The Backstory of Liqueurs

What once was used as medicine and a love potion is now a staple in cocktails

The word liqueur comes from the latin word liquefacere, which means "to make liquid." It is believed that liqueurs were first produced by medieval monks and alchemists. Over the centuries, they have been used as medicines, tonics, love potions, and aphrodisiacs.

A liqueur is a sweetened and distilled liquor with an alcohol content ranging from between 24 percent to 60 percent by volume. Produced by combining a base spirit with fruits or herbs, the liqueurs are sweetened by the addition of a sugar syrup which makes up more than 2 ½ percent of the total beverage by volume.

A fruit liqueur is produced by infusion in which fruit is steeped in a spirit to absorb the aroma, flavor, and color. Plant liqueurs are naturally colorless and are produced either by percolation or distillation. Percolation is done in a machine similar to a coffee percolator, where leaves or herbs are placed in the top section and the base in the bottom section. The spirit is then pumped over the flavoring material to extract the flavors. The distillation method uses plants, seeds, roots, or herbs as the flavoring ingredients. They are softened in the base spirit, then combined with additional spirits before being distilled. After the spirit is flavored, it is sweetened and filtered. Liqueurs can be aged or bottled right after production.

As opposed to fruit and plant liqueurs, generic liqueurs vary according to the brand because of the different formulas used. Some examples of these are apricot liqueur, creme d’ananas (flavored with pineapple), creme de cacao (flavored with cocoa and vanilla), creme de framboises (flavored with raspberries), creme de menthe (flavored with mint), creme de noyaux (flavored with bitter-almond flavoring), creme de violette (oils from violets and vanilla beans), Curacao (the dried peel of green oranges of the island of Curacao), Danzinger Goldwasser (spicy with tiny gold specks), kummel (flavored with caraway seed), prunelle (flavored with plum), sloe gin (flavored with fruit from the blackthorn bush), and Triple Sec, a colorless Curacao.

Proprietary brands are usually prepared from secret formulas and are marketed under registered brand names. French brands include Benedictine, Chartreuse, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, and Vieille Cure. Italian liqueurs include Liquore Galliano and Strega. British brands include Drambuie and Irish Mist. Cherry Heering is a cherry liqueur that is produced in Denmark. Brands from the United States include Forbidden Fruit and Creme Yvette. Coffee-flavored liqueurs include Kahlua from Mexico and Tia Maria from Jamaica. Japanese liqueurs include O Cha and Midori, and Van der Hum is a product from South Africa.

Liqueurs are inherently sweet and include ingredients that promote digestion, which is why they make great after-dinner drinks. They can be served straight, poured over ice, or mixed in cocktails. They are also often used as flavoring in desserts.

Below are tasting notes on a few liqueurs that I was lucky enough to try. Some are good, some are great, all of them are worth trying! Get your hands on some of these brands and let us know what you think!

Dr McGillicuddy’s Root Beer Liqueur: Very sweet on the nose, like a piece of chocolate or caramel candy. Vanilla and cinnamon are very present and the obvious root beer, as well. Very viscous in the mouth, but tastes like a glass of root beer!

Wild Grape Liqueur: This has a very medicinal quality to it, the grape is very pungent and almost too obviously chemical. Very acidic and very sweet. Not one of my favorites.

Apple Pie Liqueur: Baked apples and pears. Very warm and inviting, this is probably the best of the McGillicuddy’s line of liqueurs. Very forward crisp apple flavor.

Ice Mint Liqueur: Incredibly minty and clean. A lot like mouthwash. Creamy mouthfeel and surprisingly not acidic or as chemical-tasting as I would have imagined. Would be a great addition to a cocktail to give an intense shot of mint.

Barenjager Honey Liqueur: Honey and apples on the nose, like a rich clover or buckwheat honey. Slightly citric as well, notes of orange peel. Sweet and satisfying, this would be a great way to incorporate honey into a drink while giving it a boozy kick.

Godiva Mocha Liqueur: Very rich and creamy. Flavors of milk chocolate, espresso beans, and freshly brewed coffee. Incredibly smooth with a lovely nuttiness at the end.

Bailey’s Irish Cream Original: Rich and creamy, nutty with a lot of milk chocolate. Notes of caramel and vanilla bean. A slight kick from a higher alcohol content than most liqueurs, but really fantastic.

Bailey’s Irish Cream Caramel: Smells very similar to the original Bailey's. Very rich and viscous, milk chocolate and vanilla. The caramel is present but not as strong of a flavor as I had hoped. Still, very enjoyable to sip on.

Bailey’s Irish Cream Mint Chocolate: Definitely notes of mint in here, but not as menthol-like as a peppermint schnapps. Tastes like a mint chocolate chip milkshake! Still has the original Bailey’s qualities. Nutty and sweet with a cool mint finish.

Wild Turkey American Honey Liqueur: Honey, nuts, and stone fruits, like a baked honey cake. Sweet but slightly charred. Grilled corn, or a baked pie. Slightly viscous mouthfeel with a lot of spice from the bourbon. Cinnamon, caramel, and vanilla. This would be fantastic over a few ice cubes!

X-Rated Fusion Liqueur: Very fruity, lots of berries. Mangos, pears, plums, and peaches, this is a seriously fruity-forward liqueur. The color is exquisite and very in your face, but the flavor is surprisingly tame. Very dry and crisp, this has a smooth taste and a light and fruity finish.

— Sara Kay, The Spir.it

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