With the mixology movement at the height of popularity nationwide, spirits like whisk(e)y, gin and even vodka have seen their markets grow as consumers flock to craft cocktail bars. And although many vintage drink recipes bring to mind specific spirits, a good deal of these classics also feature a liqueur that serves an equally important purpose in the drink as its base spirit.
“By definition, liqueurs add sweetness to a cocktail, but more importantly they add texture, which ultimately makes or breaks a cocktail,” says Bobby Frye, owner of Pittsburgh bars Bar Marco and The Livermore. Bar Marco bartender Alec El agrees that liqueurs play a pivotal role in cocktail-making. “More often than not, liqueurs aren’t sipped by themselves, but when you combine them with juices and spirits, they become this inspiring helping hand,” he adds.
Indeed, liqueurs are revered for their ability to take a drink from one-note to multidimensional. “I think consumers are looking for unique flavors that balance spirits,” says John Dye, owner of Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee. “We all love gin, but a three-ingredient cocktail made with gin, citrus and a liqueur can be transcendent. Liqueurs are a big driving force behind unique cocktail flavors.” Colin Smith, bartender at The Livermore, also points to this balance between spirits and liqueurs. “Where would gin be if it weren’t for Campari, and vice versa?” he says, referring to the classic Negroni, which has seen a major resurgence in bars nationwide in the last decade. From stalwarts like Campari, Aperol and Chartreuse to newer brands like St-Germain and Barrow’s Intense, liqueurs have become as ubiquitous on U.S. back bars as the spirits they complement. “Liqueurs give a cocktail its personality—they allow a base spirit to shine and serve as the supporting character in the glass,” says Lynn House, brand ambassador for Pama pomegranate liqueur.
The interplay between base spirits and liqueurs in cocktails is a major point of interest for mixologists, whose inspiration often comes from 19th– and early 20th-century bartending guides. “The liqueurs that are rooted deep in tradition and have been around for a long time have great stories,” Frye says. “I particularly love having the opportunity to tell our guests the story of a liqueur’s origin, how it’s made and what it does to the cocktail.”
Aperol aperitif, created in 1919, serves as the base of The Livermore bartender Colin Smith’s Venetian Soda ($10), which also includes Frangelico hazelnut liqueur, Jannamico Super Punch liqueur, Fee Brothers Walnut bitters and seltzer. And at Lush wine bar in Chicago, Them Apples ($12) features Aperol, Pommeau du Domaine de Semainville aperitif, Sombra mezcal, Buffalo Trace’s Stagg Jr. Bourbon, Crispin sparkling hard cider, rosemary apple cider simple syrup and Fee Brothers Rhubarb bitters.
“The return of thoughtful, fun, craft cocktails and drinking experiences that has been chugging along for 10 or so years now has brought liqueurs to the forefront again,” Frye explains. “It’s similar to how hops became a topic of conversation when craft beers hit the scene and people started caring about the beer they drink. People now care about what’s in their cocktails.”
The herbal French liqueur Chartreuse—available in the traditional Green and the sweeter Yellow—has become hugely popular in recent years. It’s even served on tap in some establishments, including Still & Stir in Worcester, Massachusetts; Vera Pizzeria in Buffalo, New York; Canon in Seattle; and Range in Washington, D.C. Chartreuse is cherished among bartenders for both its history and its herbal character. “Although it’s hard for me to pick a favorite liqueur, I’d have to go with Chartreuse,” Smith says. “Since 1605, the Carthusian monks have been putting out one of the most diverse and delicious spirits on earth. Rich and herbaceous, sweet and strong—I can’t really think of anything more versatile, steeped in tradition and delicious.” His Harlequin cocktail ($12) is a variation on the classic Bijou, comprising Green and Yellow Chartreuse, Hayman’s Old Tom gin, Dolin Rouge vermouth, orange blossom honey syrup and pineapple foam. “The original Bijou is very complex but can be bracing,” Smith explains. “This similarly complex cocktail is tamed down and brought into the modern cocktail arena with the addition of pineapple foam.”
