Lesson Six: Liqueurs

With thousands of different spirits included in this category, each one may have its own story to tell. But most have historical, even ancient, origins and arise out of humankind’s interest in preserving the healthful properties of certain spices, fruits, leaves, vegetables, flowers, bark and even plant roots.

When we consider the role of flavorings in drinks, we need to understand that someone once made this drink believing that it was a restorative, a medicine, and since the body generally tries to tell us to eat and drink what is good for us, the tastiest spirits were believed to be especially good for us.

Imagine a world in which everyone drank daily some alcoholic beverage, a drink altogether safer than the water of the time. Imagine that, depending upon your health or locality, you might choose a drink that is sweet from the local cherries (kirsch), whose stones are said to aid digestion and heal troubled bowels; that you might choose a new product called genever (gin), made from the oil of the juniper tree, which some believe can cure kidney ailments, or you might have a shot of Kummell (caraway) to heal blood infections such as the flu; or that you always begin and end your day with a dram of Chartreuse, blended and distilled by the monks of the Abbey of Chartres, whose concoction not only “makes the body well,” but is the result of divine inspiration.

Okay, with lifespans decidedly shorter than those enjoyed today in most of the developed world, maybe things weren’t so great then. But we have to think that people started their days in a much better mood than those who opt for coffee and a Danish in the car.

So Where’d You Get That Flavor?

There are many methods for flavoring a spirit, at least four of them essentially the same for the last four or five hundred years.

Compounding – a liqueur made of a sugar solution, combined with concentrated flavorings, is added to the base alcohol.

Infusion – a liquid is steeped with the flavorings (fruits and/or herbs) prior to distillation. The resultant drink will probably be fairly light in flavoring aromas.

Percolation – flavorings are placed inside the still to flavor the distillate as it passes through a screen or net of the flavorings. This process can capture very intense or very ethereal aromas and flavors.

Maceration – a distilled spirit steeps with the flavorings for a period of time, often weeks. This may not capture more delicate aromas but will certainly contain the strong and often bitter flavors of a fruit or herb.

The most common way to add flavor these days is to buy that flavor in concentrated form from a flavors and fragrance company. Not too romantic and sometimes not as good, but the quality depends very much upon the quality of the raw ingredients, as always, whether or not they are purchased ingredients or purchased flavors.

For organizational purposes, we have grouped common liqueurs by considering the raw materials from which their flavors are derived. Many liqueurs are flavored by fruits, but others by nuts or even milk products; even more frequently used are plants with their bark, their leaves, their flowers and roots.  But we could just as easily group these diverse categories by how and when they are consumed: aperitifs, digestifs and the like.

Fruit-Based Cordials and Liqueurs

Note: in the United States, the term “fruit brandy” most often describes a fruit liqueur based on heavily-sweetened and flavored grape brandy.

Amaretto (Italy) — originally from Italy, this almond-flavored liqueur gains its flavor from apricot stones, though some brands utilize almonds as well.

Apricot Brandy — most cordial producers offer a version of this sweet liqueur. Not to be confused with Barack Palinka or other high quality, full proof Eastern European spirits.

Blackberry Brandy – most cordial producers offer a version of this sweet liqueur.

Cherry Brandy – most cordial producers offer a version of this sweet liqueur. Not to be confused with Kirschwasser or other high quality, full proof Central European spirits.

Coconut Liqueur – many cordial producers offer a version of this sweet liqueur.

Cointreau – A proprietary (and premium) version of triple sec, based upon Curaçao oranges.

Curaçao – a historically-important liqueur flavored with bitter-orange peels. The artificially colored versions were introduced in the 1930s.

Crème de Banana – sweet banana-based liqueur.

Crème de Cassis – flavored by black currents, originally from south of France and the base for a Kir or Kir Royale.

Crème de Noyaux – flavored by apricot, peach or other fruit stones, with an almond flavor.

Frangelico – hazelnuts and herbs provide the base for this.

Grand Marnier – A proprietary (and super premium) version of orange curaçao, based on Cognac.

Mandarine – flavored with Mandarine tangerines, brandy or Cognac-based.

Maraschino – the flavor of the flesh, pits and even stems and leaves) of Marasca cherries from Dalmatia and northeastern Italy. You might not have heard of this but it’s a traditional and modern cocktail essential.

Metaxa – a Greek grape brandy that has been sweetened and to which herbs have been added.

Midori – a Japanese melon-flavored cordial.

Rock and RyeRye Whiskey with rock candy and fruit flavors added.

Sloe Gin – sloe berries from Blackthorn bushes, otherwise known as sloe plums, provide the flavor for this once-popular spirit.

Southern Comfort – Cane spirit blended with peach liqueur.

Triple Sec – a clear, higher-proof version of Curaçao; see Cointreau.

