As today’s drinker is increasingly exposed to historic cocktail recipes, an appreciation of storied and artisanal liqueurs is a natural progression. Indeed, most traditional tipples call for at least one liqueur, and sometimes a liqueur can even fill the role of the base spirit in a mixed drink.
“Liqueurs have served as invaluable mixing ingredients since the dawn of the modern cocktail age in the mid-19th century,” says Gregory Buttera, Chicago-based bartender and Italian portfolio specialist at Campari America. “Liqueurs go in and out of fashion decade to decade, but they always feature prominently in the world of mixology.” Campari America’s stable of liqueurs includes Campari aperitif, Aperol aperitif, Averna amaro and Cynar amaro. Buttera adds that many once-forgotten brands are experiencing a renaissance of sorts, thanks to the resurgence of classic cocktail culture. “Some liqueurs had fallen almost completely out of use by the early 21st century, but they’ve now returned to prominence as mixologists embrace historic recipes,” he says.
Camille Vidal, global brand ambassador for St-Germain elderflower liqueur, also notes a recent shift in the category’s popularity. “At one time, a Margarita would have been made with sour mix, but these days, cocktail bars are much more likely to adhere to the traditional recipe and include an orange liqueur, such as Cointreau,” she says. “We’ve also seen the re-emergence of classic drinks like The Last Word with Green Chartreuse liqueur and the Bobby Burns with Bénédictine liqueur. This trend has been amazing for these older premium liqueurs.”
Furthermore, the rise in popularity of such storied brands with origins dating back hundreds of years has paved the way for modern liqueurs to enter the market. Newer names like St-Germain, Barrow’s Intense ginger liqueur and RumChata cream liqueur have helped expand the mixologist’s cocktail toolbox and open up a world of new drinks options with a nod to the classics.
An essential part of building a balanced cocktail is understanding the purpose of each ingredient. Liqueurs are unique in that they can have multiple functions in a cocktail, which makes them both challenging and exciting to mixologists. “I like using liqueurs because they add a sweet or savory element to cocktails without sacrificing the overall proof of the drink,” says Adam Kamin, head bartender at Bottlefork in Chicago. When working with sweeter fruit liqueurs, he adds spices and citrus to create balance. His Baysic cocktail ($14) features bay leaf–infused Aylesbury Duck vodka, Giffard Banane du Brésil banana liqueur, house-made ginger syrup and lemon juice.
“Liqueurs provide alcohol, sweetness and flavor in a cocktail, all in widely varying amounts depending on the brand,” Campari America’s Buttera says. “A single liqueur can provide a huge payload of flavor to a cocktail while bulking up its alcohol content, which lends structure to a drink, and it can function as the sole, primary or secondary sweetener. Adding one liqueur can radically transform a cocktail’s taste profile.” Indeed, a fairly straightforward gin drink becomes something more complex in Buttera’s Sicilian Dragon ($12 at Barrelhouse Flat in Chicago), which blends Averna amaro with Bulldog gin, house-made honey syrup, Angostura bitters and a whole egg.
Using liqueurs to add a unique twist to a simple drink recipe is popular. “Liqueurs allow bartenders to express their creativity,” St-Germain’s Vidal says. New York City bar Wallflower offers a unique take on a Gin Sour with the Tête à Tête ($14), created by bar owner Xavier Herit. The drink comprises Citadelle gin, St-Germain, lime juice, simple syrup, cucumber, basil and freshly ground cubeb pepper. At the Green Table, also in New York City, the Intensive Care ($13) puts an unexpected twist on the Hot Toddy by using a liqueur in place of the traditional honey. Created by beverage manager Rick Hickman, the cocktail features Barrow’s Intense, Town Branch Bourbon, warm mulled cider, cloves and lemon. At The Union Kitchen in Houston, mixologist and assistant beverage director Keli Ledet incorporates ginger liqueur to add a flavorful punch to a traditional Margarita. Her Intense Ginger Margarita ($9 a glass; $25 a carafe) blends Barrow’s Intense, Sauza Silver Tequila, Luchador Lime Margarita Mix and fresh limeade.
Old Meets New
Putting a personal spin on a traditional recipe like the Hot Toddy or the Margarita exemplifies the evolving tastes of today’s cocktail culture. Consumers continue to embrace the classics while also seeking new experiences.
“The liqueurs market has been dramatically affected by the craft cocktail movement of the last decade,” Campari America’s Buttera says. He compares the classic recipes that inspire modern mixologists to the blues’ influence on rock and roll. “Early rock musicians in the 1950s and ’60s rediscovered old bluesmen and saw the potential to shape their sound. Dredging up traditional cocktails and bygone ingredients has functioned similarly in mixology. These recipes have tremendously influenced the drinks we make today.”
Indeed, once-forgotten cocktails are now well-known and celebrated. Mixologists are mixing and matching different liqueurs in place of other spirits in these traditional recipes to create modern concoctions. “Thanks to the cocktail boom, mixologists have been developing hybrids of the classics, creating New Old Fashioneds and twists on Manhattans that often use liqueurs for new flavor experiences,” says Tracey Johnson, brand manager for Brown-Forman Corp.’s Tuaca vanilla-citrus liqueur. “The wide variety of liqueur flavors available allows the professional and the home bartender to really punch up old favorites,” she adds.