Yani Frye, bartender at The Sugar House in Detroit, explains that learning more about traditional cocktail recipes inevitably leads to discovering liqueurs and their many uses. “Since the great resurgence of favorite old recipes, we get the chance to recreate classic cocktails,” he says. “Many of these drinks feature liqueurs that add an extra special flavor kick.” In September, Frye won the Camp Runamok Cognac Throwdown competition with his Will & Testament, a blend of Rémy Martin Cognac VSOP, Yellow Chartreuse, Solerna blood orange liqueur, lime juice and a Peychaud’s bitters rinse. The drink is inspired by two classic recipes: the Corpse Reviver No. 2 and the Last Word.
At Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, liqueurs are in the spotlight. “Nearly all of our 450 cocktails feature liqueurs—they’re pieces of consumable history,” Dye says. “One historical drink we still serve often is the Pink Squirrel, which was invented in this bar in the 1940s.” The bar’s Pink Squirrel ($9) blends Bols Crème de Noyaux and Crème de Cacao liqueurs with vanilla ice cream. “Bols Crème de Noyaux is an almond liqueur made from apricot stones,” Dye explains. “We use a lot of Bols products because our founder, Bryant Sharp, used to create cocktails for the Bols brand in the ’40s and ’50s.” Lucas Bols has been producing spirits since the 16th century and now boasts more than 35 different liqueurs in its portfolio.
Between the extensive number of historical brands and the growing roster of new names, the liqueur category has something to offer for any style of cocktail. “There’s everything from herbaceous, floral, bitter and so on,” The Livermore’s Smith says. “Many liqueurs also contain more than one basic flavor profile, thus enhancing their effect.” His Te Vanil ($12) features Espolón Reposado Tequila, Vida mezcal, Tuaca vanilla-citrus liqueur, Codorníu Cava, honey, fresh lemon juice and Fee Brothers Chocolate bitters.
Smith adds that the plethora of new liqueurs is expanding the category in a positive way. “New artisanal liqueurs, such as Sorel and products from Art in the Age, are made with great precision, and their market is growing thanks to the recent demand for craft cocktails,” he says. Smith’s Circle of Life cocktail ($12) comprises Old Overholt rye whiskey, Bulleit Bourbon, Sorel liqueur (a blend of clove, cassia, ginger, nutmeg, hibiscus and sugar cane), Bénédictine herbal liqueur, Château Guiraud Sauternes and Angostura bitters.
Launched in 2007, St-Germain elderflower liqueur has grown to become a major player in the cocktail world. “Probably one of the greatest success stories is St-Germain,” says Dye of Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge. “When the brand was first released, you would only occasionally see it. Now it’s hard to find a bar that doesn’t carry St-Germain.” Smith concurs, adding that it’s a favorite liqueur among guests of both The Livermore and Bar Marco. “It’s been an interesting time since elderflower entered the cocktail scene, and now it’s ubiquitous,” he says. At The Sugar House, Frye’s Room Key ($11) mixes Angostura 7-year-old rum, St-Germain, lemon juice, ginger syrup, soda and Angostura bitters. The drink became popular after it won Frye first place in the 2013 Angostura U.S. Cocktail Challenge. “St-Germain adds a subtle sweetness while also providing a floral note,” Frye says.
With the liqueur category undergoing such an impressive boom with no signs of fading, Italian fine wine distributor Vias Imports recently introduced two new liqueurs from Sibona Antica Distilleria to the U.S. market: Sibona Chamomile grappa liqueur and Sibona amaro. The former is floral and light, while the latter—made with 30 different herbs and roots—has dominating herbaceous flavors of rhubarb, ginseng and mint. The liqueurs are being touted in such drinks as the Sibona Ginger Fizz, comprising Sibona amaro, Hendrick’s gin and ginger beer, and the Chamomile Iced Green Tea, a blend of Sibona Chamomile, iced green tea and mint. “Liqueurs provide such an abundance of flavors—they’re like having a liquid spice rack,” says Deena Miskiel, national sales manager of Vias Imports. “The cocktail combinations are only limited by one’s imagination.”
