Liqueur 101

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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.

Who should drink liqueur?

Anyone. Everyone. If there is a flavor a person likes on this planet it has undoubtedly been made into a spirit. Cream, cinnamon, artichoke, fruit, licorice… it just doesn't matter. Every part of the world has a particular flavor and someone, somewhere has somehow used it in a spirit. They are low proof to allow for easy sipping, they are strongly flavored to make a cocktail shine, and they can be complicated enough to please the aficionado. Children - where legal - will like the sweet and retirees will appreciate the memories. It can be a daunting experience to find a well-stocked liqueur section at a large store - good ones will helpfully sort by flavor rather than label - but it is literally hard to go wrong.

Biggest liqueur myth to bust...

If liqueurs are nothing more than neutral spirits that have been flavored, what is the difference between a flavored vodka or rum and a liqueur? In many cases, not much. The rules governing flavored vodka are looser than neutral vodka and darn near non-existent with flavored rums. In those cases, it is often merely stating the base alcohol before flavoring that separate, say, a coconut flavored rum from a coconut liqueur. Still, to qualify as a liqueur, they must be sweetened to at least a 20% sugar content. While many flavored vodkas and rum contain sweetener additives, oftentimes they do not. Someone who tastes a sweetened, European lemon vodka (close to a liqueur) may be greatly surprised at tasting a non-sweetened lemon flavored vodka (all in the aroma - no sweetener). The only thing you can count on is that a liqueur will be sweetened and a vodka or other spirit, not necessarily so. Hey, it's a confusing world and a very confusing business.

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