Liqueurs lately have had bad press, scratching and clawing their way on to the drinks list. But this sweet and flavourful underdog still has some bite, says Ben Canaider.
Some say liqueurs have fallen out of favour. Consumer tastes, they maintain, tend toward drier drinks, but is there still a place on a drinks list for liqueurs? Generally, the answer is no. But the intelligent and informed answer is yes—particularly if you play the liqueur game seasonally and cleverly.
Let’s first get this liqueur game straight. Liqueurs come from a medieval tradition more concerned with the medicinal and preservatory. Distilled alcohol comes from the Arab world, where it was mainly used in perfumery and medicine. Infused botanicals—the weeds, roots, leaves and so on—come from the European apothecary tradition. Combined, botanicals and alcohol became a curative and an elixir. Fruits, herbs, nuts, flowers or other botanicals form the flavour basis of all liqueurs. Alcohol, however, is the base ingredient.
This is how it is done: you can infuse these botanicals into the alcohol by long soaking before you distil, or you can soak the botanicals in boiling water before adding the strain to the alcohol. Then again, you can macerate the fresh and dried botanicals with the distilled alcohol and then bottle. Or you can percolate the alcohol through the botanicals. Most liqueurs are made using a mixture of all these techniques, which does make you wonder.
The short version of all of this is that there’s no hard and fast rule for liqueur making, except that nearly every liqueur on the market has ‘“a secret ingredient’’.
Nevertheless, there are some distinct styles of liqueurs. All in all, about four: proprietary liqueurs, coffee liqueurs, cream liqueurs and crème liqueurs.
The proprietary liqueurs are the ones with which we are perhaps most familiar, maybe even too familiar.
Galliano, D.O.M. Benedictine, Pimm’s and Southern Comfort are some examples. Built over a base spirit, they invariably rely on some sort of secret recipe. Which is very annoying to those of us concerned about the responsible service of alcohol. At least they have tradition on their side—in some cases. D.O.M., for instance, is a recipe that is only ever known to three living people, and it goes back to 1510. The history of the drink is perhaps its best selling point. Indeed, this elixir, or “zest of eternity’’ as the D.O.M. marketers call it, comes from the Abbey Fécamp, in France. Invented by Dom Bernando Vincelli, it was originally used as a cure for malaria. Like some of the better liqueurs, it’s best suited to post-prandial arm chairs and fireside philosophising. But what I like best about D.O.M. is its secret-squirrel, only-three-people-can-know attitude.
These liqueurs appear to be all a bit old hat—or perhaps they’re actually about to be reborn.
The second style of liqueur, however, refuses to go away: coffee liqueur. Yes, Tia Maria is the principal suspect. Invented only toward the end of World War II, this 27 per cent alc/vol liqueur is like drinking a heavily sugared bitter coffee, with that alcohol driving all the flavour. It returns better profits than an after-dinner mint, though. Or is that being too hard on the drink?
Tia Maria comes from Jamaica, and its key ingredient—coffee—is the thing that separates it from the more traditional liqueurs that rely on those medicinal and bitter astringent-flavouring agents—like bits of bark and root and leaf.
The two remaining sub-categories of the liqueur business are worth noting, if only to be thorough: cream liqueurs and crème liqueurs.
Cream liqueurs are typified by such products as Bailey’s Irish Cream. It’s a liqueur and, yes, it actually has cream in it. It’s still made by the Bailey’s family, and it’s a mixture of Irish whiskey, coffee and cream. Around 17 per cent, it’s a drink that young people have been known to experiment with. At best, this is a tipple for innocent people with a sweet tooth.
Crème liqueurs contain no cream, but are liqueurs with a higher than normal sugar addition. This makes them even more lush and syrupy. Crème liqueurs are invariably based on one dominant fruit or berry flavour, such as banana, cassis, strawberry. Containing about 25 per cent alcohol, they are also mostly used as mixers in more fancy cocktails. The best of them is crème de cassis, which when added to some champagne makes a wonderful Kir Royale.
The great factor when it comes to your business and to liqueur, however, is shelf life. Their prices can go up, but they invariably stay serviceable on any bar’s shelf—with a very odd exception, such as the cassis just mentioned. (After a couple of months it loses its heightened colour and flavour, so keep it in the fridge and use it quickly.)
Liqueurs also give your bar some range, and some respect for time and place. Australia was not so long ago a nation wherein these sorts of liqueur drinks were the be-all and end-all of after-dinner tippling.
And with a future cocktail boom on the horizon, along with elaborate mixed drinks, you’ll be pleased to have these liqueurs on hand, particularly when quality patrons waltz in the door and all-too knowingly order a Double Orgasm.