Bailey’s, Cointreau, Kahlua, vermouth; these and other bar staples share a few things in common – they’re all key ingredients in a wide range of cocktails, they all carry an unmistakable sweetness, and they all fit snugly within one category of alcohol: liqueur.
Defining liqueur, and separating it from its frustratingly similar cousin liquor, has always been a challenge for armchair experts. So let’s wade through these muddied – if sweet and alcoholic – waters, to find out a little more about those faithful bottles that sit behind every bar.
Liquor vs liqueur
Liquor. Liqueur. Saying them aloud, the only difference seems to be that one spent a summer in France. So let’s start at the very beginning, which, word has it, is a very good place to start.
Liquor is simply grain or other plant matter that has been fermented and distilled to produce an alcohol-heavy drink (usually around 40% ABV). Vodka, whisky, gin and rum are all examples of liquor, and most are aged in either barrel or bottle.
Liqueur confusingly uses liquor as its base. But from there their paths diverge; the base spirit is flavoured in any number of ways – with fruit, herbs, spices, nuts, cream or flowers, to name a few – and is then bottled with added sugars or sweeteners. Liqueurs generally aren’t aged, although they may be given a period of rest to let the flavours shake hands and mingle. While it’s not a hard and fast rule, liqueurs tend to be less alcoholic than liquors, usually sitting between 15% and 35% ABV.
Many liqueurs began as old-timey remedies, but happily switched to bar work when their medical qualifications were questioned.