Luscious Elixirs

With so much attention being lavished these days on the surging popularity of cocktails and premium spirits, it’s easy to understand why liqueurs and cordials are frequently relegated as passé and out of step with contemporary tastes. They’re not glitzy and rarely-if ever-get coverage in the media. After all, who sips crème de menthe frappés any more?

And while we must temper any of our observations with the understanding of the recent and ongoing difficulties in the economy, the fact is, any bartender worth his or her salt will attest that the cocktail’s phenomenal renaissance is due in large part to the overlooked contributions of liqueurs and cordials. Their brilliant flavors and lush, satiny bodies temper the enthusiasm of high-octane spirits and provide the heart of most notable cocktails. Without a varied complement of liqueurs on the back bar, drink-making abilities behind America’s bars drop into low gear.

The adage that what people buy on Saturday is what they drink Friday night suggests a clear path how to increase retail liqueur sales. Consumers have taken to cocktails in a big way. Recreating their favorite concoctions at home for friends requires them venturing into your store for the ingredients – a few of which will assuredly be liqueurs.

Overall, the economic turbulence of 2009 clearly had a large affect on the cordials& liqueurs category. Total U.S. consumption was down significantly, off 4.1% nationally, to just under 20 million 9-liter cases, according to the Handbook Advance 2010, published by the Beverage Information Group. Indeed, virtually all of the leading national brands saw declining sales last year, with the large, well-known proprietary brands, which often sell at above-premium prices, taking major hits. Interestingly, in the control states, the cordials & liqueurs category actually increased overall by 1.2% last year. Most leading national brands all declined here; however, the various regionally-targeted, value-priced brands obviously helped the overall category. One notable success was Carolans Irish Cream, which gained 5.4% in 2009 in the control states. Generally speaking, though, the cordial & liqueur segment remains vital and well supported by suppliers, and as the economy slowly improves, so will the overall fortunes of these brands.

Cordial Possibilities

One misconception about liqueurs is that they’re thick, sweet and syrupy. It’s likely born out of the days when liqueurs more resembled cough syrup than elixirs. Well, times have changed. Most liqueurs today are light, aromatic and brimming with flavor, products in step with contemporary tastes.

The words liqueur and cordial are essentially synonymous. Liqueurs and cordials are made by blending or redistilling spirits with the essence of fruits, flowers, plants or other typically organic product. A sweetener is added to the flavored spirit, an amount equaling not less than 2.5% by weight of the finished liqueur. While their alcohol content varies greatly, most weigh in at 34 to 60 proof, although some well exceed 120 proof.

Four brands of liqueurs and cordials have reigned supreme from the mid-1950s through today. The principal claim to for these extensive lines of cordials is that they offer consumers the most flavor at the best value.

The best-selling of these brand portfolios is Jim Beam’s DeKuyper line. And it has continued to expand with the addition of Hazelnut Bliss Liqueur, Red-Headed Schnapps and Luscious Cranberry Crush. Its popular Pucker franchise now includes Grape, Island Punch and Berry Fusion.

Among the largest of these bedrock lines is Hiram Walker, whose portfolio now numbers 43 liqueurs, crèmes, schnapps and flavored brandies. Recent additions to the Hiram Walker range are Melon, Gingerbread and Pumpkin Spice Liqueurs, and Blueberry Passion, Pink Grapefruit and Pomegranate Schnapps.

The Bols range of liqueurs increased to 36 with the introduction of such contemporary favorites as Lychee, Bitter Orange, Passion Fruit, Blueberry, Coffee and Vanilla. Their redesigned packaging features bottles with easier to grip necks.

In the upper tier of the category is Marie Brizard from France. Long known for their traditional liqueurs – anisette and crème de cassis – the Brizard range now also features parfait amor, apry, mango and black currant cream liqueurs.

A Who’s Who of Classic Brands

Liqueurs date back more than 400 years ago. At first the process was no more complicated than steeping spirits in a mash of fruit. Honey was often used as a sweetener to negate the biting edge of the alcohol. Gradually as the art of distillation became more precise, so did the methods used to make liqueurs.

Several classic proprietary liqueurs are products of cloistered monasteries. Green Chartreuse, for example, has been made by the Carthusian Monks in Voiron, France since 1607. The yellow version debuted in 1838. Benedictine D.O.M. predates both of them. The famed herbal liqueur has been crafted at the Benedictine Monastery since 1510.

The recipes for other legendary brands remain closely held secrets. Cointreau Liqueur was created in 1849 by Frenchman Edouard Cointreau and today only five members of the immediate family know the recipe.

