Liqueurs: the main event

25 January, 2023

Liqueurs have long been in the shadow of spirits, but their role in modern day mixology should not be underestimated.

Contemporary mixology has established the importance of high-quality ingredients, from the use of fresh fruit to premium spirits. Liqueurs are no exception. Long gone are the days when the word was a synonym for a poorly assembled extra-sweet spirit and, although production is still strictly regulated (EU states that a liqueur must have minimum of 15% abv and 100g/ litre of sugar), the market is witnessing an ever-growing presence of premium labels. A true ‘golden era’, as described by Matteo Luxardo, export manager at Luxardo, founded in 1821. “Liqueurs have evolved to become main actors in mixology.”

According to Alex Frezza, bar manager at L’Antiquario in Naples, Italy (No.46 in The World’s 50 Best Bars), liqueurs have tough competition to deal with: “Lately, spirits have almost completely attracted the spotlight, with marketing and communication from the brand following this trend. Liqueur tradition has been a bit overlooked – they’re often associated with something anyone can make at home, and that’s quite wrong, considering how deeply quality liqueurs have impacted the history of mixology.”

Frezza credits classic products such as orange, anise and mint liqueurs as cornerstones of cocktail culture, contributing to unforgettable recipes even more than spirits themselves. This disparity in focus between the two drinks categories also comes from economic reasons, with premium liqueurs costing almost as much as craft spirits, meaning bartenders tend to leverage on the latter “because consumers recognise spirits labels and brand names, while liqueurs are simply less known to the general public,” Frezza adds.

Awareness is therefore pivotal for liqueurs to be correctly perceived, both from bar professionals and from consumers. “Investing in good liqueurs will make a huge difference”, says Romain Burgevin, marketing director at Giffard, one of Europe’s most historic liqueurs producers. “There’s a lack of knowledge about the category, and you can’t really make a liqueur work, or appreciate it, if you don’t know about it.”

Burgevin agrees on the growing consumer interest around liqueurs, in terms of both taste and history. This is something you wouldn’t often see in recent years and the change has been driven by the renewed interest in mixology and the trends that somehow involve liqueurs in a direct manner. Case in point, the low/no movement, which involves an array of cocktails where liqueurs are main protagonists given their low-abv content.

Shifting focus

As widely recorded, consumers in mature markets have shifted their focus when it comes to healthy drinking habits. While a low-alcohol percentage is definitely a plus for liqueurs, sugar content represents a hindrance. “Sugar is there for a reason,” comments Emilie Giffard, fifth generation of the family, owning the company since its foundation in 1885. “It’s pivotal for a good drink, it enhances the flavours. As with many other aspects of mixology and hospitality, it’s about balancing the recipes and understanding that the amount of liqueur usually implemented in a cocktail is not dangerous. Of course, it depends on the consumption, which must always be responsible.”

Giffard’s portfolio includes around 60 varieties of liqueurs, each of them requiring two to three years of research and development to find the perfect formula, from fruit selection to abv and sugar content, which is one of the key components that is rigorously tested.

Among the many reasons for liqueurs’ success behind the bar, versatility is on top of the list. Historically, they’ve been used as modifiers, to provide concoctions with depth and body. “I like to use them in tiny quantities,” Frezza adds, “such as a spoonful or dashes. In this way, both the liqueur and the drink are not overpowered by one another, yet the drinker recognises something new in a cocktail they might already be familiar with.” A drop of anise liqueur in a Martini can go a long way, Frezza suggests.

The opposite can be another interesting challenge – using a higher-proof liqueur as a main ingredient in a drink. “Liqueurs can play the main role in the cocktail,” Burgevin explains. “If you take a classic cocktail and swap the spirit in it, the difference is less evident than one might think. But try to substitute the liqueur, it’s a game changer; even if it’s just for the colour, it makes for a completely different experience.”

Dating back millennia (Ancient Greeks were already making their own), and finding their perfection with the omnipresent wisdom of Middle Age European monks, liqueurs are not exactly a new sensation hitting shelves. Yet, they managed to blend in the modern, craft mixology environment, actually imparting their character to the contemporary way of drinking.

“A classic is a classic,” says Luxardo. “It is true we are witnessing the launch of many new spirits or liqueurs, but at the end of the day, the historical ones are still surfing the wave.” Luxardo’s heritage is linked to the hand-wrapped-in-straw Maraschino liqueur, an authentic classic for any back bar. According to Matteo Luxardo, a few drops of it are perfect to boost aromas and flavours, and tighten up the ingredients to make them flow at their best.

There’s no real rule or definition for what new liqueurs can be, though adjustments have been made for something so rich in history, to withstand the test of time.

As Giffard describes, it’s new technology, for an old method. Giffard’s liqueurs are still made in small batches, with fruit macerating in alcohol. “This requires time, not energy. Very old school.” Craftmanship also includes local sourcing (sugar, mint, cassis used for Giffard’s recipes all come from French areas) and long-term agreements with local farmers.

Flavour aside, what is it that made liqueurs frontrunners in mixology from the beginning of cocktail history? “The distinct, full-bodied character,” Luxardo believes. “Each liqueur has its own strength and impact, and together with the variety we have to offer, it allows them to be used with moderation.”

Frezza also believes the character of a liqueur should always stand out in a drink, not overwhelm the other ingredients, and at the same time not suffer from their presence. That’s no easy task. “That’s why, in classic cocktails, which usually follow a simpler structure, a minor dose of liqueur helps upgrade the whole recipe,” he says. Frezza credits orange liqueurs as the godfathers of mixology, and banana liqueurs among the most underrated – something worth rediscovering. He also indicates staples of modern mixology literature such as The Savoy Cocktail Book (Harry Craddock, 1930) which lists numerous drinks sharing the same ingredients, with the only difference being a dash or a few ml of a liqueur, showcasing the subtle power these products carry.

Improbable as it may sound, liqueurs still have room for evolution and innovation. “New flavours are being introduced thanks to the interconnection between drinks, food, perfumery and so on,” Frezza says. “Classic liqueurs range among 10 flavour references, or thereabout, while new ones come from unusual inputs, so they vary more.” And it won’t just be a matter of taste: trends change, desires and habits morph quickly, so producers have to adapt. Giffard is already looking forward to it. In March, a new line of non-alcoholic expressions will be launched, in order for the company to become the first liqueur producer to present a 0% abv range. However, the production method won’t change – fruit will still be infused, but in vinegar instead of alcohol. “It’s our effort to meet our customers’ needs, once again,” Giffard says. “Nevertheless, bartenders will still be encouraged to mix them in cocktails.”

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