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The History and Production of Liqueurs

Dec 2015

The EU defines a liqueur as having at least 15% ABV and at least 100

grams of sugar per liter, rising to 250 grams of sugar for a “Creme de…”

liqueur and 450 grams of sugar for a Creme de Cassis liqueur.


The History of the Liqueur

Liqueurs are flavored and sweetened liquors, and have swung in and out of

favor since sugar began to be part of everyone’s eating habits just a few

hundred years ago. Sugar and flavor were always added to early distillates

such as brandy and vodka, because distilling techniques weren’t good

enough to produce high-quality liquor – remember Old Tom gin. People

also liked the taste of sugar, and as ships criss-crossed the globe, bringing

new flavors back to Europe, distillers like Lucas Bols responded by making

liqueurs with these exotic new herbs and fruits. Liqueurs also have a rich

heritage as medicinal elixirs: even before sugar reached Europe, elixirs

made from complex blends of herbs and secret ingredients were being

made to cure any and all ills, famously in the universities and monasteries of

Salerno and Bologna (Italy) and Leiden (the Netherlands).


Other countries such as South Africa and the US have rules that differ

slightly. Liqueurs are sometimes referred to as “cordials” in the USA, but

“cordial” in other parts of the world indicates a non-alcoholic syrup.

“Schnapps” is used by some producers who think “liqueur” isn’t a groovy

enough name. There aren’t many rules governing the use of the word

“schnapps”, but it is generally accepted that schnapps are at least 40%

and only lightly sweetened, if at all. Liqueurs can be marketed with many

different flavors under one brand name (range liqueurs, such as Bols) or with

individual brand identities, such as Malibu, Alize, and Galliano.

How Liqueurs Are Made


Cold compounding

Liquid flavoring essences are combined with neutral alcohol. Quick, easy

and cheap, but tends to produce liqueurs that lack real depth or mouthfeel.



Just like good-quality gin: add your flavoring agents (herbs, fruits, whatnot)

to spirit and re-distill it. Distillation is normally used for harder ingredients

like fruit peels, seeds and roots, and produces a clear distillate called an

esprit. Most Bols liqueurs are distilled, for instance.


This is better for soft fruit that would disintegrate if distilled: the fruit or

herbs are left sitting around in neutral spirit until they absorb the flavor.

The mixture may be heated slightly, and different herbs and fruits may be

added at different times depending on how long it takes to extract their

flavor. This produces a colored distillate called a tincture. Maceration is

used to make one of Bols’ rarest liqueurs, Bitter Orange.


Just like making filter coffee: put your (hard) ingredients into a filter and

drip alcohol down through them. Percolation produces a dark, typically

slightly bitter distillate called a tincture. Bols Cacao (Brown) and Cacao

(White) are made from the same ingredients, but Dark is percolated and

White is re-distilled, the techniques have a huge effect on the flavor.

Liqueurs aren’t commonly aged but it does happen: Chartreuse’s VEP is

aged for eight years, Cherry Heering for two, while Grand Marnier’s orange

liqueurs also spend some time on wood.

Types of Liqueur



By far the largest number, these include both liqueurs made only using peels

(such as Bols triple sec, Cointreau and limoncello), those made using only

flavoring (most banana liqueurs) and those made using the addition of fresh

fruit juice from the corresponding fruit, such as most of the Bols fruit liqueurs.

For making flavorings, distillers may choose to use natural flavorings (all

the flavor is extracted from the fruit itself) or nature-identical flavorings

(you extract the identical flavor compounds from other, cheaper fruits).

Fruit liqueurs are also the ones most likely to be used in cocktails, and many

of them have been developed into consumer-oriented brands in their own

right, such as Passoã, Midori, Pisang Ambon and Archer’s.



Hugely popular with consumers, this category includes amaretto, nocino,

Frangelico, coffee and chocolate (cacao) liqueurs. These are usually



This is a huge sub-category stretching all the way from Chartreuse and

Strega to Galliano and peppermint liqueur. These typically made up of many

different botanicals, many of which are also common in gin. Subcategories

included aniseed liqueurs (anisette, absinthe, ouzo, raki, sambuca) and

bitter liqueurs (Italian amari, Galliana L'Aperitivo, Campari and Aperol). It is sometimes hard to

draw the line between a sweet vermouth and a herbal, less-sweet liqueur:

which one is a wine, which one a liqueur?



This entire category was kick-started by Baileys in 1975, and Baileys now has

25% of the entire world liqueur market. Cream liqueurs are typically an

emulsion of cream with spirit and flavorings: Baileys is based on Irish

whiskey. Into this category can also be shoehorned Advocaat, a Dutch

distillate made from an emulsion of egg yolks and spirit.


Spirit based

This describes fruit, nut, herbal or cream liqueurs using a specific, flavorful

base instead of just neutral spirits. Baileys (Irish whiskey) falls into this

category too, as does Grand Marnier (cognac), Drambuie (Scotch), and

Southern Comfort (American whiskey). In fact, there is more of this than you

might think: producers of everything from vodka to whiskey have been

stealthily making their products so sweet that they virtually qualify as

liqueurs on their own.

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