SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS A LIQUEUR?
Simply put, a liqueur is roughly defined as a distilled spirit that’s infused or macerated with some variation or form of herb, fruit, spice, flower, nut or edible component, and then bottled with added sugar.
But, it's not quite that simple. The umbrella term ‘liqueur’ is used for an incredibly varied group of spirits, ranging from the complex and painstakingly crafted (such as Fair's Goji Berry Liqueur, or our best-selling Edinburgh Gin Rhubarb and Ginger Liqueur), to those designed specifically for cocktail consumption.
By European law, all liqueurs must be spirit-based, at least 15% alcohol by volume, and contain a minimum of 100g sugar per litre. With this high volume of sugar, the expectation is that liqueurs are often quite sweet, however there are many popular liqueurs that are dry and even tart.
The benefit of liqueurs lies in their versatility. They can be served in mixed drinks, neat, over ice, switched up for a spirit, partnered with coffee or cream, heck, you can even swig liqueur straight from the bottle (not recommended… just saying, you could if you really wanted....).
But how did we get to this fortunate position of so many liqueurs, so little time?
A LITTLE HISTORY
It is believed that the monks of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance period are the folk we can credit with the creation of liqueurs. Their experimentation with tonics and roots and herbs mixed with a spirit base was all in the name of medicine.
The belief was that certain combinations would possess restorative qualities, curing ailments and promoting good health. Indeed, liqueurs were marketed with this messaging right up until the emergence of the cocktail scene in the 20th century.
Many of these early examples have survived the test of time - Chartreuse and Benedictine being perhaps the most well-known examples.
A LITTLE GEOGRAPHY
Many liqueurs are particular to a specific geographical area and most have an (often true, sometimes of doubtful authenticity) story about their origins.
The three countries we think of when we think of liqueurs are France, Italy and The Netherlands.
FRANCE: The birthplace of some of the world’s most famous and most drinkable liqueurs. Includes: Grand Marnier, the cognac-based Benedictine, Chambord, and the elderflower-inspired cocktail favourite St. Germain.
THE NETHERLANDS: Here, the likes of Bols and DeKuyper are international names, synonymous with a huge range of fruit-based, cocktail-specific liqueurs. Many Schnapps and also Advocaat, the famous Christmas eggnog replacement, are also from Holland.
HOW TO TASTE LIQUEURS
Liqueurs come in a bewildering array of colours and flavours, from bitter to very sweet, the spiced to the fruity and everything in between. Vegetables, herbs, flowers, leaves, skins, coffee, creams, stones, pips and whole fruit can be used to flavour liqueurs - meaning they can be tricky to taste in the traditional sense like whiskies or gin. The below is adapted from WSET Systematic Liqueur Tasting, to help guide you through the myriad of liqueurs available.
- Clarity/Brightness: Is it clear? Bright or dull?
- Intensity: Pale, medium, deep or opaque?
- Colour: What can we say about the liqueur's colouring? Is it colourless?!
- Aroma Characteristics: What can we smell here - fruits, flowers, herbs, grains? What is coming through as a predominant note? Herb, oak, sweetness?
- Intensity: Is the aroma light, medium or pronounced?
- Maturation: Is the liqueur aged, treated or matured?
- Sweetness: How dry is the liqueur? Is it sweet and luscious?
- Alcohol: How prominent is the booze? Soft, smooth, warming or a noticeable kick?
- Body: Light, medium or full-bodied?
- Favour Characteristics: Like with the aroma, what can we taste? Fruits, flowers, herbs, oak, sweetness, other flavours?
- Intensity: Are the flavours neutral, light, medium or pronounced?
- Finish: Does the flavour last - a long finish? How complex are the lingering notes?
THREE EXAMPLES OF LIQUEURS AND THEIR TASTING NOTES
1. DRAMBUIE, £26.50
The guarded formula for this liqueur includes Scotch (at least 10 years old), heather honey and herbs. The name comes from the Gaelic dram buidheach which translates as "the drink that satisfies."
It boasts an amber golden glow, and is thick and oily; it sticks to the glass. The whisky-based liqueur is high in ABV and this is apparent on the nose which shows medium to high intensity, with the smell of sugar and spices, plus a sweetness of cloves, spice and honey. Very clean. Assume oak-aged.
The first hit to the palate is an oily rich sweetness with soft vanilla. The alcohol is there, but adds to complexity rather than an overpowering taste. Flavour intensity is big and pronounced. The finish is mid-length: the sweetness certainly dissipates, leaving a little spice and vanilla. A key example of a HERBAL liqueur.
2. LUXARDO CHERRY SANGUE MORLACCO, £21.95
The crucial component of a Singapore Sling cocktail, this liqueur is made with whole, sour, Italian Marasca cherries, cultivated from the Luxardo family orchards in Padova.
There is a distinctive cherry bite, and it's thicker than the Drambuie. Lots of fruit, herbs and spice are immediately obvious on the nose with a complex, enticing aroma. The palate is intnese with huge, thick sweet notes at the front.
Very smooth alcohol, a hint of warming notes and cracked black pepper. The fruity, cherry aspects are rich and warming, with a thick and syrupy sweetness, tart fruity flavours and a cherry jam aftertaste. Sip neat. Pair with chocolate or mix up a Blood and Sand - you can't make one without the cherry! An excellent FRUIT liqueur.
3. FEENEY'S IRISH CREAM LIQUEUR, £12.45
This Irish whiskey cream is an exceptional sipping liqueur. t is light on the nose, with a lovely milkiness; this is not a thick and heavy liquid.
Soft, creamy notes with just a hint of smooth and warming whisky. The sweetness level is not expected, but it’s far from sickly boasting a nice dry note from the subtle kick of the whiskey kick. Smooth and soft with a full palate, there is a medium intensity here, even light.
It's not a long finish, but when the delayed spirit note hits it's not strong, it's extremely pleasant. This is a liqueur of high quality with excellent balance. Unlike other Irish creams, Feeney’s Irish cream avoids the harsh aftertaste, instead opting for a smooth and creamy finish. A superb CREAM liqueur.
FINAL DO’S AND DON’Ts
DON’T buy cheap, nasty stuff. Like with most alcohol, if it looks cheap and nasty then it probably is. With well-made liqueurs, a little will go a long way and many have a lengthy shelf-life.
DO mix up a cocktail. Liqueurs feature heavily in some of the very best. Vermouth in a Martini, Negroni and Manhattan; Cointreau in a Sidecar and Cosmo; and Coffee Liqueur in a White Russian and Espresso Martini to name but a few.
DO experiment. Discover new things. Get excited. If something sounds pretty delicious, it probably is. And you should try it.