If any category were to adhere to the proverb “variety is the spice of life,” it would be liqueurs. With selections ranging from bitters to crème liqueurs to pastis, the mere breadth of the segment has lent itself to a wide fanbase: mixologists looking for the next big flavor, at-home cooks infusing their recipes with a delectable cordial, LDA consumers celebrating with the latest liqueur-based shooter, and restaurant patrons enjoying an indulgent digestif. Perhaps, for that reason, the top ten brands within the category have turned in mixed performances, with category leader DeKuyper down 4.5% last year, as No.-3 Jägermeister was up by double digits. Brands priced above $25 a 750-ml. seem to be gaining the most traction, following the long-term industry trend of premiumization. Overall, the segment has been hovering at under 20 million cases for more than a decade, decreasing 2.2% in 2022 to 17.7 million cases, according to Impact Databank.
The Cocktail Boost
The top ten brands account for half of all liqueur consumption, and many of them have enjoyed success due to their roles as key components in the nation’s most popular cocktails. Both top ten orange liqueurs—Grand Marnier and Cointreau—have experienced a boost due to their role in the Margarita, which continues to be the bestselling cocktail in the U.S. “Cointreau continues to be the No.-1 branded spirit in key cocktails consumed across the U.S., including the Margarita and the Cosmopolitan. This year is the 75th anniversary of the Original Margarita,” says Rémy Cointreau Americas president and CEO Nicolas Beckers. “Cointreau is an essential ingredient in the Margarita, being a named spirit in the original recipe when it was created in 1948.” The brand has seen great success by continuing to drive association with the Margarita, growing by nearly 20% during key consumption weeks like Cinco de Mayo and July 4, Beckers adds. The company has capitalized on this factor with its latest Margarita-focused “MargaRight” ad campaign, which launched in June and features actress Aubrey Plaza.
Earlier this year, the company also debuted a new bottle design for the brand and a fresh campaign, “Cointreau Changes Everything.” Among the design changes, Cointreau’s key ingredient—the orange—is given a prime spot on the new label, with the liqueur’s original distillery also depicted on the label and in the engraving. Made with two-thirds recycled glass, the new bottle also features a QR code giving consumers access to nearly 500 drink recipes. According to Impact Databank, Cointreau increased 9.1% to 456,000 cases in 2022.
Campari America, marketer of Grand Marnier, is also looking to highlight the role its French label plays in the Margarita. “The Margarita claimed its position as the No.-1 cocktail in the U.S. and, in the on-premise, Grand Marnier was the No.-2 branded cordial for Margarita menu callouts,” says Campari America’s head of marketing Andrea Sengara. She notes that consumer and trade education is key to the brand’s success, an effort they are supporting with “Grand Encounters,” an “edu-tainment” event launched in New York City in 2022 centered around how to turn a classic Margarita into a Grand Margarita. The program was expanded to include Houston in Fall 2023.
In addition to leveraging its role as a key Margarita component, Grand Marnier also targeted the high-end of the category with the launch of its Exceptional Range last year, which debuted with a Grand Cuvée called Quintessence ($3,500 a 750-ml.). A tribute to the brand’s origins, Quintessence is made with the oldest hors d’âge Cognacs that were selected exclusively from Grande Champagne and aged in the personal reserves of the Marnier Lapostolle family cellar. It comes in a handmade Baccarat decanter that features a twist in the glass achieved during the glassblowing process, and only 1,000 bottles were released worldwide. In tandem, Grand Marnier also launched Révélation ($700), an XXO expression made with less Citrus Bigaradia than is traditional in order to spotlight the Cognac flavors in the blend. “Our Grand Cuvée portfolio is performing well in crucial markets such as Texas, California, and Florida, and we continue to speak to our target consumer with smaller, intimate events that showcase the rarity and prestige of our liquid,” notes Sengara.
The resurgence of the Espresso Martini in recent years has proven a boon for coffee liqueurs, including segment leader Kahlúa. “With the overall growth of the category and as the No.-1 coffee liqueur worldwide and a top three cordials brand by value in the U.S., Kahlúa is well positioned for continued growth, as there is a lot of opportunity within the category,” says Devaunshi Mahadevia, Kahlúa brand director at Pernod Ricard USA. “We’re also seeing the Espresso Martini mega-trend continue leading into the holiday season and we’re in a great position to continue to be the brand most associated with that cocktail.” Of the seven offerings in the Kahlúa portfolio, he notes that Kahlúa Salted Caramel ($33 a 750-ml.) is one of the most popular among flavors, while Kahlúa Especial ($32) is the most popular variant overall. Last year, Kahlúa depletions fell 0.7% to 929,000 cases, according to Impact Databank.
