Liqueur Liqueur Liqueur

Probably the oldest of all high-strength alcoholic beverages, liqueurs were originally the preserve of monks who produced them primarily for medicinal purposes. The first written record of a liqueur belongs to Kummel in 1575; but it was known that certain religious orders had been producing elixirs for centuries before this date.

Some liqueurs sold today still retain their ancient heritage and their recipes are often closely guarded secrets. In some instances they are not even written down but passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next. The holders of these secrets have even been known to refuse to fly on the same plane as one another!

It is important to make a distinction between liqueurs and spirits even if this distinction can on occasion become somewhat blurred. A liqueur is a spirit that has been sweetened and flavoured, whereas natural sugars are fermented into alcohol and subsequently distilled to make a spirit.

In order to make a liqueur, one needs something with which to sweeten the spirit (generally sugar or honey) and something soluble with which to flavour it. The character of a liqueur will always come from these flavouring agents rather than from the base spirit. Hence the derivation of the word liqueur from the Latin liquefacere, meaning to dissolve.

According to a 1989 European law, liqueurs must have a minimum of 15 % alcohol and a minimum 100 grams of sugar per litre (250g/litre to be called crèmes de fruits). Additionally, they can be made with fruits, natural flavourings, naturally synthesised aromas and flavourings—where the fruit molecule has been recreated. However, the latter is forbidden with blackcurrant, cherry, raspberry, blueberry, citrus fruit, pineapple and plant liqueurs—such as mint—where natural flavourings must be used.

What Are Liqueurs Made From

From their historical development to today’s famous proprietary brands most liqueurs and alcoholic cordials have an existing spirit as their base. In no particular order, these are derived from:

Neutral spirit Grain, fruit or molasses.

Brandy Grape wine or fruit wine.

Rum Sugar cane juice or molasses.

Wine Grape or fruit wine to give softer flavour.

Whisky, famously Scottish or Irish.

The range of liqueurs is diverse but can be broadly categorised as:

Fruit Brandies
Such as cherry and apricot brandy. Despite being called brandy these are not actually brandies at all; they are by definition liqueurs. A real cherry brandy would be a spirit of cherry such as Kirsch.

Fruit Crèmes
Notably Crème de Cassis and Crème de Peche.

For example, triple sec and Curaçao.

Mixed & Single Herb or Flower
Petals, seeds or roots (for example, caraway, mint, aniseed, violet, rose and compounded bitters, which have more than 100g/litre of sugar added).

Beans & Kernels
For example cocoa beans, coffee beans, vanilla pods, nuts.

Dairy Creams
Often based on Irish whiskey, brandy, toffee or peppermint.

Fresh fruit juice with its fruit distillate and a minimum of 100g/litre sugar are classified as mistelles; in this case the addition of high-strength alcohol prevents the juice from fermenting whilst stabilising the character and natural sugars of the fruit. Some are based on grapes normally grown to make wine; such as Pineau de Charentes from Cognac, Floc de Gascogne from Armagnac and the many Ratafias produced in French wine regions; and were historically drunk at the ratification of treaties, these are classified separately by the EU.

How Are Liqueurs Made?

Firstly one selects the base (often supplied by a neutral spirit rectifier), for its neutrality or inherent flavour, and secondly one collects the flavouring matter. These materials are often from all over the world, selected for pungency, colour and depth of aroma.

The base and flavourings can then simply be combined and requisite sweetening added. The methods of extracting flavour often dictate its depth and breadth:

Cold maceration
This can take a long time, in fact as long as a year in some cases, and is the only method that can be used in the case of some aromatic plants to truly retain their character and colour.

Hot infusion
A method not dissimilar to a coffee percolator whereby the crushed flavouring agent is placed in a filter and hot liquid poured through it. Unlike the coffee machine, however, it works on a cycle and the liquid is passed and re-passed through the filter.

The material is directly distilled in a pot still with its alcohol base, or the vapours of the distillate are passed through filters containing the crushed flavouring matter.

Mechanical pressure
The flavouring substance, such as fruit peel, is milled and pressed to extract the flavour.

Sugars in syrup form will normally be added post distillation to the spirit, or combined with the drawn-off macerate and then added to the spirit. In many cases, such as with cream liqueurs, this may involve the use of a stabilising agent at the same time. The product then rests to encourage harmonisation. Often the marrying time is quite short, but some liqueurs are aged in tank or cask to allow the deepening of the flavour or the influence of oak.

The liqueur world is less governed than most spirit types due to its worldwide production and variable flavourings. Two examples that illustrate the parameters are:

The original Curaçao was a liqueur flavoured with the dried peel of citrus fruit grown on the island of Curaçao in the Dutch West Indies, the peel being macerated in alcohol to release its flavour and oils prior to blending with other herbs/spices, sweetened to the required degree and then bottled. It was sometimes known as triple sec as the maceration or subsequent distillation of the orange flavour was completely dry and it was completely colourless.

Today, both terms Curaçao and Triple Sec tend to represent generic liqueurs whose predominant flavour is derived from citrus peel and these are made all around the world. Mostly now produced from flavour-type concentrates, it may be coloured (hence the availability of orange and blue styles), have an alcoholic content from 15 to above 40 % and may have a sugar content from as little as 100g to 300g/litre. The huge popularity of Curaçao is helped as it is an essential ingredient in some of the world’s favourite cocktails such as the Margarita.

Within the Cassis family, Crème de Cassis de Dijon is different from other crème de fruits because it is more heavily regulated  as a product of geographical designation.

The liqueur must be made from only a maceration of blackcurrants, of which 25% must be the ‘Noir de Bourgogne’ variety, and it needs to contain a minimum of 400 grams of sugar per litre. This gives a perfect marriage between the acidity of the fruit and the depth and sweetness of the alcoholic syrup it is blended with. The whole process must take place within the city of Dijon, France and the quality is inspected and certified by independent verifiers.

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