How Cordials And Liqueurs Add Depth And Complexity To Cocktails

Oldies But Goodies

A number of liqueurs have enjoyed a heyday, thanks to a vogue or a cocktail, such as Galliano in Harvey Wallbangers, only to fade into obscurity. Now some of these well-crafted old-timers are reappearing on backbars as “there are a number of liqueurs being pulled out of the archives,” says Sadoian.

“Some of those old liqueurs, I can still do without, but the ones that are still around are around for a reason,” says Seaman. He cites Strega, Chartreuse, Benedictine and Drambuie as prime examples. “There just isn’t anything like them.”

Johnson at 404 Kitchen agrees: “I am a huge fan of the oldies but goodies.” Both green and yellow Chartreuse and Benedictine are favorites. And Strega has been a part of the bar program since the restaurant opened.


Currently on the menu is the Strega-Rita ($13), made with Strega, a house-made, rosemary-lemon cordial and lime juice. “Since Strega is made with so many ingredients, you don’t need much more for a complex cocktail,” Johnson says. “And Strega by itself is wonderful.”

The Strega-Rita, made with Strega, a house-made, rosemary-lemon cordial and lime juice.

Sambuca is a surprising call at Sable Kitchen, and recently “I have witnessed a resurgence of amaretto,” says Jones at Sable. “That kind of boggles my mind, but it is what it is.” Amaretto, for example, is a key ingredient in a popular cocktail called the 6th and Sirene, made with gin, absinthe, amaretto, lemon and honey.


“We’ve been making a lot more Amaretto Sours these days,” notes head barkeep Bobby Kramer at Brickyard Downtown in Chandler, AZ. “And there are more calls for Rusty Nails. So I always have to keep Amaretto di Saronno and Drambuie on the backbar.”

Camp at Burlock Coast agrees that “Drambuie is making a comeback with the Rusty Nail, which is having its own resurgence.” Thanks to the Blood & Sand cocktail, Cherry Heering is having a similar return to popularity. “I think people are digging deep looking for forgotten cocktails.”

The team at Burlock Coast also has created a riff on Southern Comfort, infusing apricots in Mellow Corn whiskey with a sous-vide process. The house-made liqueur appears in the Southernmost Comfort cocktail, which combines it with pineapple and lime juices, egg white and bitters—topped with a float of Pepsi 1893. “We are going to start making our own coffee liqueur with rum soon,” adds Camp.

“We’ve been making a lot more Amaretto Sours these days,” notes head barkeep Bobby Kramer at Brickyard Downtown in Chandler, AZ. “And there are more calls for Rusty Nails. So I always have to keep Amaretto di Saronno and Drambuie on the backbar.”

Obscure Liqueurs

Innovative distillers have been concocting some unusual liqueurs. Here are just a few examples.

Atholl Brose liqueur, is a recreation of the original Drambuie, according to Dan Smith, general manager of the Queen Mary Tavern in Chicago. With a base of Speyside single malt, Atholl Brose is flavored with highland herbs and sweetened with honey.

One of the primary herbs in Chartreuse is genepy. A new liqueur called Genepy des Alpes is a favorite of bar manager Galen Johnson’s at The 404 Kitchen in Nashville.

In a similar vein is Three Pins Alpine herbal liqueur from Leopold Bros., which Kramer recently started stocking at the Brickyard Downtown. It’s a take on the Czech liqueur Becherovka, he says. “It tastes like Christmas.”

Camp cites two liqueurs that have caught his attention: Pavan, with a muscat grape base and flavored with orange blossom, and Chareau aloe liqueur; “it tastes like the desert,” he says.

“We’ve been playing around with certified kosher Besamim liqueur from Sukkah Hill Spirits,” says Tyler. He is barrel-aging the baking spice-infused liqueur with bourbon. When ready, the cocktail will launch chainwide.

Backbar Essentials

Given the huge number of liqueurs on the market, how do you narrow the selection and stock up when space is tight? Bar professionals offer their picks of the essential six.

