Behind the Bar

How to Make Liqueur Shine in Cocktails

A cocktail garnished with a brandied cherry on a toothpick.
Drambuie steals the show in the Great Pretender cocktail. (Photo: Courtesy of Drambuie.)

Whenever Vance Henderson walks into a bar, he always asks the bartender to make him a Drambuie cocktail, but not a Rusty Nail.

“Drambuie gets pigeonholed,” says Henderson, its U.S. brand ambassador. “For years, it’s just been known as big and bold and sweet, and that’s not the flavor profile everyone likes. It’s been around for more than 300 years, but it’s only known for one thing. For so many cocktails, the liqueur is a secondary additive, or it just gets lost in a drink. It’s getting the bartender to think beyond these walls to create something that’s intriguing and mind-blowing.”

Making a liqueur the star of the cocktail instead of a supporting actor requires different thinking. The first rule of thumb is to understand the nuances of the liqueur that’s going to be used.

“You want to find the flavors that highlight the other natural flavors of the liqueur,” says Peter Kalleward, mixologist for Destination Kohler in Wisconsin, who has designed cocktail recipes for Kohler Original Recipe Chocolates Dark Chocolate Brandy and new Chocolate Mint Brandy. “With liqueurs, it’s all about what you want to highlight or support.”

For example, he likes to use the mint brandy in a riff on the Negroni, using Carpano Antica vermouth and St. George's Bruto Americano. “There are citrus notes in both the brandy, the vermouth and the Bruto Americano. It might not seem like a pairing, but there are enough similarities that they play well with each other.”

Henderson says bartenders really need to taste a liqueur and think about the different depths of flavor. “Education is really important,” Henderson says. “To make something the star of the show, a bartender really has to understand what they’re working with. Once you taste Drambuie, for example, you will know the different layers of flavor and then know how to complement them or contrast them in a cocktail.”

To bring out different nuances of a liqueur, April O’Beiren, assistant manager of the Franklin Bar in Philadelphia, likes making different tinctures, especially using herbs and teas. “Right now, I’m working on a cacao-liqueur based drink with egg white that has lavender, cardamom and a five flower honey bush tea tincture. It’s got that chocolate note, but it’s also floral and citrusy.”

Dilution is also a rule many bartenders employ when making liqueur-centric cocktails, and it’s often a good idea to add seltzer, club soda or tonic water to tone down a liqueur. “You don’t want the flavor to be overbearing,” O’Beiren says.

“Dilution is one of your best friends,” Henderson says. “It opens up the flavors of a liqueur.”

Camille Austin, national brand ambassador for Montelebos Mezcal and Ancho Reyes liqueur, says it’s important to note the ABV of the liqueur used. When mixing a liqueur with a base spirit, such as gin or whiskey, a lower ABV won’t stand up in a cocktail that calls for equal amounts of base spirit and liqueur. “For Ancho Reyes, its spirit base is 40 percent ABV, which allows the peculiar concoction to stand up to any base spirit in a cocktail,” Austin says.

On the other hand, lower-proof liqueurs make great lower alcohol drinks, says Charlotte Voissey, director for brand advocacy for William Grant & Sons. “In this case, stick to something that showcases the flavor of that liqueur in something like a spritz that is simple and refreshing.”

As with any cocktail, balance is also key, but in the case of liqueurs, it is in not adding any sugar syrups or adding less sugar syrups, especially if the liqueur used has honey or sugar naturally in it. “You don’t have to add as much sugar,” Henderson says. “For example, a traditional sangria calls for brandy and either red or white wine, then you might add a triple sec, a simple syrup and then fruit. For a Drambuie sangria, remove both the brandy and the triple sec, take away the simple syrup and instead, add one ounce of Drambuie, four ounces of red wine, and then the only thing you’d add to your discretion would be fruit, and I would just add a slice of orange. It’s a drink that’s very simple and approachable, and still complex in flavor.”

Simplicity also rules. “Don’t go crazy with the other ingredients,” says O’Beiren. “A cordial or liqueur has a lot of different elements in just one bottle. All you have to do is bring them out in the cocktail. And you don’t want to mask them or hide them in a cocktail, either.”

“It’s understanding those secondary flavors, and it’s how you cradle those without overwhelming the main flavors of the liqueur,” says Kalleward.

“Have patience when working with liqueurs,” advises Katy Rose, co-owner of Goodkind in Milwaukee. “And be careful of balance, because a little bit can go a long way.”

Rose enjoys experimenting with different liqueurs, especially some of the bitter and herbal ones. “There’s a whole library of liqueurs so don’t limit yourself to just Kahlua,” Rose says. “There’s a lot of interesting stuff, and you can make these cocktails that are really beautiful.”

Interested in giving liqueur its time to shine? Try Drambuie's liqueur-centric cocktails, the Great Pretender and Iced Green Tea, and Kohler's Chocolate Mint Brandy Negroni. Check out all of our Liqueur Week recipes here.

Jeanette Hurt is the author of Drink Like a Woman and is an award-winning writer focused on spirits, food and travel.

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