Plant Based Cordials and Liqueurs

Akvavit or Akavit – a caraway seed-flavored spirit.

Anisette – flavored with anise seed.

Benedictine D.O.M. (France) – a brandy-base cordial flavored with twenty-seven herbs and spices, and created in the early 16th century in France.

Benedictine and Brandy (B&B) – Uhm, Benedictine blended with brandy, glad they bottled that idea.

Chartreuse – an ancient cordial flavored with over a hundred herbs, fruits and spices, The VEP Green version at 110-proof is very potent. The milder Yellow is 80-proof.

Chocolate-Suisse – chocolate-based liqueur.

Crème de Cacao – flavored with cocoa beans and vanilla.

Crème de Menthe – available in green or white versions, flavored by mint plants, usually peppermint.

Drambuie – a Scotch-based liqueur with heather and honey.

Galliano – a sweetish cordial flavored with herbs and spices.

Goldwasser – caraway and anise with floating flakes of gold.

Irish Mist – Irish Whiskey flavored with honey and some herbs.

Kahlua – a coffee-flavored liqueur based upon rum.

Kummel – a caraway-based liqueur; an Eastern European specialty with a good deal of history.

Ouzo (Greece) – anise-based, and sweet, Greek liqueur.

Peach Schnapps – very common and popular version of schnapps.

Peppermint Schnapps – very common peppermint-based cordial

Sambuca – elderbush is often used to give this anise-like flavor, although the distillate can be made from aniseed.

Strega – flavored with many herbs and spices

Tia Maria – coffee-flavored liqueur based upon rum.

Bitter Aperitivi and Digestivi

This very traditional category reaches back to the beginnings of distillation; to the creation of healthful, even magical medicines through alcohol’s ability to extract and preserve the vital essences of plants. Most of these bitters still boast of their histories as folk medicines. They are chiefly a European phenomenon (although China is rich in their versions as well). Italy, in particular, is rich in these “amari”; indeed, it seems like every town on the peninsula makes their own type. In general, these come in two kinds: aperitivi (in France, aperitifs) “openers,” which are lower-proof and meant to be taken before a meal to stimulate the gastric juices, and digestive/digestifs, “digestives,” which are higher in proof and follow a meal to help everything digest properly. Most of both take their bitterness from the use of quinine (the bark of the cinchona tree), which gives them an additional anti-malarial function.

A few of the most important:

Amer Picon (France) – herb based aperitif with bitter-orange notes.

Campari (Italy) – the violently-red, bittersweet Italian aperitivo without which a Negroni cannot be made.

Fernet Branca (Italy) – a venerable, 80-proof herb based digestivo with a cult following among bartenders.

Jagermeister (Germany) – an herb-based digestif

Lillet (France) – a lightly-quinined aperitif with notes of orange; comes in a delicate white and a more robust red

Malnais Balzams (Latvia) – herb based bitters

Underberg (Germany) – herb based digestif; packaged in tiny small bottles

Unicum (Hungary) – herb based digestif

Vermouths and Aromatized Wines

Vermouths are a special category of aperitifs. The word vermouth comes from the German word wermut, or “wormwood.” Aromatized or flavored wines are one of the oldest alcoholic preparations known to man. Hippocrates steeped herbs and flowers in wine to make medicine in ancient times; indeed, this aromatized wine was a mainstay of Greek and Roman medicine, and remained so in European medieval medicine. The boundary between therapeutic and recreational drugs is always a permeable one, and as more effective medicines came into use in the 18th and 19th centuries, aromatized wines found themselves slipping over to the recreational side.

In most cases, aromatized wines are fortified with grain or grape spirit. Aromatized wine is a highly processed product so the character of the base wine is not apparent in the finished product. When it comes to cocktails the most important aromatized wine is vermouth. Antonio Carpano of Turin, Italy is credited with producing the first commercial vermouth in 1786, followed by the House of Cinzano.

The Italian style vermouths were sweet and red (the color comes from the botanicals, not the wine, which is white), but in 1800 Joseph Noilly of Marseillan, in the South of France, introduced a new, dryer style of vermouth that was white. Although Italian and French vermouth differ slightly, the basic formula consists of a base wine that is mixed with mistelle (sweet grape juice and base spirit) and flavored with herbs, roots, bark, and flowers. The manufacturing process is fairly complex.  Herbs and flavors are steeped in the base wine and in the brandy. After steeping, the wine, mistelle and brandy are blended in large vats. The mixture is pasteurized, filtered and bottled.

