Liqueurs have a reputation for being sweet and viscous. Typically, they are mixed with other ingredients to create a cocktail, adding various flavors and aromas to make easy to drink beverages. Ones that appeal to a wider audience than those of us who pour two-fingers of whiskey in a glass and call it a day.
But, this isn’t always the case.
Liqueurs can have all different kinds of depths and flavors that can create intense complexity without creating an overly sweet drink. But, what exactly is a liqueur and how is it made?
Liqueurs have been used since ancient times, although, the process and uses have evolved over the passing centuries.
Originally, liqueurs were used to extract the essence of botanicals, seeds, fruits, and other things to preserve their medicinal and aromatic properties. The alcohol would preserve the essence of the ingredients and shield them against the changing seasons, as well as make them easier to consume since they could be taken quickly versus having to chew dozens of different medicinal plants.
For example, Chartreuse (a liqueur made from over 130 different botanicals) has been made since the 1600s. It was originally branded as an “elixir of long life” and then as a “cure all” since it was packed with so many different medicinal herbs.
Later, as humanity turned from a survivalist mentality towards one of indulgence, people began creating various liqueurs to serve before and after dinner parties.
Aperitifs, such as the French’s Vermouth or the Italian’s Campari, were served before meals to help prime the palate and begin getting the gastric juices flowing to prepare you for the meal ahead. These were believed to help elevate the enjoyment of food and was considered a staple for social gatherings.
Digestifs, such as our previously mentioned friend, the Chartreuse, were served after meals to help settle one’s stomach and promote proper digestion of the meal. It was basically the early form of TUMS.
How They’re Made
Liqueurs have four typical methods for being made. Each having a unique pull on the composition and flavor of the final product. And, depending on what you’re trying to make, each of these methods is equally viable, meaning there isn’t a “better method” per-say.
This is where a solution made of flavors and sugar is added to an alcoholic base before distillation takes place. This usually results in a lighter and less dense liqueurs and is more used as a modern means of mass-production since the distillation process strips away much of the medicinal and viscous qualities that other methods will impart.
This method has the liquor involves throwing whole ingredients into a tank with the liqueur and allowing it to rest while leaching out qualities from the added ingredients.
Many times it is often redistilled, leaving the liqueur with a lighter and more alcohol-forward character.
This method is extremely similar to making a pot of coffee. And, like coffee, it can have intense aromas, flavors, and a high transference of the used material’s properties (like the caffeine you get when making coffee).
Alcohol is dripped through the ingredients, metabolizing and becoming heavily infused along the way as gravity slowly pulls it down through the material.
Eventually, the alcohol drips out the bottom and is collected.
Imagine making a tea.
You take the tea bag, fill it with whatever ingredients you’re going to steep, and place it into water to infuse that water with the characteristics and flavors you’ve selected.
The principal for infusing liqueurs is the same, but the alcohol is what leeches the qualities from the selected ingredients rather than heated water. And, like tea, the resulting liquid passes much of the flavor and transfers many of the desirable qualities and effects when consumed.
There is a subtle difference here between maceration and infusion. While both use similar methods, maceration usually involves breaking down the ingredients. Like cutting fruit or muddling the herbs before adding the ingredients. This increases the surface area, and releases oils that would have otherwise remained locked inside the ingredients.
Maceration usually leads to significantly more intense liqueur.
The Liqueur Market Today
Today liqueurs come in all shapes, sizes, flavors, and creation methods.
Orange liqueur, coffee liqueur, elderflower liqueur and all other kinds have entered the market. Each of them more focused on flavor and breadth of availability than medicinal quality.
However, this has made it easier than ever to experience many different liqueurs and see which ones you enjoy and try limitless different cocktail variations from the comfort of your home.
Greg Sinadinos started his spirits journey writing a whiskey periodical for Fine Tobacco NYC Magazine. He began answering review requests under a social media page he named “Whiskey Culture,” which quickly merged with Greg’s passion for connecting with others and his interest in history.
Today, Greg travels the country not just looking for great whiskey, but also exploring the history and individuals that the whiskey community is founded upon. He has authored “Whiskey History From Around The World” and is the host of “The Rickhouse” web series.