Once upon a time liqueurs were nothing less than medicinal tonics invented by monks trying to cure the sick. They combined alcoholic extracts from medicinal herbs and spices, sweetened with honey.
These drinks evolved into the beautiful liqueurs such as Benedictine and Chartreuse that we still enjoy today. Later these were joined by other products created solely for the enjoyment they provided – liqueurs distilled from fresh citrus fruit or extracted from juicy berry fruit to capture the flavour of summer all year round.
From the 80s things went downhill and, for a long time now, the liqueur market has been dominated by cheap, sticky, sweet, artificially flavoured liqueurs. Look at the shelves of your local retailer and you can identify them easily.
This abundance of mediocre or outright poor products has most likely caused some of the more sophisticated consumers to turn their backs on the product group.
Now, with the new worldwide appreciation of genuine products throughout the food sector, you see the rise of quality oriented producers for all kinds of foodstuff. There is a lot of attention for all kinds of products with real heritage – products that are honest, handmade (preferably even local).
This holds true for spirits as well and specially for liqueurs. Artisanal liqueur producers are doing brisk business as consumers and bartenders alike flock back to real products with real flavours.
For a long time liqueurs were the ugly duckling of the spirits industry. It didn’t always used to be like this. At the turn of the century (no, not the last one, the one before), in the high days of cocktails, liqueurs were hip and highly valued.
With the revival of cocktails and the renewed interest in genuine products those days are about to return. You can see it all around when you pay attention. Premium liqueurs are growing everywhere, with new flavours being created all the time. The cheap stuff is being pushed back where it belongs, to the bottom shelves.
Consumers are getting more and more educated and they want to know the details of how products are made. Bartenders are the most eager to learn and are, as usual, at the forefront of the quest for knowledge. It sometimes amazes me how detailed their thirst for knowledge is. They are rediscovering the true tastes of cocktails of the past and creating new drinks based on those flavours. Liqueurs are an inherent part of the past and will be part of the future of cocktails.
Then why is everybody so in love with all these new-fashioned, artificially flavoured vodka’s? As usual the trend has blown in from the United States. But I sometimes wonder if anybody ever took the time to taste these vodkas that are being used to flavour our cocktails. We are being swamped by raspberry vodkas that have never seen a raspberry up close. Vanilla vodkas that have nothing in common with vanilla. Orange vodkas that don’t taste like oranges, and the list goes on and on.