Hint: if you like amaretto, Cointreau, or Irish cream, you're already a fan of liqueur.
two cordial glasses with red liqueur
Credit: Janna Danilova / Getty Images

Spirits, booze, liquor…liqueur? What is liqueur anyway? Liqueur is actually a type of spirit or liquor, which itself is a grain-based, distilled alcoholic beverage. A liqueur is a distilled spirit like vodka or brandy that is sweetened with sugar or syrup, and oftentimes it also contains flavoring agents such as fruit, herbs, and oils. Most liqueurs are sweet, but some have a bitter taste as well, depending on the herbs used. Flavors are added by steeping or percolating fruit or plants in liquor.

The word liqueur comes from the Latin word liquefacere, which means "to make liquid."

How Is Liquor Different Than Liqueur?

While liquors (gin, vodka, or rum, for example) are typically used as a base spirit in a cocktail, liqueurs are often used in a cocktail in a smaller amount to add flavor and depth. Usually, the alcohol content of liqueurs is lower than liquors, but there are exceptions. The range is from 24 percent to 60 percent by volume. There is no aging process required for liqueurs, but some are aged.

The History of Liqueur

Many herbal liqueurs were originally medicinal and have rich histories of being used as cures for various ailments. They have been called balms, cordials, and elixirs, and have been used for centuries as medicines and tonics, as well as aphrodisiacs.

While there are references to more ancient potions akin to liqueurs, the creation of today's liqueurs is most often attributed to 13th-century Italian Monks and physicians. Over time, they ceased being used as medicines and became popular as recreational drinks due to their alcohol content.

Types of Liqueur

There is a wide variety of liqueurs. Some liqueurs are brand names and have exclusive recipes, while others are generic and can be produced by anyone. Either way, liqueurs come in a wide range of flavors, including coffee, fruits (such as blueberry, passionfruit, apricot, rhubarb), vegetable (such as carrot), nuts (like almond and hazelnut), and herbs (anise, saffron, and ginger). There are also cream-based liqueurs, including Irish cream liqueurs such as Bailey's or Kerrygold, which combine cream with whiskey and other flavors; and crème liqueurs, which are very sweet and have a syrupy consistency, like crème de menthe and crème de cassis. Schnapps is made by steeping fruit in alcohol, and this produces a very sweet liqueur. Amaro is a type of bitter herbal liqueur from Italy.

Some of the most well-known liqueurs include Cointreau and Grand Marnier (both made with oranges), Chambord (made with raspberries), Kahlua (made with coffee), Campari (made with grapefruit and herbs), amaretto (made with almonds), Frangelico (made with hazelnuts), St. Germain (made with elderflowers), sloe gin (made with sloe plums) and Chartreuse (a French herbal blend).

How You Can Use Liqueurs

Liqueur is often used as an ingredient in a cocktail. It is typically part of a mixed drink that adds a lot of flavor, and it is used in smaller amounts than the base liquor. It's often the modifier or perfume of a cocktail.

Liqueurs can also be consumed straight on their own—usually sipped as an aperitif before a meal or digestif after a meal. You can drink them on the rocks or neat, depending on your preference. You can also add liqueur to coffee, and it's sometimes an ingredient in certain desserts, like Amaretto Pound Cake and black forest cake, which is made with cherry Kirsch liqueur.


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