Cordials and liqueurs aren’t always the first image that springs to mind when thinking about the beverage alcohol industry, but they’re a vital part of any bartender’s arsenal as a frequent ingredient of many popular cocktails. “Cordial” and “liqueur” are two different words for essentially the same thing — a sweetened, flavored liquor — except in the UK, where “cordial” can also refer to a sweetened, nonalcoholic drink.
“You need liqueurs in a lot of cocktails. A lot of people are drinking out again, coming back out of the pandemic,” says Johnny Swet, master mixologist and founding partner of JIMMY rooftop bar in NYC.
“Cordials and liqueurs definitely seem to be a necessity,” says Robb Knarr, beverage director of Sorry Charlie’s Oyster Bar in Savannah, GA. “I like to think of cocktails as categories, and there are whole categories that use cordials for their foundation. Cocktail people are like chefs; they’re always looking for new flavors. If you wanted a margarita, one of the key ingredients is orange liqueur. You could use orange juice but it’s just not the same. They’re just of vital importance to capture that huge range of flavors.”
The Lowdown in Cordials and Liqueurs
According to Drizly, a leading online ordering and delivery service for alcohol, “Liqueurs start as a base spirit and then, the cream, spices, herbs or nuts are brought in with some more sugar or sweeteners to create the liqueur’s flavor profile. A few examples of a ‘base spirit’ are brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka and whiskey. The desired flavor profile of the liqueur will decide which base spirit to use and how to add flavoring.”
Flavorman is a beverage development company that focuses on R&D in flavoring, working with companies that range from household names to start-ups, and everything in between. They are often asked to consult on creating new cordial flavors to bring to market.
“Cordial and liqueurs are typically sweeter by legal definition (must contain at least a 2.5% combination of sugars by weight); it is common that they require a heavy dose of flavor,” explains Katie Clark, director of R&D at Flavorman. “Further, these beverages normally will maximize the amount of flavoring at 2.5% to take advantage of tax savings allowed by regulation. Because many of the ready-to-drink cocktails are classified as cordials, there is a balancing act to flavor these drinks in accordance with their sweetener levels, as some contain lower levels of sugar and are carbonated. These attributes add to the taste perception, requiring much less flavor than their higher-sugar cousins.”
“In general,” Clark continues, “consumers demand more complex and layered flavors in both lower-proof, less-sweet cordials, as well as the higher-proof, very-sweet liqueurs. This combination to be flavor forward and multidimensional generates a fun and challenging opportunity in the beverage lab.”
This process begets an innovative category that is as prone to experimentation and innovation as bourbon or craft beer — perhaps even more so.
“This is really one of my favorite categories,” says Melissa Dowling, Editor of Cheers, our sister publication, in a recent On & Off podcast episode on cordials and liqueurs. “It’s my favorite aisle in the big liquor stores, because there’s just so many fun and interesting products.”
The market offers a huge variety of liqueurs, and those products are constantly being updated, spun off and expanded upon. Because of this range, it’s easiest to differentiate liqueurs by their flavor profile. Chocolate, coffee and crème liqueurs are an option that typically runs very sweet, such as Kahlua or Bailey’s Irish crème.
On the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, bitters are, as the name suggests, bitter. It’s a liqueur sweetened — technically — with rich herbal flavors. Campari is a well-known bitters that lends itself to the classic, time-tested Negroni.
Other popular cordials and liqueurs include Fireball, Grand Marnier, Jägermeister, Amaretto and Blue Curacao — each unique it its flavor profile.
What’s On the Rise
Because of cordials’ prominence in cocktails, they have historically been most used in bars and restaurants. “Even though bars and restaurants were shuttered most of last year, with so many people making drinks at home, the category did see a lift in consumption,” Dowling commented.
Kyle Swartz, Editor of Beverage Dynamics, agrees: “It really was that at-home mixology movement that took place during the pandemic that drove a lot of these products. At the same time, I think a lot of these were on the rise already. We see consumption of cordials and liqueurs was up 3.1% in 2020, according to the Beverage Information Group’s Liquor Handbook.”
While the category was already hitting its stride pre-pandemic, then subsequently boomed after at-home mixing entered the scene, one couldn’t be faulted for thinking that things would die down after on-premise made its return. Swet disagrees, confident that the category will find a balance between on-premise and at-home mixing, allowing for continued growth.
“It’s fifty-fifty,” he says. “People are definitely returning to bars, but there’s still a sense of home parties, especially when the weather is up and down. There’s still a mentality of, ‘Oh, I used to have this all the time when I was out, now we’re having a party, let’s recreate it’ and that. I see that too.”
Experimentation Takes Center Stage
There’s a healthy mix — pun intended — for innovation vs nostalgia, as well. “People are going for both,” says Swet. “I see a lot of people going experimental, but some people at home, they want to show that they can do a classic cocktail. So, I feel like you can definitely have both.”
“There’s all sorts of interesting things happening all the time,” Swet adds. “We started using an ancho chili liqueur a few years ago. You get all these flavors you wouldn’t be able to get from a spirit, with liqueurs, and you also get a blend of flavors. Things become trendy, but it also depends largely on the type of bar you’re at. Again, the possibilities are limitless. If you can think of a flavor, then somebody’s either already or are going to come up with a liqueur to capture that flavor. If you can imagine it, someone’s working on it.”
“Over the last several years, and associated with cocktail culture, we see botanical-forward and heavily flavored liqueurs that are intended to be used to make high-end cocktails,” says Tom Gibson, Director at Flavorman. “Bartenders and home cocktailers are interested in offerings that can be used to create delicious and colorful cocktails by blending a variety of cordials and liqueurs with gins, whiskeys and rums. Consumers continue to demand complex and unique flavor profiles, and the liqueur category can deliver like no other alcoholic beverage category.”
There’s been a heavy emphasis on the innovation that the category offers, which may lead some to question if there is too much in the way of new products and choices.
“It’s possible we’ve reached or are approaching a level of saturation,” Knarr allows. ‘With the cocktail revitalization of the 2000s, there were a lot of new bitters, new cordials, new stuff like that. But every time I think that it’s all been done or everything’s out there, someone comes up with something new and proves me wrong. And then, bartenders are always coming up with their version of liqueurs. You can take something that already exists and impart new flavors into it to make a whole new ingredient. There are seemingly endless possibilities.”