Liqueurs, or cordials as they are frequently referred to in the U.S., are the products of the alchemists, physicians, apothecaries, and monks of the Middle Ages in Europe. The first spirit-based libations, progenitors of contemporary liqueurs, were concocted by early experimenters, sometimes at the behest of the aristocracy, for the express purpose of transforming base metals and other common materials either into gold, medicines, or life-extending potions. Though the Arabs are widely credited with the development of pot still distillation during the period of 800 to 1,000 A.D., it proved to be the Christian monks who took the distilling skill and turned it into an art.
The Islamic Moors, who for seven centuries occupied much of the Iberian Peninsula until 1492 when they were expelled, used their distillates for the making of cosmetics. The Christian monks, on the other hand, viewed alcohol more in terms of oral consumption in a medicinal sense. Throughout the period of 1000 to 1600 A.D., a bleak era rife with decimating plagues, the Christian abbeys that dotted Europe’s countryside were commonly employed both as hospitals tending to the sick who required medicines to treat their ills and as waystations for fatigued travelers who needed restorative foods and liquids.
Doubtless the ancestors of today’s liqueurs were most likely disgusting to the senses. In time the monks realized that the aromas and flavors of the spirit-based liquids could be improved dramatically when mixed with the essential oils of readily available resources such as herbs, honey, spices, fruits and botanicals. The evolving liqueurs could also be used both as digestive aids (mint and caraway soothe the intestines) and as simple sources of comfort from the day’s trials. Thus, by the final years of the 17th century, liqueurs had become firmly established in Europe’s social fabric.
OIL, OIL, TOIL AND TROUBLE
The distinctive characteristics of every liqueur arise from the creation of a specific recipe of essential oils and base spirit. Any of a half dozen types of distillates can be employed as the underpinning spirit. That line-up includes neutral spirits (grain), brandy (grape), whiskey (grain), rum (sugar), eau-de-vie (fruit-based), and rice spirit (grain). The selection of a sound base spirit is crucial because it’s the spirit that gives the liqueur its structure, alcohol content, and primary complexity. An inferior base spirit can never be transformed into a superior liqueur, no matter how many flavoring ingredients are used as supplements. Just as a house builder will tell you that even the most expensive bricks can never conceal or compensate for the deficiencies of a weak foundation, so too with liqueurs.
The list of traditional flavorings utilized in the making of the world’s liqueurs is gargantuan. Flavorings are by their very nature often localized to the region of origin of the particular liqueur in question. The abbey liqueurs of medieval times were most probably pungent libations due to the raw spirit and the inclusion of scores of exotic flavoring ingredients. These primitive liqueurs were works-in-progress.
A prime example of a liqueur that’s been a long-term successful marriage of multitudinous high quality elements is Chartreuse, the venerable, brandy-based liqueur that’s been produced by Carthusian monks in France’s Haute Savoie district since the early 1600s. The top-secret formula of Chartreuse, reportedly known by only three monks who’ve all taken a vow of silence, boasts a minimum of 130 herbs including such arcane names as hyssop, craggy hyponoyde, bellflower, saxifrage exarata and alpine gentian. Benedictine D.O.M. incorporates approximately 75 herbs and plants with its cognac base while Liquore Strega is said to have over 70 different herbs in its recipe. What, no craggy hyponoyde in your pantry?
The best method of understanding the breadth of natural ingredients that contribute to the making of liqueurs is to break them down into seven easily-digestible categories: Barks, Flowers/Plants, Fruit/Nuts, Herbs/Leaves, Roots, Seeds/Beans, and Sweeteners/Others.
Barks include the following: aloe, angostura, cinchona, cinnamon, myrrh, sandalwood, sassafras.
Flowers/Plants: chamomile, citrus blossom, clover, elderberry, ivy, jasmine, lavender, lily, poplar, rose, saffron, violets.
Fruit/Nuts: almonds, apples, apricots, bananas, blackberries, blackcurrants, celery, cherries, coconuts, cranberries, dates, elderberries, figs, grapefruit, hazelnuts, juniper berries, lemons (rind), loganberries, mandarins (rind, in particular), melons, nectarines, oranges (rind), passion fruit, peaches, persimmons, pineapples, plums, quince, raisins, raspberries, red currants, rowanberries, sloe berries, strawberries, tangerines (rind), walnuts.
Herbs/Leaves: basil, centaury, genip, herb ivy, hyssop, marjoram, peppermint, rosemary, sage, spearmint, tarragon, tea leaves, thistle, thyme, wormwood.