For Brown-Forman, manager of new product innovation Shari Klose created numerous twists on classic recipes that feature the company’s liqueur brands, including Tuaca, Southern Comfort spiced whiskey liqueur and Chambord black raspberry liqueur. The Tuaca Mule uses Tuaca in place of vodka, mixed with ginger beer and lime; the SoCo Mai Tai substitutes Southern Comfort for the rum and orange liqueur, blended with lemon-lime soda and cherry juice; and the Chambord Manhattan features Chambord instead of vermouth, combined with Woodford Reserve Bourbon and Woodford Reserve Spiced Cherry bitters.
Also playing with a traditional recipe, the spiced wine liqueur Geijer Glögg touts the Spicy Negroni, which replaces the traditional vermouth with Geijer and also features St. George Botanivore gin and Campari aperitif. “We’re seeing exciting new liqueurs embraced by today’s bartenders, which leads to the creation of a lot of modern classic drinks that couldn’t have been imagined a decade ago,” St-Germain’s Vidal says.
In San Francisco, Smokestack at Magnolia Brewing offers an array of cocktails that incorporate liqueurs. Bar manager Ashela Richardson likes to use newer offerings in traditional recipes and historic brands in modern cocktails. Her Mama’s Old Fashioned ($12) features Pür Likor Williams pear liqueur, George Dickel rye whiskey, Alvear Amontillado Sherry, Scrappy’s Cardamom bitters and Regans’ Orange No. 6 bitters, while the Rancho Potrero ($12) comprises Aperol aperitif, Cherry Heering liqueur, La Caravedo Pisco, lime juice, seltzer, and berry tea steeped with guajillo chili and grapefruit peel. “Cherry Heering dates back to 1818 and is a staple in classic cocktails like the Singapore Sling and the Blood and Sand,” Richardson notes. “I use the liqueur as a sweetening component, balanced by Aperol’s bitter notes. These types of liqueurs generate a great depth of flavor in a cocktail.”
Liqueurs range from sweet and fruity to herbaceous and bitter, providing options that meet the taste preferences of every mixologist and cocktail drinker. “The key to the popularity of liqueurs is the flavor experience,” Brown-Forman’s Johnson says. “Consumers and bartenders are on a constant quest for new taste profiles, and liqueurs allow for a layering effect in cocktails. When done well, liqueurs work to enhance the base spirit’s flavor for a one-of-a-kind taste.”
Campari America’s Buttera points to a growing trend among mixologists of blending several liqueurs or combining liqueurs with multiple spirits to create a complex layering effect. “I’ve been excited about the way bartenders are incorporating liqueurs in unexpectedly synergistic ways to take flavor profiles to the next level,” he says. For Campari America, Buttera created the Chamberlain’s Salute, highlighting Cynar 70—a new 35-percent alcohol-by-volume (abv) version of the 16.5-percent abv Cynar. The drink also features The Bitter Truth Pimento Dram allspice liqueur, Appleton Estate 12-year-old Jamaica rum, Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, fresh lemon juice and homemade spiced apple syrup.
“There’s been a general flavor explosion in the entire spirits industry in recent years as more people have been willing to experiment with new and innovative flavors and ingredients,” says Tom Maas, founder and master blender of RumChata cream liqueur. The RumChata Lemon Sorbet, created by the brand’s master mixologist Nick Maas, blends RumChata with Pallini limoncello and club soda. “A good liqueur should enhance a wide range of other flavors and types of spirits,” Tom Maas adds.
At New York City bar Seamstress, mixologist and creative director Pamela Wiznitzer devised the C. Vidal, named for St-Germain’s Vidal. The drink ($13) features St-Germain, Giffard Vanille de Madagascar vanilla liqueur, Montenegro amaro, Sandeman Fine Rich Madeira, Bittermens ‘Elemakule Tiki bitters, and lime and pineapple juices. At New York City bar The Up & Up, head bartender Chaim Dauermann created the Champs Elysées Revisited ($14), comprising Yellow Chartreuse, Averna, Cognac (brand varies), lemon juice, simple syrup, The Bitter Truth Old Time Aromatic bitters and Guinness stout.
Mixing liqueurs with multiple spirits, bartender Leigh Lacap of the San Diego bar Coin-Op created The Bohemian Revolt ($9.50). The drink features Geijer Glögg, Dios Baco Ría Pitá Manzanilla Sherry, St. George pear brandy, fresh lemon juice and house-made honey syrup. At Bottleneck in Chicago, the Look Out Below ($14) is made with Bigallet China-China Amer liqueur, Botran rum, Wray & Nephew White Overproof rum, house-made pineapple-coriander shrub, and lime and passion fruit juices, topped with a coconut–Angostura bitters foam. At Philadelphia bar Vesper, bartender Jesse Cornell’s Redhead in a Sombrero ($13) blends Barrow’s Intense with Corralejo Blanco Tequila, Vida mezcal, lemon juice and house-made raspberry syrup.
“As cocktail ingredients, liqueurs provide broad flavor platforms on which additional ingredients can be organized and find amplitude,” Campari America’s Buttera says. “If you had to make a drink without liqueurs, it would be like wiping out half of the color spectrum for a painter.”