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
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 percolated.
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.
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.