Anise Liqueurs and Absinthe

Absinthe, the anise-flavored spirit, was first made in Switzerland in the mid 18th century. Among the first commercially produced anise-flavored spirits, absinthe was made with oil extracted from the wormwood leaves. Wormwood belongs to the same plant family as tarragon and mugwort, the compositae family, and has been revered since ancient times as a cure for a host of human ailments from rheumatism to menstrual pains. It also contains a powerful substance called thujone, about which a great deal of misinformation has been printed. In German, wormwood is spelled wermut (pronounced “vair-moot”), and early vermouths contained the thujone-producing wormwood. After several well-publicized murders, absinthe was rounded up, along with the usual suspects, and found guilty of being a mind-altering substance that induced the lower classes to commit heinous crimes. Vermouth quietly discontinued the use of wormwood.

Absinthe was one of the most popular distilled spirits in the 19th century, but by the turn of the 20th century it was banned in the United States and most European countries. Absinthe played a supporting role in many 19th and early 20th century cocktails.

Thanks to an unexpected epiphany by the authorities (and that it was finally noticed that absinthe had only trace amounts of wormwood), absinthe is no longer so deliciously illicit. The market is drunk with come-hither, art-deco labels slapped on unimpressive, high proof spirits. Maybe we were better off before.

Arak, Araki, Raki

“Araq” or “Arak” is the Arabic term for “liquor” and as such is applied to an equally large range of distillates, from most of the lands where Islam has had a major cultural influence. South- and Southeast-Asian “arrack” is distilled from either palm-tree sap or sugarcane and rice and is unsweetened, and hence not a liqueur. Middle Eastern versions are made from dates, figs and even raisins and are flavored with anise or caraway. Generally, these are sweetened to one degree or another.


Perhaps the least understood and most crucial classic cocktail ingredient is found in a dusty, crusty little bottle with the big paper label that’s usually lurking somewhere on the backbar. Bitters are an old-time cocktail essential that was once on the brink of extinction. They’re now as ubiquitous as uppity bartenders. Made by steeping various barks, roots, flowers and such in alcohol and letting them age, the result is a liquid far too bitter and pungent to drink straight. However, when used carefully by the dash (1 to 3 dashes per drink is the normal dose), bitters don’t make the drink bitter, as many people think, but help other flavors to blend. In a properly-balanced drink, the customer shouldn’t really notice their presence but would notice their absence. In general, bitters are used more in drinks based on spirits modified by fortified wines and liqueurs than they are in drinks with citrus or other sour ingredients. Tartness intensifies bitterness and citrus and bitters can magnify each other to the point of imbalance.

There are three kinds of bitters in common use, but a cutting-edge bar will carry more if not many more. You may consider putting them where they’re visible since there’s no better way of signaling your friends that you’re able to make serious cocktails. Recent years have brought us a plethora of additional, new types of bitters to play with, all worth checking out, but these are the mainstays.

Angostura Bitters

From Trinidad, this ancient brand is by far the biggest and most versatile; with an impossibly complex flavor profile built upon a rum base, Angostura bitters blend particularly well with other strong flavors–rye whiskey, dark rum, gin.

Peychaud’s Bitters

Another old brand, Peychaud’s bitters display pleasing black-cherry-and-anise notes that blend particularly well with cognac and whiskey.

Orange Bitters

Orange bitters marry a concentrated orange-peel tang with a bitter edge. The original recipe for a Dry martini called for equal parts gin and white vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters. There are two brands in general circulation, the more orangey Fee’s West Indian Orange Bitters and the more bitter Regans’ Orange Bitters No 6.

Absinthe Drip

Ryan Demonstrates How To Make an Absinthe Drip.

Absinthe Drip Recipe
2oz Absinthe
Absinthe Drip Decanter – filled with ice water
Sugar Cubes
Absinthe spoon
Pour absinthe into antique cocktail glass, place absinthe spoon on
top of glass with sugar cube on top. Drip ice water onto cube and into glass to taste.


Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Martinez.

Martinez Recipe
Chill martini glass and set aside
In mixing glass add;
2-3 dashes of Regan’s or other Orange Bitters
1 oz Old Tom Gin
2 oz Sweet Vermouth
1/4 oz Maraschino liqueur
Add ice and stir
Strain into martini glass
Garnish with orange zest


Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Stinger.

Fill rocks grass with finely crushed ice and set aside
In mixing glass add;
2 oz VS Cognac
1 oz Clear Crème de Menthe
Add Ice and shake
Strain contents into rocks glass
No garnish necessary

Hanky Panky

Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Hanky Panky.

Hanky Panky
In mixing glass add;
2 oz London Dry Gin
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
2 Dashes of Fernet Branca
Add ice and stir
Strain into chilled cocktail glass
Garnish with orange zest

Last Word

Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Last Word.

Last Word
In mixing glass add;
3/4 oz Green Chartreuse
3/4 oz Maraschino liqueur
3/4 oz London Dry Gin
3/4 oz Lime Juice
Add ice and shake
Strain into cocktail glass

Ready for Review?

Now you can click on the “Lesson Seven – Tasting” button below to continue your lessons on how alcohol beverages are made.