Finishing off our dryish January coverage, Lauren Eads takes a look at an often-overlooked member of the drinks family which offers maximum flavour but with around half the alcohol of spirits. Isn’t it time you embrace the joy of liqueurs?
There are few better ways to cut down on booze than with a warming, flavourful liqueur. With all the punch but up to half the ABV (typically 15-30%) of a spirit, liqueurs can be a pretty virtuous choice, with low and no-alcohol alternatives emerging too (Crossip and Lyre’s Coffee Originale for a start).
Lockdown liqueur lovers
Their popularity is growing too. Liqueur sales rose by 27% in the year to 11 September 2021, according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA). Growth was attributed to pandemic-stricken Brits whipping up colourful cocktails at home and sharing their creations on social media.
Whatever gets people loving liqueurs, all the better. Too often they are mistakenly dismissed as frivolous, save for the rare-but-very-serious Chartreuse collector. It is a fun category, full of colour and flavour. Disaronno, Chambord, Cointreau, Kahlua and Bailey’s are some of the biggest household names. But the category goes far beyond big brand liqueurs, and is one of the oldest, most diverse and eclectic of all.
Liqueurs are essentially distilled spirits that have been sweetened and flavoured. In the EU that means a strength of at least 15% ABV and a minimum of 100g of sugar per litre. A liqueur flavour wheel would look something like this: herbal, fruit, cream, créme, coffee, chocolate, floral, anise, nut and whisky. The result is a mind bogglingly vast array of flavours.
Liqueurs ancient and modern
“There are ancient recipes made by monks and innovative modern examples with creative aromas and flavours,” says Tobias Gorn, chair of judges at the World Liqueur Awards. “It is a wonderful but sadly underrated drinks category. One that’s fun and with so much history, inclusion and innovation. From mediaeval alchemists and ancient monks to modern city-dwelling lactose-free vegans, everyone can find their favourite.”
The word liqueur comes from the Latin liquefacere, meaning ‘to make liquid’. First produced by mediaeval monks and alchemists as early as the 13th century, these herbal remedies, also known as tonics, elixirs and oils, were once used as medicines and even aphrodisiacs. The naturally green herbal liqueur Chartreuse is one of the oldest.
Francois Hannibal d’Estrees (marshall of artillery for King Henry IV) is said to have given an ancient manuscript entitled An Elixir of Long Life to a Carthusian order of monks in France in 1605. It wasn’t until 1737 that the complex recipe was perfected, resulting in the first Chartreuse Elixir. It’s made with 130 different plants, herbs, roots, leaves, barks, brandy, distilled, honey and sugar syrup. But the exact recipe is a closely guarded secret. It’s said that at any one time only three monks know the recipe, and they never travel together. Green Chartreuse has an ABV of 55%. In 1833 a milder and sweeter 40% ABV version was created, known as Yellow Chartreuse. Nearly 300 years later, classic herbal liqueurs like Chartreuse, and Bénédictine D.O.M, are still revered, with top bartenders and collectors seeking out old bottlings, says Gorn.
Whereas these ancient monkish liqueurs are cult drinks, floral liqueurs, which use rose, violet, hibiscus, and elderflower, are among the most unsung members of the category. Which is a shame as not only can they be delicious but they have long histories too. Quaglia Camomilla is a fragrant camomile-flavoured liqueur, while Liqueur de Violettes from Tempus Fugit Spirits is based on a mid-19th century recipe made from hand-harvested French violets grown in the Côte d’Azur. Liqueur de Pain d’Epices is made by Alsace-based distiller G.Miclo and tastes like drinking gingerbread. If you can imagine such a thing.
Equally festive is Zirbenz’ Stone Pine Liqueur, made with Arolla Stone pine cones found in the Alps, which give the flavour and aroma of a Christmas tree. For the more adventurous there’s Ancho Reyes, a chilli-flavoured liqueur that’s great in a Bloody Mary, and the more unusual Chareau, a Californian liqueur made from aloe vera, cucumber, spearmint and lemon peel. “There’s some superb liqueurs with tea and the use of more exotic citrus like yuzu,” adds Gorn. “I always encourage consumers to be brave and try new things.”
Anyone for Baileys?
Then there are cream liqueurs, typically made with whisky, which includes Baileys and Arran Gold Cream Liqueur. Not to be confused with whisky liqueurs, which are made from Scottish and Irish whiskies blended with herbs, spices, honey and other ingredients. Think Glayva, Irish Mist or Drambuie.
For vegans and the lactose-intolerant there are an increasing number of dairy/lactose-free options. Baileys Almande is a dairy-free version of Baileys Irish Cream, made with almond milk and a touch of vanilla. Horchata is a Spanish drink traditionally made in Valencia with soaked, ground and sweetened tiger nuts (which are tubers and not actually nuts). Licor 43 Horchata is a dairy-free and vegan ‘cream’ liqueur made with cinnamon and citrus, as is Besos de Oro, made with brandy from Jerez and horchata from Valencia.
Those with a sweet tooth will find comfort in chocolate liqueurs like Austria’s Mozart, or Ireland’s two-toned coffee liqueur Sheridans. But if you’re really after a sugar hit go for a créme liqueur, which must contain a higher sugar content of 250g/l. For créme de cassis, the star of a Kir Royale, it’s 400g/l.
There are also bittersweet liqueurs like Italy’s amari (plural of amaro), the most famous being Campari, Aperol and Fernet Branca. In Germany you’ll find Kräuterlikör (herbal liqueurs), known as “half bitters”, which are bittersweet and close to an amaro with less perceptible sweetness, like Jägermeister and Underberg.
Not quite so sweet
A number of ‘savoury’ liqueurs have also emerged. In 2019 London bar the Gibson and Italian distillery Casoni designed a trio of liqueurs that use balsamic vinegar from Modena to “add a savoury note” to cocktails. They include Amarotto, a cross between amaro and amaretto, a fruit liqueur made with blueberries and blackberries and a third made with figs and cherries. Muyu is another trio of liqueurs based on the flavours of the Amazon rainforest (Jasmine Verte, Chinotto Nero and Vetiver Gris) developed by renowned bartenders Alex Kratena, Monica Berg and Simone Caporale in partnership with De Kuyper.
Modern liqueurs have moved beyond synthetic flavours, while traditional liqueurs have had centuries to perfect their craft. You might favour a bittersweet herbal digestif, love seriously sweet sips, pine for pine cones or salivate over spice – it doesn’t matter. Liqueurs are democracy in action: there’s something for everyone.
Click here to browse the full range of liqueurs at Master of Malt.