. Satiny texture and citrusy finish.
Italy (40% ABV): Italy’s Chartreuse. The prickly nose emits powerful scents of dandelion, anise, pine sap, spearmint, sunflower seed. Earthy, elemental, gorgeous.
MANDARINE NAPOLEON GRANDE LIQUEUR IMPERIALE
France (38% ABV): The bouquet is piquant, citrusy, spirity, and acidic, ruled by orange and tangerine scents. Seamless flavor of citrus and brandy. An ideal marriage.
Italy (40% ABV): A relatively new, high-quality sambuca entry. Spirity aroma of black licorice, cream, seeds, and citrus. Flavor highlights beans, spice, and anise. Elegant. Savory.
ROMANA DELLA NOTTE BLACK SAMBUCA
Italy (40% ABV): The multilayered nose is very complex and engaging. Tastes of aniseed, herbs. One of the more complete liqueurs in the marketplace.
RUMPLE MINZE PEPPERMINT SCHNAPPS
Germany (50% ABV): Sublime, classy, perfumed bouquet of the first rank. The focused flavor of peppermint is intense, elegant and deliciously presented. A winner.
SHERIDAN’S ORIGINAL DOUBLE LIQUEUR
Ireland (Black 26%/White 17% ABV): Richly decadent, unabashedly gimmicky, but delicious all the same. The dark liqueur tastes like chocolate-flavored coffee while the white is creamy and vanilla-like. Excellent together.