A liqueur is an alcoholic beverage that has been flavoured with fruit, herbs, nuts, spices, flowers, or cream and bottled with added sugar. Liqueurs are typically quite sweet; they are usually not aged for long but may have resting periods during their production to allow flavours to marry. The word liqueur comes from the Latin liquifacere, to liquefy.
Egyptians and Greeks were distilling grape wine from around 400 BC in a very basic form. It is speculated that the early Greeks were also the first to combine wine with honey and fruits, all produced from the local plants growing in abundance.
However, the earliest reference to modern distillation occurred in Europe in the late 13th century. The product of distillation was a rough spirit, yet it was considered to hold medicinal qualities. When applied to open sores and wounds, they ‘miraculously’ healed. Also at this time assorted herbs, spices, and fruit that were considered to have medicinal qualities were grown and administered as tea-like infusions. The logical step was to combine the two; however this often produced spirits with an unpalatable taste.
Commercial production of eau-de-vie began in the 14th century when Dutch merchants discovered that distilled wine was easier and cheaper to ship than regular wine. The downside was that it was still rough with a less than pleasant taste.
These merchants were not only shipping wine but also spices and exotic fruit from the Middle East, Asia, America and the West Indies. Spices and exotic fruit often perished quickly. It was discovered that when infused in eau-de-vie they lasted longer, with the added benefit of the eau-de-vie take on these flavours. The result was a flavoured bitter alcohol that was still not pleasant to drink. The discovery of sugar for these merchants was the final key. Adding sugar to the eau-de-vie covered the bitterness then a further distillation removed the unpleasant tastes and so liqueur was created.
The base ingredients of all the liqueurs are pure and neutral spirit, sugar or syrup and flavouring components.
The spirit can be produced from any sugar rich source, such as fruit, grain, sugar cane, or vegetables. The spirit should be distilled to a relatively high level of alcohol and to a level that removes most impurities. Ideally the spirit will be neutral, colourless and flavourless.
Flavouring components can take the form of any natural product, such as fruit, seeds, leaves, plant roots or bark. Flavouring components will be added to the spirit in large vats and allowed to macerate over a period of time. The time allowed for this infusion process will depend on the flavouring component, the temperature of the mixture and the distiller’s preference in taste.
Once the desired level of flavour and aroma has been achieved, the mixture will be distilled. In general, the mixture will be distilled once in a pot still as this retains a greater level of flavour and aroma in the final spirit. A few distillers, however, will use a column still if the spirit they wish to produce is light and mildly flavoured.
After distilling, sugar or syrup will be added to the spirit along with any colourings or additional flavour essences if required. The addition of sugar naturally lowers the alcoholic content and develops the flavour of the ingredients.
Before being bottled, depending on the distiller’s preferences in taste, the collected spirit may undergo one or more of the following –
An exception to this process is when the base spirit is an eau-de-vie that has been produced to retain flavour and aroma characteristics of the original base ingredient. Rather than macerating the flavour components in spirit, the spirit itself will be produced from the flavouring components.
Cheap liqueurs may be made by the addition of flavour ‘essence’ or concentrated fruit juice to the spirit, rather than infusing the flavouring components in the spirit.
Types of Liqueur
There are many types of liqueur available, using a wide variety of flavouring components, here are some of the most common.
Advocaat (or advokat) is a rich and creamy liqueur made from eggs, sugar and brandy. It has a smooth, custard-like flavour. It generally contains between 14% and 20% ABV. Its contents may be a blend of egg yolks, aromatic spirits, sugar or honey, brandy, vanilla and sometimes cream. Thick advocaat is sold on the Dutch, Belgian and Tirolian markets and often eaten with a spoon, while a more liquid version is sold as an export. Thick advocaat contains egg yolk, and is used as a waffle topping and as an ingredient for several kinds of desserts such as ice cream and pastries. It is also served as an apéritif or digestif. The traditional way to serve it is in a wide glass with whipped cream and cocoa powder sprinkled on top. In the export variety only the pure egg yolks are used, making it particularly well suited for cocktails and long drinks.
The original advocaat was a liqueur made by the Dutch population of Suriname and Recife with avocados. Upon returning to the Netherlands, where avocados were not available, a similar texture was achieved with thickened egg yolk. Rompope of Puebla, Mexico, is a very similar liquor based on egg yolk and vanilla. The German equivalent is Eierlikör.
Fruit brandies are distilled from fruits other than grapes. Apples, plums, peaches, cherries, elderberries, raspberries, blackberries, and apricots are the most commonly used fruits. So, for example, Apricot brandy can refer to a liqueur or Eau de Vie distilled from fermented apricot juice or a liqueur made from apricot flesh and kernels.
A cream liqueur (not be confused with crème liqueur) is a liqueur that includes dairy cream among its ingredients. Examples include Baileys Irish Cream which uses Irish Whiskey and Amarula, which uses distillate of fermented South African marula fruits. What unites all cream liqueurs is their use of cream and a generally flavorful liqueur as their bases.
A crème liqueur is a liqueur that has a great deal of additional sugar added to the point that it has a near-syrup consistency. To be called a Crème liqueur the sugar content must be 40%. Unlike cream liqueurs, crème liqueurs include no cream in their ingredients. Crème in this case refers to the consistency. This category includes crème de cacao (chocolate), crème de menthe (mint), and crème de cassis (black currant) which is made from blackcurrants crushed into refined alcohol, with sugar subsequently added. While crème de cassis is a specialty of Burgundy, it is made in other cities of France, as well as in Luxembourg and Quebec. The quality of crème de cassis depends on the variety of fruit used as well as content of the berries and the fabrication process. The label "Crème de Cassis de Dijon" guarantees berries from the commune of Dijon. An Interprofessional Syndicate has tried since 1997 to obtain an "Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée" for "Crème de Cassis de Bourgogne" which would guarantee the origin and variety of fruit, as well as the number of berries in the recipe used in the manufacture.
Pommeau is an alcoholic drink made in northern France by mixing apple juice with apple brandy.
It is consumed as an apéritif, or sometimes as an accompaniment to melon or blue cheese. It is also popular with a variety of desserts, including any chocolate or apple-based dishes. Pommeau is made by mixing apple must to a quantity of one year old Calvados. The proportions are chosen to ensure that the resulting mixture has 17% alcohol by volume. The liquid is then put into vats and stirred gently, before being moved to oak barrels, each containing 400 litres, and left to age for around 30 months. The resulting drink is mahogany in colour with a bright lustre, and has an overall smooth taste, often with vanilla, caramel and butterscotch flavours. Production is controlled by two appellations covering manufacture in Brittany and Normandy: Pommeau de Bretagne, and Pommeau de Normandie.
Liqueur made with any type of fruit. The most common way to make liqueur is to either let the fruits macerate in alcohol, or to distill them. So, for example, Cartron Triple Sec is made using a selection of sweet oranges from Brazil and Florida and bitter oranges from The Ivory Coast and Sicily. The zest is macerated in pure alcohol in a copper pot still for several hours, followed by a distillation. The resulting orange flavoured spirit is blended with crystallized sugar and water to lower the percentage of alcohol. The final liqueur is filtered before bottling.