What is Liqueur?Liqueurs are so endless in variety it is easier to universally outline and categorize womens' preferences in male suitors than to classify liqueurs. At their essence, they are a neutral spirit (often grain alcohol) infused with specific herbs, spices, fruits, berries, vegetables, or a combination of the above. They are often sweetened. They are drunk neat, frozen, shaken, and used endlessly as mixers. They are ingested before dinner (aperitifs), after dinner (digestifs) and by the shot (potentially unwise). They come in all colors, proofs, and viscosities. If music is the endless invention of artistic sound then surely liqueurs are the endless invention of the palate.
Where does liqueur come from?Liqueurs, according to Anthony Dias Blue in his book The Complete Book of Spirits, can be traced back to 800 BC when anise berries flavored palm wine for Arabic kings and Egyptian pharos. From whenever or wherever distillation first arose - surely in the Cradle of Civilization sometime before the birth of Christ or the common era - people began sweetening the spirits to improve their taste. The degree of sweetener and the components of the infusion create the endless variation in liqueurs today. They have a long storied history of monastic distillation, purported medicinal benefits, aphrodisiacs, and divination qualities. The name comes from the Italian word liquefacere, which means to melt or dissolve as in dissolving in alcohol. The term "cordial" was briefly popular in America but "liqueur" still dominates the spiritual lexicon, particularly in the modern era.
How is liqueur made?Take a neutral alcohol, put something in it, and you've got a liqueur. It really is that simple. The process can be varied. Adding sweeteners, usually sugar but also honey or even figs, is an important component to many liqueurs. Liqueurs will have a minimum of 20% sugar content, many have more, and it qualifies as a "crème" if it is at least 40%.
Components can be "macerated", which means simply immersing the whatever (orange zest, berries, herbs, etc) in alcohol. This will usually adopt the color and aroma of the "whatevers." You can try this at home by dropping lime zest in a bottle of vodka - within hours it will acquire a green color and a lime aroma. "Percolated" means spraying heated alcohol over the whatevers to pick up the characteristics. "Distillated" means actually putting the whatevers in the still such that the alcohol vapors pass through the whatevers picking up the aroma and flavor (this is often done with gin). Liqueurs can be distilled, re-distilled, aged, use multiple methods, or whatever else the producer can dream up… and they are imaginative! One of the fun parts of exploring liqueurs is simply reading about the inventive ways people put flavors into spirits.