5 things I’ve learned about…Liqueurs and Cordials

The October 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine included my review column on Liqueurs and Cordials!  The issue is currently on the newsstand, or you can view the digital format (subscribers only).  Here’s what I learned:

1. This is one freaking huge category. In retrospect, I was foolish in flinging the door wide open. But since I’d already done a review column on orange liqueurs and another on coffee/tea liqueurs and still another on the pleasantly bitter/herbal liqueurs that fall within the Aperitif spirits category, I figured there couldn’t be all that much left to try.

Boy, was I wrong:  the grand total on my tasting shelf? 99 bottles of liqueurs on the wall (nope, not 100)!

2. In fact, there were so many, I had to divvy them into categories in order to attack them with some efficiency and meet my deadline. In the end, it was a useful exercise. I decided the basic liqueur categories included  Fruit & Floral (subcategory for limoncello); Whiskey-based; “Dessert-like” (subcategory for cream liqueurs); and Herbal. Of course, plenty more categories exist, but this system got me through.

3. What’s the difference between a liqueur and a cordial? Apparently, nothing. According to Gaz Regan’s “The Bartender’s Bible,” it’s a matter of geography:  “In America, a cordial, usually served as an after-dinner drink, is what the rest of the world calls a liqueur — a sweetened liquor.” I did notice that the sweeter, dessert-like bottles (chocolate, coffee, cream liqueurs) were slightly more likely to be labeled “cordials” compared to fruity or herbal counterparts.

4. Krauterliqueur. This category – apparently an old German name for herbal liqueurs, many of which date back to the 1800s, 1600s, even the 1500s– was new to me, and a delightful surprise. They seem like Germany’s answer to Italy’s amaro category. My favorites included the fruity-spiced digestif Killepitsch, the lightly herbal Schwartzhog, and the refreshingly berry-sweet/bitter mix of The Bitter Truth E*X*R.

5. Bright pink drinks. These were a less pleasant surprise:  the wide range of variations on “French vodka, blood orange liqueur, and passion fruit,” each marked with a similarly lurid neon pink hue and mildly racy name (Intrigue Pink; Kinky Liqueur; X-Rated Fusion Liqueur).  What I object to is not the liqueurs — the grapefruit-cocktail flavor was fine — but the sameness. If a dozen “Krauterliqueurs” can be so complex and diverse, so can bottled pink fruit drinks.

If you have a favorite liqueur, I’d love to hear about it! I invite you to comment below.

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3 thoughts on “5 things I’ve learned about…Liqueurs and Cordials

  1. Thanks again for an informative post and reminding me once again you have a better job than I do!

    Personally, I find liqueurs in general too sweet to enjoy drinking on their own but they are wonderful flavor components in mixed drinks.

    I attended the “Making of Liqueurs” seminar at Tales of the Cocktail. It was very informative, although it leaned toward the “fruit” category, with Alain Royer expounding on French cassis making at Distillerie Pagés and Mateo Luxardo and Italian Maraska production, for the most part.

    They didn’t address liqueur vs. cordials, but did talk about what makes the difference between liqueurs and crèmes. It’s the amount of sugar. According to my barely-legible notes scrawled on a Hotel Monteleone napkin—located in the bottom of my backpack just today—in general, it’s 200 grams of sugar per liter for a crème, 100 for a liqueur, although with cassis, the blackcurrants are so acidic it’s doubled to 400 grams per liter for crème de cassis.

    The real surprise came later at Tales when absinthe guru T.A. Breaux held a tasting on the last day. He brought out some new(ish) products; Combier Elixer and Combier’s version of Kümmel (here and here). The former is very herbaceous, the latter, spicy, with cumin, fennel and caraway. Both are old recipes from the distillery that Breaux helped Combier resurrect—the Kümmel was the first thing I thought of when you mentioned “Krauterliqueur.”

    Breaux’s magnum opus, liqueur-wise, however, is his Perique Liqueur. If I had to pick a favorite and drink something on the sweet side, that would be it, if only because it’s not available in the U.S. Yet.

    I’ve got a comprehensive blog post coming up on this very soon, but Perique is a unique ingredient, a tobacco indigenous to south Louisiana that’s been made for hundreds of years by barrel-fermenting the tobacco leaves under pressure for about a year, producing a unique and strong flavor. Breaux spent quite some time extracting its aroma and flavor while leaving behind the nicotine and carcinogens and blended it into a liqueur, which he makes at Combier. His goal was to make something that tastes as pleasant as pipe tobacco smells and it’s a truly unique and complex liqueur.

    Stay tuned for an extended post (flagrant blog-pimping!) with an interview of Breaux and tales of my travels to the Perique fields in St. James Parish, Louisiana where a handful of farmers tend to the last 100 acres or so of this unique crop.

  2. For me, I love multipurpose liqueurs since I can’t work my way through a bottle fast enough, like Mandarine Napoleon, which is not saccharin and is a wonderfully versatile and balanced orange liqueur. I also like St. Germain for its airiness.

    • That’s a good point about versatility – and I like your choices! Lately, I’ve been hearing more industry types referring to the more versatile liqueurs as “modifiers.” As in, they can be used to “modify” basic drinks into something slightly or even entirely different.

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