The world of liqueurs is so vast, it could take a person years to get to know each and every variety, perhaps even a lifetime. (That’s not a bad way to spend your life, though). Not to be confused with “liquor,” the word “liqueur” comes from the Latin word liquifacere, meaning to liquefy or dissolve, in reference to the infusion process used to make them. These sweet, infused tipples are made with a base spirit, flavorings like fruit, nuts, herbs and flowers, and added sugar.
The History of Liqueurs
Liqueurs have been around for centuries. Descendents of herbal medicines, many first showed up in the Middle Ages in monasteries and convents across Europe. They likely originated in Italy and migrated to France, possibly via Catherine de’ Medici who brought them along with her court from Tuscany to France after marrying King Henry II in the 16th century. But it was in the Netherlands that liqueurs first took off on a commercial scale. Bols, founded in 1575, is the world’s oldest distilled-spirits brand and claims they’ve been producing liqueurs consistently since that date.
Liqueurs were very popular in the early days of America. Homemakers’ books published in the 1800s feature recipes for homemade versions, both medicinal and recreational, and European imports like kirsch and curaçao flooded the American market. Liqueurs were most commonly served neat as after-dinner digestifs, until the late 19th century when bartenders started incorporating them into cocktails.
Historically, liqueurs were thought of as after-dinner drinks and nightcaps, but as cocktail culture shifts and grows, they’re showing up more and more in mixed drinks.
In the ‘90s, neon colored, sticky-sweet cocktails served in V-shaped glasses like the Appletini came into power. While this helped boost liqueur sales, it also inspired some producers to pump out cheap, sugary, artificial products. These, in turn, gave liqueurs an unfavorable reputation in the craft bartending community, and for a while, liqueurs were rarely seen behind any respectable bar.
Today, though, there is a glimmer of hope, and liqueurs are making a comeback. Brands are turning out high-end products made with fresh, natural ingredients, which mixologists are proud to keep behind, rather than under, the bar. New, quality liqueurs—produced by brands like Combier, Rothman & Winter, Giffard and Leopold Bros.—have provided bartenders a world of flavors to experiment with. Historically, liqueurs were thought of as after-dinner drinks and nightcaps, but as cocktail culture shifts and grows, they’re showing up more and more in mixed drinks.
How Are Liqueurs Made
Although there are thousands of different recipes, all liqueurs have a similar formula. They are defined by the United States Tax and Trade Bureau as flavored spirits containing at least 1.5 percent by weight sugar or dextrose, made by redistilling a spirit with fruits, plants, flowers or pure juices or extracts from those ingredients.
All liqueurs start with a base spirit, which can be anything from a neutral grain spirit to gin to whiskey. That spirit is then modified through maceration or infusion, which can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few years, depending on the liqueur. In the case of maceration, fruit, nuts, flowers, roots and/or herbs are soaked and softened in the base spirit, which absorbs their flavors and essences. Infusion follows the same basic science of maceration, except producers use heat to more efficiently extract and incorporate the flavors. After the spirit is modified, a sugar (typically simple syrup or honey) is added to the mix. Then the spirit needs to sit so all those wonderful flavors fuse together.
Notable Liqueur Styles and Brands
It’s easiest to understand liqueurs by the flavorings that go into them, broken down into some basic, popular categories.
Fruit, Citrus and Vegetables
- Orange: This category includes liqueurs like triple sec and curaçao, and brands such as Grand Marnier, Combier and Cointreau.
- Limoncello: Italian lemon liqueur.
- Chambord: Liqueur flavored with red and black raspberries.
- Sloe gin: Liqueur made from sloe berries.
- Cherry: Brands include Denmark’s Cherry Heering and Italy’s Luxardo Maraschino.
- Crème de cassis: Blackcurrant liqueur most classically used in the Kir and Kir Royale cocktails.
- Cynar: Artichoke liqueur.
Herbs and Spices
- Fireball: A massively popular cinnamon-flavored whiskey, which tastes better if you make it yourself.
- Galliano: Herbal liqueur with vanilla as the dominant flavor.
- Chartreuse: A French brandy-based herbal liqueur, originally made in a monastery outside of Paris based on a recipe nicknamed the “Elixir of Long Life.”
- Green Chartreuse: Made with 130 herbs and plants—it’s the only liqueur in the world that is naturally green.
- Yellow Chartreuse: Milder and sweeter than its green counterpart.
- Benedictine: French herbal liqueur.
- Drambuie: Scotch whisky-based liqueur made with honey, herbs and spices.
- Fernet: A dark, herbaceous liqueur made with a myriad of herbs and spices, which differ from brand to brand but typically include myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe and saffron.
- Becherovka: A spicy, clove-and-cinnamon laced Czech liqueur.
Coffee / Nuts / Chocolate
- Amaretto: Almond-flavored liqueur.
- Frangelico: Hazelnut-flavored liqueur.
- Crème de cacao: Chocolate-flavored liqueur.
- Coffee: Coffee-flavored liqueur like Kahlúa and Tia Maria.
- Crème de violette: Purple-hued, violet-flavored liqueur.
- St-Germain: Elderflower-flavored liqueur.
Licorice and Anise: A very popular flavor of liqueur. Many countries have their own variation of anise liqueur. Some of the most popular include:
- Sambuca from Italy
- Jägermeister from Germany
- Ouzo from Greece
- Aguardiente from Colombia
- Raki from Turkey
- Anisette from France
- Herbsaint from the United States
How Do I Drink Liqueurs Straight?
Most liqueurs (if they’re good quality) are perfect for sipping neat or on the rocks. The occasional citrus peel will help open up the sweeter varieties.
Notable Liqueur Cocktails
Spiked Coffee: Liqueurs have always been a popular choice when spiking coffee, inspiring well-known drinks like Irish Coffee (made with Irish cream) and Caffe Corretto (made with Sambuca).
Sidecar: This classic cocktail became popular in the 1920s when it started making the rounds among the fashionable set in London and Paris. Make sure to use quality brandy and orange liqueur to do the cocktail justice.
White Russian: This cocktail evolved from the Black Russian (a mix of vodka and coffee liqueur) with the addition of cream, sometime around the 1950s.
Harvey Wallbanger: In this 1970s classic, orange liqueur and herbaceous-vanilla Galliano come together with vodka for something of an adult creamsicle.
The Last Word: First introduced in the 1920s, this cocktail came back into fashion in the 1950s with Ted Saucier’s cocktail book Bottoms Up, and again in 2004 at Seattle’s Zig Zag Cafe. It’s made with gin, green chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and lime juice.
Aviation: Dressed up in pale purple, the Aviation might be the prettiest cocktail ever. It’s made with a mix of gin, maraschino liqueur, crème de violette and lemon juice.
Pousse Café: Liqueurs are also great for layered drinks, also known as pousse cafés, because they vary in density. When building a layered cocktail, always start with the heaviest ingredient, which contains the most sugar and least alcohol. The last ingredient should be the lightest, so feel free to top it off with your favorite full-proof spirit.
Liqueurs in Culture
- Perhaps the most famous instance of a liqueur in pop culture is the coffee liqueur in The Dude’s signature White Russians in the cult favorite movie, The Big Lebowski.
- In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, the mustachioed detective often partakes in liqueurs, especially favoring crème de menthe.
- Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle features a cocktail called the End of the World Delight. Crème de menthe in poured into a hollowed out pineapple and topped with whipped cream and a cherry.