At Wright & Co. gastropub in Detroit, which boasts an encyclopedic spirits collection, seasonal craft cocktails, and inventive small plates, beverage manager Roxanne Phillips sees the return of the Espresso Martini as an ongoing trend of ’90s-style cocktails coming back in vogue, a phenomenon she sees continuing. “The Espresso Martini is huge right now, so we do a riff on one,” adds beverage director Matthew Mitchell. “Bitter amaro goes really well with coffee, it adds a lot of flavor to cocktails, driven by vodka especially.” While the cocktail menu changes seasonally, Wright & Co.’s spin on the Espresso Martini, called the Roasted & Toasted ($16) and made with vodka, Bumbu Original rum, Averna liqueur, cold brew coffee, and toasted coconut syrup, will remain on the list given its popularity. The cocktail is a clear marriage of the amaro and ’90s cocktails trends. “We try and keep a pretty hefty stock of all different kinds of aperitifs, but we specifically use a lot of bitter aperitifs in a lot of our cocktails,” she notes. “It’s nice to balance out. For instance, adding a bitter aperitif to a Cosmo, changes the whole body of it but it’s still a Cosmo. I think it’s nice for the ’90s comeback thing, to add these aperitifs and amari, to make it more relevant.” In fact, Italian amari dominate liqueurs at Wright & Co. “The Italian stuff is the most popular right now, especially with Aperol and the rise of the Aperol Spritz, and the Sbagliato phase and all that stuff, it’s what people are talking about,” says Mitchell.
Two of the amaros in the Campari America portfolio, Campari and Aperol, are perhaps the largest beneficiaries of the increase in cocktail consumption, both at-home and on-premise. The two brands have been riding high since American consumers rediscovered the Negroni and the Aperol Spritz, leading both labels to grow by double digits last year. “Campari and Aperol’s popularity is driven in large part by both brand’s connectivity with culture, a gravitation toward lower abv cocktails and an increased consumer interest in all things Italian and the aperitivo culture,” says Sengara at Campari America. “U.S. consumers, like others globally, are becoming more aware and attracted to the aperitivo ritual.” The company launched RTD versions of both cocktails—the newly styled Campari Negroni Ready-to-Enjoy in 2022 and the Aperol Spritz Ready-to-Serve in 2021—as well as a bottle redesign for Campari, which began rolling out in during this year’s Negroni Week, held annually in September. Sengara points to sustained consumer interest in bitter flavors driving the amaro trend and, in response, the company has increased its education push about its extensive amaro portfolio, which also includes Averna, Braulio, and Cynar.
Sales at Drizly, the online beverage retailer and delivery platform, showcase the nonstop success of Aperol and Campari. “While it is not a totally new trend, the continued popularity of the Aperol Spritz has led to increases for the traditional spritz ingredients like Italian liqueurs on Drizly in 2023,” says Liz Paquette, head of consumer insights at Drizly. “Aperol is now Drizly’s bestselling liqueur (overtaking Baileys Irish Cream for the No. 1 spot), and the orange-flavored drink’s share has increased 20% in 2023 to date on Drizly compared to the same timeframe in 2022.” She adds that the at-home cocktail craze from the pandemic has seen a resurgence in Summer 2023, with cordials, liqueurs and schnapps benefiting. According to the company, for 2023 to date, its top five bestselling liqueurs, cordials, and schnapps SKUs are Aperol, Baileys, Cointreau, Campari, and Grand Marnier.
The popularity of amaro stateside isn’t limited to Italian offerings, as leading German bitter Jägermeister has also experienced a renaissance, largely due to the full return of the on-premise and, with it, the shot occasion. Last year, the label experienced a 10.8% increase, reaching 1.4 million cases, according to Impact Databank. “Liqueurs are being used more frequently as a key ingredient in classic and new cocktails, like a Jägermeister Old Fashioned or the popular Espresso Martini made with Jägermeister Cold Brew Coffee,” says Jägermeister vice president of marketing Charles Littlefield. “This trend aligns with the increase in the amaro focused establishments that are opening throughout the country, proving that the consumer continues to be interested in bitter flavors.” He notes that Jägermeister’s position as the global No.-1 shot brand has allowed the label particular success as, in the past two years, there has been a significant increase in shot consumption across all spirits categories among consumers aged 21-44. While the company currently has no plans to enter the RTD space, its prepackaged Mini Meisters ($10 a 10-pack of 20-ml. bottles), which launched in 2018 and offer a single-serve shot, are seeing pockets of success in both the on- and off-premise.
