Liqueur 101 The Sweetest Lesson Of All

With Christmas just around the corner I thought it would be a golden opportunity to write this month's 101 blog about liqueurs seeing as they get very popular around the festive season. Regular readers will have seen the previous articles on Amercian Whiskey, Vodka and Gin; we will take a concise look at the background of liqueurs and then go on to see what goes into them and how they're made.

A Brief History Of Liqueurs

Liqueurs are probably the oldest of all high strength alcoholic beverages and were mainly 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's 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. These gatekeepers of lore have even been known to refuse to fly on the same plane together in case it went down! It is really important to make and recognise the distinction between liqueurs and spirits even if the line between the two can 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, you need something to sweeten the spirit with (generally sugar or honey) and something soluble with which to flavour it. The character of the liqueur will always come from these flavouring agents rather than the base spirit. Hence the derivation of the word liqueur from the Latin liquefacere, meaning to dissolve. In accordance with with a European law passed in 1989, liqueurs must have a minimum of 15% ABV and a minimum 100 grams of sugar per litre; this is increased to 250 grams in order to be labelled as a cremes de fruits. Additionally, they can be made with fruits, natural flavourings and naturally synthesised aromas and flavourings where the fruit molecule has been recreated. However, the latter method is prohibited with blackcurrant, cherry, raspberry, blueberry, citrus fruit, pineapple and plant liqueurs like mint where natural flavours 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. These are derived from;
  • Neutral grain, fruit or molasses
  • Brandy grape wine or fruit wine
  • Rum sugar cane juice or molasses
  • Wine grape or fruit wine to give a softer flavour
  • Whisky, famously Scottish or Irish
The range of liqueurs are diverse but can be broadly categorised as; Fruit Brandies: Examples include cherry and apricot brandy. Despite being called brandy they are not actually brandies at all; they are liqueurs by definition. A real cherry brandy would be a cherry spirit like Kirsch for example. Fruit Cremes: Notably Creme de Cassis and Creme de Peche. Citrus: The most common varieties are Triple Sec and Curacao. Mixed And Single Herb Or Flower: Petals, seeds or roots like caraway, mint, ginger, violet and rose. Beans And Kernels: Examples include cocoa beans, coffee beans, vanilla pods and nuts. Dairy Creams: Often based on Irish or Scotch whisky, tequila, toffee or peppermint. Mistelles: Fresh fruit juice with its fruit distillate and a minimum of 100g per litre of 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.

How Are Liqueurs Made

Firstly a base is selected (often supplied by a neutral spirit rectifier) for either its neutrality or inherent flavour. The next step is  source the flavouring materials and these often come from all over the world and are selected for pungency, colour and depth of aroma. The base and flavourings can then be combined together and the requisite sweetener added. The methods of extracting the flavour are as follows; Cold Maceration: This can take a very long time, 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 passed and re-passed through the filter multiple times. Distillation: 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 will 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 a tank or cask to allow the deepening of the flavour or the influence of the oak. The liqueur world is less strictly governed than most spirit types due to its worldwide production and variable flavourings. Here are two examples that illustrate the the degree of variation in liqueur production; Curacao: The original curacao was a liqueur flavoured with the dry peel of citrus fruit grown on the island of Curacao in the Dutch West Indies. The peel was macerated in alcohol to release its flavours and oils prior to blended with other herbs and 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 colourless. Today, both the terms Curacao and triple sec tend to represent generic liqueurs whose predominant flavour is derived from citrus peel; these are made globally as opposed to the island of Curacao. They are mostly now produced from flavour type concentrates, it may be coloured (hence the availability of orange and blue styles), have an alcohol content from 15% ABV to above 40% ABV and may have a sugar content anywhere from 100g per litre to 300g per litre. The huge popularity of Curacao can be attributed to the fact that it's an essential ingredient in some of the world's most popular cocktails such as the Margarita. Cassis: Within the cassis family, Creme de Cassis de Dijon is different from any other creme de fruits because it is more heavily regulated as a product of geographical destination. The liqueur must be made from only a maceration of blackcurrants, of which 25% must be of the 'Noir de Bourgogne' variety, and it needs to contain a minimum of 400g 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's blended with. The whole process must take place within the city of Dijon in France and the quality is inspected and certified by independent examiners.