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A bartender’s best friend, liqueurs take pride of place on the wall of every self-respecting pub, club or bar, playing key roles in the world’s most famous cocktails. But what does the term “liqueur” actually mean? And how do liqueurs differ from liquors?
''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.''
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.
Let’s say you need to stock a new bar at home. With hundreds of liqueurs to choose from, which are the must-haves that you should be saving shelf space for?
- Amaretto: Made using apricot pits, amaretto is a sweet almond-flavoured liqueur that works particularly well in coffee-based drinks.
- Aperol: An orange-flavoured liqueur that offers hints of herb and rhubarb, Aperol is quickly establishing itself as the drink of summer, particularly in “spritz” form (a cocktail of Aperol, prosecco, soda and ice).
- Bailey’s: The quintessential cream liqueur built on a base of Irish whiskey, Bailey’s Irish Cream is the most versatile of liqueurs, great in cocktails and coffee, layered into shot glasses, or poured alone over ice.
- Cointreau: Cointreau is the cocktail king. Strong, sweet and colourless, this triple sec (orange liqueur) plays a starring role in an endless list of bar favourites, including the margarita and the cosmopolitan.
- Chartreuse: Made by French monks since 1737, Chartreuse is infused with no less than 130 botanicals. High in alcohol (40% - 55% ABV), it is one of the few liqueurs that gets better with age.
- Drambuie: This rich and satisfying liqueur has a base of Scotch whisky and features the distinct taste of honey and herbs, although the exact recipe is kept a secret, Colonel Sanders style.
- Frangelico: The unmistakable shape of a friar’s habit, complete with a cord around the waist, makes this toasted hazelnut liqueur stand out from the liqueur crowd. Along with the nuttiness you’ll also find hints of vanilla, cocoa, coffee and rhubarb.
- Jägermeister: A liqueur, not a hard liquor, as many a university student might’ve assumed, Jägermeister is a particularly bitter drink flavoured with 56 different herbs and spices. Best served chilled.
- Kahlua: The world’s most popular coffee-flavoured liqueur, this Mexican product is built on a base of rum, and is utilised in a long list of cocktails.
- Midori: This melon-flavoured liqueur is relatively low in alcohol, at around 20%, and is most commonly used in layered shots.
- Pimm’s: As English as high tea, no event in England’s south is complete without a jug of Pimm’s No.1 Cup. Gin-based, it is usually mixed in a jug with lemonade, ginger ale, cut fruits, cucumber and mint.
- Southern Comfort: Southern Comfort is the quintessential American-made liqueur. Built on a base of whiskey, it is flavoured with peach, herbs and spices, and features in many American cocktails./span>
- Vermouth: Simply fortified wine that’s been given the gin treatment – loaded with botanicals to make it aromatic and flavourful – vermouth comes in both sweet and dry styles, and plays a key role in both the martini and the Manh
Expanding your liqueur horizons
But why play it safe? For those who are keen for an adventure in liqueur-land, the exotic offerings of Japan’s Hombo distillery, the uniquely Australian flavour of The Grove’s Macadamia Nut Liqueur, and the ethically sourced deliciousness of FAIR’s liqueurs are all well worth the gamble!
- The term liqueur comes from the Latin liquifacere – to dissolve.
- When an aniseed liqueur comes into contact with water it goes from clear to cloudy (due to the anise oil crystallising) – this is known as ‘the ouzo effect.’
- While commonly referred to as a liqueur, absinthe doesn’t have any sugars added when bottled, and is thus a liquor