Seasonal Yet Stable
Consumers and mixologists alike are increasingly moving away from artificial flavorings in favor of all-natural ingredients. Many times, fresh juices and homemade syrups take the place of bottled corn syrup-heavy variations. But handling fresh ingredients behind the bar isn’t always an easy task, especially considering the seasonality of fruits and vegetables. Liqueurs that embrace all-natural ingredients and methods of production have thus become prized possessions in the bartending community.
“Liqueurs are important because we can often use them in place of a fresh ingredient—they’re shelf-stable and unaffected by seasonal change,” Dye of Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge says. “For instance, we may use a framboise liqueur in place of fresh raspberries or an herbal liqueur in place of fresh sage or rosemary. We have a huge range of cocktails and no kitchen, so we’ve found that it’s difficult to work exclusively with fresh ingredients. We use mint, cucumber and basil, but most of our flavors come from liqueurs or purées.”
The bar’s Sage Wisdom ($12), created by manager Jeff Cleveland, features Tanqueray Malacca gin, Art in the Age Sage liqueur, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup and Bittercube Jamaican No. 1 Bitters. “Just as chefs won’t use fresh tomatoes in the middle of winter, we would never use a flavorless strawberry just because it’s available in the produce section,” Dye explains. “Liqueurs, when done right, take the essence of fresh ingredients and make them usable, measurable and consistent.”
That’s certainly the case with Barrow’s Intense ginger liqueur, launched by Josh Morton in Brooklyn in 2013. “Because 200 pounds of fresh ginger are used in every batch, Barrow’s Intense delivers a distinctly fresh ginger flavor while still being shelf stable,” says Eve Alintuck, vice president of the brand. “The liqueur is always there without the consumer having to worry about it spoiling. This stability is what makes liqueurs so helpful in creating cocktails.” At Stache 1920’s Drinking Den in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the Intense Antidote ($11), created by bartender Brian Sassen, features Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition blended Scotch whisky, Barrow’s Intense, black pepper honey syrup and lemon juice. And at Luca’s Mediterranean Café in Keene, New Hampshire, owner Luca Paris devised the Intense Fall Fusion, blending Barrow’s Intense with Jim Beam Maple Bourbon and pumpkin reduction. “The introduction of higher quality liqueurs made by craft distillers with real flavors instead of chemicals has played a huge role in getting consumers to really embrace liqueurs,” Alintuck notes.
Pama’s House has also seen a change in the popularity and consumer knowledge of liqueurs in recent years. She attributes this change to both the revival of classics and the emergence of new brands. “When I started bartending, the only liqueurs behind the bar were triple sec and peach schnapps,” House explains. “Thankfully, the bar is evolving. Instead of being stocked with artificially flavored, sickeningly sweet syrups, we’ve seen a resurgence of classic liqueurs like Chartreuse and Bénédictine, as well as a plethora of new liqueurs like Pama, Sorel, Domaine de Canton and St-Germain.” She adds that it’s now not unusual for a guest to come in and ask for a drink made with Pimm’s, Aperol, Campari, Chartreuse and such. “That wasn’t happening 10 years ago,” House says.
At New York City’s The Strand Bistro, the Devil Wears Pama ($14) features the pomegranate liqueur with Grey Goose vodka, cranberry juice and lime. “Pama works beautifully with both white and dark spirits; its sweet and tart flavor and natural tannins provide great structure in cocktails,” House adds. In March, Pama hosted a bartending competition in New York City called “Are You Indispensable?” that invited renowned mixologists from around the country to create original cocktails using the pomegranate liqueur. Ryan Gannon of Cure in New Orleans created the winning Law Abiding Citizen, blending Pama with Hidalgo Napoleon Amontillado Sherry, lemon juice and simple syrup.
Whether it’s a storied brand from the 17th century or a new label making inroads, there’s a liqueur to add balance and dimension to every cocktail. “Liqueurs provide a unique wealth of possibility for mixing drinks,” Alintuck says. “If your goal is to make a memorable cocktail, it pays to get the liqueur right.”