All world-class liqueurs have a story behind them, points of distinction years-sometimes generations-in the making.  Here’s a quick guide to these numerous brands, some of them your largest sellers in the category.

– Agavero – An aromatic liqueur made from a blend of reposado and añejo tequilas and a unique tea brewed from the damiana flower, an aromatic flower indigenous to the mountains of Jalisco and purported to be an aphrodisiac.

– Baileys Original Irish Cream – An instant success upon its 1979 introduction, Baileys is now the best-selling liqueur in the world. Made in Dublin, the liqueur is produced from fresh dairy cream infused with aged, triple distilled Irish whiskey and natural vanilla and chocolate flavorings. It is homogenized, pasteurized and bottled at 34 proof. The brand’s latest line extension is Baileys with a hint of Coffee.

– Benedictine  – A monastery liqueur produced at the Benedictine abbey in Fecamp, France since 1510. It is made from a secret recipe of 27 fragrant herbs, spices, plants, tea and fruits, each distilled individually and matured in oak barrels for 3 months before blending. The liqueur is made on a base of aged cognac and rested in oak casks. (80 proof)

– B & B – This timeless classic is an elegant combination of aged cognac and Benedictine D.O.M. Liqueur. (80 proof)

– Baerenjager – A honey liqueur made in Germany. (76 proof)

– Campari Aperitivo – A bitter Italian aperitif made by an infusion of bitter herbs and orange peels. (48 proof)

– Chambord – A crème de framboise crafted from grape spirits infused with fresh small black raspberries, herbs and other fruits. The liqueur is then sweetened with honey, filtered and bottled at 33 proof.

– Cointreau – A classic liqueur made from a blend of sweet orange peels from Spain, France and Brazil, and bitter, unripe orange peels from South America, double-distilled in copper alembic stills in Angers, France. (80 proof)

– Cointreau Noir – A blend of Remy Martin Cognac and grande dame Cointreau Liqueurs. (80 proof)

– Cynar – A bitter Italian liqueur flavored with artichokes and herbs. (33 proof)

– Disaronno Originale Amaretto – One of grand dames of liqueurs, Disaronno Amaretto originated in Saronno, Italy in 1525. Its proprietary recipe calls for premium Italian grape spirits and 17 herbs and fruits, including apricot kernel oil. Once fully infused with flavor, the liqueur is sweetened with caramelized sugar and bottled at 56 proof.

– Dooley’s Toffee Liqueur – Dooley’s Original Toffee Liqueur is an all-natural liqueur produced in Germany at the Bihn Distillery. It is made from fresh dairy cream, European toffee caramel and German vodka.

– Drambuie – First produced in 1906, Drambuie is made in Edinburgh, Scotland from a base of well-aged, Highland single malt whiskies. The blend is then infused with a measured dose of spice, herbs and heather honey. (80 proof)

– Frangelico Liqueur – A liqueur made with a base of Italian grape spirits, which are steeped with the natural extracts, including hazelnuts, cocoa, coffee, vanilla, rhubarb and orange blossoms. (48 proof)

– Godiva – An American chocolate liqueur, Godiva Chocolate Liqueur, 34-proof, has expanded its line and now includes Godiva Chocolate Milk Liqueur, Godiva Cappuccino Liqueur and Godiva White Chocolate.

– Grand Marnier – Ranked among the world’s finest liqueurs, Grand Marnier is made in Neauphle-le-Château, France exactly as it was over 120 years ago. Orange peels are first slowly macerated in cognac. The infused-spirit is redistilled, blended with the premiere cognacs from each of the growing regions and sweetened with sugar syrup. The liqueur is then barrel-aged at the Marnier-Lapostolle cognac cellars. (80 proof)

– Grand Marnier Cuvee de Centenaire – Introduced in 1927 for the company centenary, Cuvee de Centenaire is made on a base of Petite and Grande Champagne cognacs aged 25 years in Limousine oak. After blending the liqueur is further aged in oak cask. (80 proof)

– Grand Marnier Cuvee de Cent Cinquantenaire -Introduced to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Marnier-Lapostolle, the liqueur features a they’re blend of exceptionally old, Grande Champagne cognacs ranging in age up to 50 years. The liqueur is then aged 2 more years in Limousin oak barrels in the Marnier-Lapostolle cellars. (80 proof)

– Gran Gala – An Italian liqueur made from triple oranges and Italian brandy. (80 proof)

– Hpnotiq – A French aquamarine liqueur made from a blend of triple-distilled vodka, aged cognac and a proprietary mix of natural tropical juices. (35 proof)

– Irish Mist -Produced under the supervision of the Irish government, the liqueur is made with barrel-aged whiskey, heather honey and a medley of spices. (80 proof)