Roots: alant, angelica, blackmasterwort, calamus, celery, cloves, curcuma, galanga, ginger, henna, liquorice, orris root, rhubarb, snake root, turmeric, valerian, zedoary.
Seeds/beans: allspice, angelica, aniseed, cactus, cardamon, caraway, cumin, celery, cocoa, coffee, coriander, dill, fennel, mace, nutmeg, peppers, vanilla.
Sweeteners/Other: beet sugar, cane sugar, cream, honey, sugar syrup.
The essential oils (the chemical compounds that impart flavor) of these natural raw materials are obtained utilizing four distinct, age-old procedures, depending on the materials themselves and the desired results: the pressure method, the non-volatile compound extraction method, the maceration/percolation method, and distillation.
Briefly, the pressure method is exactly what it implies — the employment of a machine that exerts pressure on raw materials, mostly the rinds or seeds of fruits and nuts in order to extract the oils. The non-volatile compound extraction method takes away the compound’s fatty matter with a solution such as alcohol. The maceration/percolation method involves steeping raw materials in cold spirit to reduce or extract soluble elements and/or going further by passing them through icy cold or heated spirit (again, depending on the desired results and the raw materials) to purify them. Finally, distillation is the boiling process whereby oils are arrived at by separating the volatile compounds from the non-volatile through vapor action.
Once the essential oils are procured, the liqueurist’s job is to marry the precious and concentrated oils with the spirit according to the established recipe. The oils on their own full-strength are uniformly pungent and disagreeable to the sense taste. The delicate art of the liqueurist lies in mixing them together with other oils in varying equations and then with the foundational spirit. Balance among the alcohol, the potency of the oils, and the required sweetness/tartness is everything in the creating of liqueurs. After the final mixture is completed, most liqueurs are aged, the best in oak casks. Following the maturation period, further stabilizing ingredients, like water, sugar, honey, or alcohol, may be added to “finish” the liqueur or to raise or lower the alcohol content. The liqueur is then filtered and bottled.
Some liqueurs are so unusual and distinctive that they should never be served as part of a cocktail while others beg for inclusion in a mixed drink recipe. Certainly, like with all mixology, the better the liqueur, the better the mixed drink. Using liqueurs that are inexpensive and, thus, cheaply made will reflect in the resultant cocktail.
Liqueurs are most often incorporated as a flavor supplement in cocktails rather than a mixed drink base spirit and, consequently, should be employed more with discretion than with heavy-handedness. Since the majority of liqueurs are mildly sweet to very sweet, a counterbalance ingredient must be included. Cointreau, the orange-flavored, liqueur, for instance, is balanced by fresh-squeezed lime juice in the making of a classic Margarita. Rarely do you find a cocktail recipe that calls for more than a half-ounce of an intense liqueur such a creme de menthe or creme de cassis. Harmony and flavor nuances are the goals of any cocktail. The great bartenders use an “easy does it” approach when concocting their mixed drinks, especially when liqueurs are involved.
Another prime example of a liqueur that needs a gentle touch is bitters. When Campari, Pernod, Pimms, Fernet Branca or Ricard are part of a cocktail recipe, like an Americano, Negroni or Pimms Cup, the easy-does-it rule applies. When highly concentrated bitters, like Angostura or Peychaud’s, are employed, usually just a dash or two will do.
An intriguing aspect of liqueurs in cocktails is that they add beauty. Take the legendary Pousse-Café, a multilayered cocktail that is built in a specific order for the purpose of not only tasting delicious but looking great. Or Blue Curacao, a drier version of triple sec, that turns warm weather drinks a cool azure tint. A large measure of the appeal of cocktails is their image. Liqueurs dramatically add elegance, flavor and visual appeal to scores of popular mixed drinks.
Liqueurs are as adept in the kitchen as they are behind the bar, in particular when desserts and coffee are being prepared. Two teaspoons of Godiva Chocolate Liqueur or Chambord over vanilla ice cream are standouts. Both Grand Marnier or Mandarine Napoleon lend a subtle flavor of bittersweet orange to soufflés.
When it comes time for specialty coffees, liqueurs must be close at hand. Italian Coffee has to have either Strega or sambuca added to it. Irish Coffee might have a little Irish Mist or Baileys. Monks’ Coffee demands a shot of Benedictine D.O.M. And Mexican Coffee is nothing without a dash of Kamora or Kahl