After Dinner Appeal
One of the most traditional occasions for liqueurs consumption remains the after-dinner, digestif space, leading many liqueur suppliers to double down on the dessert proposition. Part and parcel to this strategy is a focus on using the culinary avenue as a way to reach consumers, as ingredients in dessert recipes, but also through culinary-inspired flavors geared toward the after-dinner moment. “It’s an exciting time for the liqueur category. As consumers continue to make more premium drinking choices and look for new flavor experiences and ways to indulge, we see liqueurs continue to grow,” says Baileys and liqueurs brand director at Diageo North America Milly Shome. “As dessert and treating trends have gained popularity, Baileys has thrived as the ultimate go-to indulgence.” Baileys has a robust innovation pipeline to meet this demand. Earlier this year, Diageo introduced limited-time offerings including S’mores and Vanilla Mint Shake, the first-ever green Baileys, for St. Patrick’s Day. In September, they introduced Baileys Chocolate liqueur ($25 a 750-ml.), the brand’s newest permanent addition, made from Baileys Original and Belgian chocolate, and packaged in an opaque royal blue bottle. Baileys Chocolate was rolled out nationally, launching with a marketing campaign that includes 3-D out-of-home displays in Los Angeles and New York City, and a new creative spot. According to Impact Databank, Baileys fell 2% to 1.5 million cases last year.
Diageo isn’t the only liqueur supplier exploiting the dessert route to reach consumers. RumChata has emerged as a key competitor for Baileys in the crème liqueur space, using the same playbook of regularly releasing limited-edition, culinary-inspired extensions. The latest addition, Pumpkin Spice ($25 a 750-ml.), which debuted in the fall, is 13.75% abv, and joins RumChata’s other offshoots: Limon, Peppermint Bark, and Coconut Cream. Pumpkin Spice is the second extension since Spirit of Gallo acquired the brand in 2021 from Agave Loco, the first being Coconut Cream this past March. “The explosion of pumpkin spice in the U.S. over the last few years is impossible to deny, and with RumChata it was a no-brainer to bring consumers a new option at the perfect time of year,” says Spirit of Gallo senior vice president and general manager Britt West of the new, limited-edition extension. He notes that RumChata Peppermint Bark has historically been the brand’s most successful flavor, but that Coconut Cream is off to an incredible start, as is Pumpkin Spice. While less than half the volume of Baileys, RumChata grew 1.5% to reach 645,000 cases in 2022, according to Impact Databank.
Crème liqueurs are particularly focused on exploiting the culinary space, and innovation has proven the key ingredient to this marketing equation. Carolans, Heaven Hill Brands’ Irish cream liqueur, has multiple extensions that target the dessert occasion, including Cold Brew, Salted Caramel, and the latest offering, Peanut Butter ($15 a 750-ml.), which rolled out this past winter. Last year, Carolans decreased 5.3% to 429,000 cases, according to Impact Databank.
Future Is Bright (And Bitter)
Liqueurs can be a confusing category given its flavor range and breadth of styles, but in the short term, it is clear that Americans’ love of amaro will continue. “The desire for cocktails showcasing Italian bitters is continuously amplified by consumers continuing to embrace bitter flavors— trends like cold-brew coffee, kale, and bitter dark chocolate have all changed how consumers perceive, taste, and enjoy bitter profiles,” says Sengara at Campari America. The sustained demand for lower abv beverages, as well as the renaissance of ’90s-era cocktails both on- and off-premise, also proves to be a continued boon for liqueurs. “The drive for lower abv cocktails is really making a wave in the industry,” notes Phillips at Wright & Co in Detroit. “When making our last menu, we found ourselves wanting to have options for lower abv, which pushes us more into a liqueur amaro space.” And while crème liqueurs will always have their place for dessert occasions, for now, bitters have a hold of the American imagination and the mixologists that cater to them.