– Jägermeister  – A liqueur made from a blend of 56 roots, herbs and spices macerated in neutral spirits and matured in charred oak barrels prior to blending. The herbal liqueur was first bottled and widely marketed in 1935. (70 proof)

– Kahlúa – Kahlúa has been made in Mexico for nearly a century and was first imported into the United States after the repeal of Prohibition.  The liqueur is made from a base of continuous-distilled sugar cane and is steeped with vanilla and mountain-grown Mexican coffee. (53 proof)

– Licor 43 (Cuarenta Y Tres)  – A Spanish liqueur made from a base of brandy infused with berries, citrus fruit and fragrant herbs. The “43” in the liqueur’s name refers to the number of ingredients used in its proprietary recipe. (62 proof)

– Liquore Strega – An Italian liqueur made from a blend of 70 herbs and citrus. (80 proof)

– Mandarine Napoléon – A Belgian liqueur made from a base of well-aged cognac and fresh Sicilian tangerines. (80 proof)

– Midori -A Japanese liqueur produced by Suntory that is made from a base of neutral spirits and proprietary honeydew melon flavors. (42 proof)

– Patrón XO Café – Imported by the same folks who make Patrón 100% Blue Agave Tequila, XO Café is made in Mexico from 100% agave tequila and pure, natural essence of coffee. (70 proof)

– Pimm’s Cup  – A liqueur made in England from a blend of herbs, spices and lemons on a base of premium gin. (67 proof)

– Southern Comfort  – An American liqueur produced since 1874 from a base of grain neutral spirits and flavored with peach liqueur, fresh peach and citrus extracts. (80 proof)

– Tequila Rose  – An American liqueur made from blend of cream, tequila and natural strawberry flavorings. (34 proof)

– Tia Maria – A Jamaican liqueur produced from a blend of Blue Mountain coffee beans, chocolate and rum. (53 proof)

– Tuaca – An Italian liqueur made with herbs, fruit peels and brandy. (84 proof)

– Vermeer Dutch Chocolate Cream Liqueur – This liqueur is made from a base of fresh cream, pure Dutch chocolate and premium Skyy vodka.

– Zen Green Tea – Produced in Kyoto Japan, Zen is the first liqueur of its type. It is crafted from a blend of fresh green tea leaves, both whole and ground and a proprietary mix of botanicals that includes exotic herbs, lemongrass, and spices. (40 proof)

Bourbon & Honey

Jeremiah Weed earned its stripes as the drink of choice for generations of American fighter pilots. The venerable 100-proof liqueur is a marriage of bourbon whiskey sweetened with honey. With the global interest in American whiskey at an all-time high, other distillers looking to extend their reach are releasing their own unique takes on the subject.

Crafted by Heaven Hill in Bardstown Kentucky, Evan Williams Honey Reserve Kentucky Liqueur is a blend of extra-aged Evan Williams Bourbon and pure honey. The 70-proof liqueur is light bodied, balanced and loaded with the lingering flavors of vanilla, spice and toasted oak. The liqueur debuted in September 2010 at an average retail price of $14.99 for the 750 ml bottle.

The category now also includes premium Wild Turkey American Honey Liqueur. It, too, is an easy-to-drink blend of whiskey and honey. The golden-hued liqueur is unmistakably American in origin. It has all of the bakery-like flavors of bourbon without any of the whiskey’s fiery edge. The 71-proof liqueur is ideally served chilled after-dinner or mixed in a cocktail.

Brands To Watch

Social hosts and mixologists on the lookout for new and exciting flavors are driving demand and suppliers are only too pleased to fan the flames with intriguing releases. So in the event that you missed the fanfare over their initial release, here’s the scoop on the some liqueurs to appear during the past few years.

St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur is a handcrafted liqueur made in the foothills of the French Alps from wild elderflower blossoms. St-Germain, at 40-proof, has the pronounced aromas of tart citrus, pears and honey and a floral palate featuring layers of mango, rock candy and tangy grapefruit. Because St-Germain is light-bodied and well balanced, it’s a natural mixed with aromatic spirits – such as gin, tequila, rum and pisco – as well as Champagne and brandies.

Also gaining notice is Domaine de Canton Ginger, a ginger-laced liqueur crafted in the heart of the France. The small batch product is made on a base of eaux de vie and VSOP and XO Cognacs, which is macerated with baby Vietnamese ginger, Tahitian vanilla, honey and ginseng. The remainder of its ingredients is a closely held secret. The 56-proof liqueur adds delectably warm and spicy ginger notes to a wide range of cocktails from Mojitos to Sidecars.