Orange liqueur. Versatile and useful in a range of cocktails from Sidecars to Margaritas. A range of choices from curacao to triple sec, but many bartenders give the nod to Cognac-based versions.

Benedictine. This herbal liqueur created by French Benedictine monks has many fans among bartenders for its complexity.

Chartreuse. This venerable liqueur was created by Carthusian monks from a secret recipe of over 130 different herbs, roots and flowers. Available in Green, Yellow and VEP (aged) versions, many bartenders consider the green to be the most versatile.

Maraschino. A liqueur distilled from sour Marasca cherries. Small amounts in a cocktail give maximum effect. It’s essential in the classic Aviation.

Elderflower liqueur. Many refer to this as “bartender’s catsup,” because of how often it’s reached for and the way it can spark up a drink.

Crème de Cassis. A sweet, dark-red liqueur made from blackcurrants. Among other uses, it is the queen of Kir Royales. Other liqueurs cited by bartenders as must-haves include amaretto, apricot, crème de cacao, crème de violette, hazelnut

Amaretto is a key ingredient in a popular cocktail at Sable Kitchen called the 6th and Sirene, made with gin, absinthe, amaretto, lemon and honey.

After-Dinner Delights

Although liqueurs are largely cocktail modifiers, many guests still enjoy them straight up as an aperitif or on the rocks after dinner.

Sable Kitchen’s dessert menu offers 1-oz. pours of fortified wines, amari, liqueurs and cordials. “That size gives everyone a chance to try something new and/or enjoy something familiar with a small pour that is suitable for after dinner,” says Jones.

Drinking liqueurs on the rocks or straight up is a European habit that hasn’t taken off here, counters Smith. “People are looking for balance, and liqueurs are just too sweet for that.”

At the Hawthorne, customers sometimes call for cordials on the rocks. “It is usually the ones that are not too sweet, such as Benedictine, or Cognac-based orange liqueurs like Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curacao,” says Sadoian.

Finocchietto is a fennel liqueur, says Johnson, which is subtler than Pernod or absinthe. “It is delicious over ice after dinner.”

Guests still call for postprandial Kahlua and coffee or Baileys and coffee, and “there are always people who want Sambuca or Amaretto after dinner,” says Kramer at Brickyard Downtown. “The only liqueur I would serve on its own is Chartreuse,” he adds. “It’s delicious, got a cool back story and almost sells itself.”

After-dinner drink choices haven’t changed much at Burlock Coast, says Camp. Guests will order nut- or cream-based liqueurs, such as Amaretto di Saronno and Baileys. A new offering is Grind Espresso Spirit. “It represents the collision of the barista world and bartender world, combining rum and espresso.” It’s ideal for an after-dinner quaff as well as in cocktails, Camp says.

Although most liqueurs subordinate to the greater cocktail goodness, there are a few drinks that show off their finest qualities.

Brickyard makes a Lillet Gin & Tonic called LiGit ($10). The base is Lillet Rose, with just a touch of gin as the modifier, topped with tonic, says Kramer. “It has a floral lightness.”

Queen Mary Tavern offers a Chartreuse Swizzle ($12), made with the green version as a base, lime and pineapple juices, house-made falernum and rhum agricole used just as a modifier.

The 404 Kitchen offers up the Georgian Victory ($15), made with Rittenhouse rye, Cynar, yellow Chartreuse, peach, black walnut bitters and Angostura bitters. The Cynar and Chartreuse really shine.

Ancho Reyes is the prick of fiery spice in the house cocktail at the Hawthorne called the Thorn and Roses; Hendrick’s gin provides the roses, accented by lime and grapefruit juices and cinnamon syrup. A Scotch Manhattan called the Bobby Burns adds a touch of Benedictine that showcases that liqueur’s honey spice, says Sadoian.

“Cordials and liqueurs are major players in the build of a cocktail, adding complexity; sometimes sugar, sometimes dryness, sometimes herbal,” says Jones at Sable Kitchen. “They are a great tool for the bartenders’ arsenal to create balance.”

Thomas Henry Strenk is Brooklyn-based freelance writer specializing in all things drinkable.



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