In-Depth

Back to the Basics: Liqueur 101

Vintage advertisement from Marie Brizard
From anisette to peppermint, liqueurs come in practically every conceivable flavor and expression. (Illustrated here, a selection of Marie Brizard bottles from a 1928 advertisement.) (Photo: Marie Brizard)

From Chartreuse to Chambord to Cointreau, liqueurs are probably the reason why you love that special cocktail so much. They add a unique and distinct flavor to every drink they go in. But, the world of liqueurs can also seem confusing. What exactly is it? And how is it used? Where did it even come from? Here are the basics on what makes a liqueur an actual liqueur.

What is liqueur?

Let’s start with what it’s not — liqueur is not liquor, or the sickly sweet neon so-called “schnapps” some of us grew up with, or something wine-based. It’s actually an infused spirit with sweetness added. A base liquor, plus flavoring (this can be botanicals, nuts, seeds, fruit, and so forth), plus sweetener. We also know them as cordials, schnapps, bitters or even just tinctures. At least 2.5 percent of the drink by weight needs to be sugar of some sort.

“People sometimes get confused between liqueurs and fortified wines,” Lynn House, National Brand Educator at Heaven Hill, says. "Things like a vermouth, a sherry, or a port, even though some of them may have some sweetness, those are wine-based and a different category.”

Liqueurs have a long history, dating back to the 13th century when they began to pop up in Italy. They were essentially elixirs, potions and herbal medicines. Chartreuse was one of the first liqueurs, created on record in 1605 from an already ancient recipe. It had 130 infused herbs and became known as the “elixir of long life.”

How is it made?

According to House, liqueur has four main production methods: extraction, distillation, percolation and compounding. Extraction is twofold; it can be either an infusion or a maceration process.

“When I’m doing a class, I tell people to think of maceration as sun tea and infusion as brewed tea,” House says. “Maceration takes longer for the flavor to extract because there’s no heat to speed up the process. Infusion, the flavor extracts very quickly.”

Distillation is used to make schnapps (a type of liqueur), and that’s combining a base spirit and botanicals. The botanicals have been brewed first and then the two liquids are distilled together. For percolation, it’s the same process as percolating coffee. A hot alcoholic solution (the liqueur’s base) is continually cycled through the flavoring to bring the tastes into the final product. The longer it percolates, the stronger the flavor. Compounding is typically used to make bitters. It’s similar to the distillation method, but it’s more mix-based. Botanicals are macerated separately to make tinctures and then simply combined with the base or bases.

Methods for making liqueurs can vary from person to person, using other methods like the smoke method, and taking up to several years to create a finished product.

What are the standard base spirits and sweeteners?

Typically, neutral grains spirits (read: pure grain alcohol) form the base for liqueurs, but that can change. You can also use whiskey, or, if you’re in wine country, brandy is more common. Essentially though, you can use any type of base alcohol you want — just make sure it works together with the overall goal of the cocktail.

“Here in the states, almost anything goes,” House says, about typical base spirits and sweeteners — which include everything from sugar to honey to fruit. “Other parts of the world, you’re going to see a lot of neutral grain based liqueurs.”

Sweeteners and flavoring vary based on local ingredients, too — in Mexico, for example, liqueurs can be made with agave, strong coffee, molasses, mint and more.

How should I use it?

Try not to think of liqueur as a drink all on its own. House notes that it’s best used when bringing flavor and color to a cocktail, accenting a cocktail in some way, or reinforcing the base flavors of a cocktail. And less is more. Liqueurs tend to be pretty concentrated, and that can easily overpower the drink.

“Like crème de violette,” House says. “If you add too much it makes it really purple and it tastes like you’re licking your grandma.”

Pay extra attention to the ingredients in your cocktail, and taste your way through the preparation. It will also help to understand exactly which sugar was used to sweeten the liqueur — each type will help dictate which cocktail ingredients will go best.

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