A trend of note is the shift away from sweet liqueurs to those with more savory and herbal palates. An excellent example is Clément Créole Shrubb. Long a favorite in the Caribbean, the exotic, highly aromatic liqueur is a blend of Clément silver and barrel-aged Martinique agricole rhums that are infused with spices – including vanilla, nutmeg and cloves – fresh cane syrup and grapefruit and orange peels from Curaçao.

Back from an extended hiatus, Plymouth Sloe Gin is again turning heads in the States. After decades of fervent requests from the international cocktail community, Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth, England resurrected its traditional sloe gin. Made by macerating Plymouth Gin with fresh sloe berries and a touch of sugar, the 52-proof ruby red liqueur has a generous bouquet of plums and raspberries and a lingering pleasantly tart finish of honey and berries. It’s indispensable in such cocktails as Trader Vic’s Singapore Sling and the Sloe Gin Fizz.

While Harlem Kruidan Liqueur may be a new release here in America, it’s been a popular favorite in the Netherlands for 35 years. The black, highly aromatic liqueur features a blend of fruit, herbs and spice, lighter in body and more potent (80 proof) than perennial all-star Jägermeister. Harlem Kruidan is made and imported by Nolet, creators of famed Ketel One Vodka.

More Recent Arrivals

The roster of orange liqueurs, which includes such well-known offerings as Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Gran Gala and fast-growing Patrón Citrónge, has another entry: Solerno Blood Orange, a new 80-proof, ultra-premium liqueur from Sicily. The brand  features the authentic look of blood oranges and a bittersweet citrus and spice palate.

Two new French imports are also worthy of mention. Produced by Maison Roullet-Fransac, Bauchant Pear XO is an elegant liqueur crafted on a base of barrel-aged XO cognac. The featherweight liqueur has the color of tree-ripened fruit and an enticing brandy and pear-forward bouquet. Equally seductive is X-Rated Fusion Liqueur. The 34-proof liqueur is surprisingly light-bodied with floral and citrus notes and a tropical fruit palate.

Ty Ku Premium Liqueur is a sleek Chinese liqueur made from shoshu and junmai-ginjo sake infused with over 20 Asian super-fruits, aphrodisiacs and oolong and green teas. It has a refined citrus and spice palate tailor-made for drink-making. That TY KU is 40 proof and loaded with antioxidants is a bonus.

Recent arrival Xanté Liqueur is a Swedish import made with sweet Belgian pears and a blend of well-aged cognacs that is currently rolling out nationwide. The brandies were sourced from select distillers and aged for a minimum of 4 years in Limousine oak. The 76-proof liqueur has a long-lasting, fruit-laced finish.

New Creams Rising

Whether served chilled, in coffee or as part of a sumptuous cocktail, cream liqueurs are guaranteed crowd pleasers. Irish creams, led by the inimitable Baileys, are the obvious leaders here. Others, on the more value-priced end, include the second best-selling Irish cream, Carolans, and Saint Brendan’s, which boasts authentic Irish cream and whiskey in its ingredients. Steady demand has prompted a number of new brands to make their debut in the U.S. Prominent among them is award-winning Coole Swan, a superpremium Irish liqueur comprised of dairy fresh double cream, Madagascan vanilla, white and dark chocolate, organic dark cocoa and Irish single malt whiskey.

Urban adventurers and spirit enthusiasts will appreciate 1921 Crema con Tequila, a superpremium liqueur made with fresh cream, coffee and 1921 Blanco 100% Agave Tequila.

Until recently, Cruzan Rum Cream Liqueur from St. Croix was the lone rum-based entry in the market. With sales of rum steadily rising, it’s a good time to note the arrival of El Dorado Demerara Cream Liqueur. Imported from Guyana, it’s a 33-proof blend of chocolate, dairy cream and well-aged Demerara rums.

Equally exotic and delicious is South African Amarula Cream Liqueur, the main ingredient of which is the fruit of the Marula tree. The fruit is distilled in copper pot stills and aged for a minimum of two years in small French oak barrels before being mixed with cream and bottle it at 34-proof.  

Retail Action Point

– Game Plan: The best piece of advice is to find out how the client wants to use the liqueur. Those preferring to sip a liqueur after dinner will gravitate to the classic proprietary brands. However, the ongoing cocktail renaissance has made it more likely that consumers are looking to purchase liqueurs for drink-making purposes. Inquiring about what kind of cocktails customers are looking to serve will help you direct them to the most appropriate choices.

Robert Plotkin is a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and author of Successful Beverage Management – Proven Strategies for the On-Premise Operator. He can be reached at or by e-mail at


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