Venerable liqueurs, such as Chartreuse and Benedictine, have existed for centuries, their recipes kept by their makers under lock from one generation to the next. Classically rendered and full of finesse, these time-tested drinks bear little resemblance to today's breed of razzle-dazzle liqueurs, which boast a wild mix of brash colors, cloyingly sweet flavors, exotic names and outrageous bottle shapes.
Liqueur or cordial--which name is correct? Americans use both names, although cordial is a little out of fashion, while the British and Europeans prefer the word liqueur. Finding the source of these words is to search in the same area. The root of cordial is the Latin cor, meaning belonging to the heart. In the Middle Ages, a cordial usually meant a stimulant or a reviver. Liqueur, from the Latin word meaning to "dissolve," comes closer to contemporary usage, since the process for making liqueurs involves dissolving selected materials in neutral spirits.
Simply put, a liqueur is a sweetened base spirit flavored with a natural plant agent. In many cases, the flavor of a liqueur relies on the flavor of the base spirit. Drambuie is made with Scotch whisky, while brandy is the base spirit for the high-end French liqueur Grand Marnier. Various so-called cold methods are used to extract flavors from delicate fruits and plants. Crushed fruits are left in cold water for up to a year in a procedure called infusion. The liquid is strained off and added to neutral alcohol. Maceration is the same process except alcohol replaces water then distilled in a pot still to extract all possible flavors. The third slow procedure for delicate material is known as percolation, where the flavoring agent is placed in the top of a device that resembles a coffee percolator with the spirits in the bottom. The spirit is pumped through the flavoring agents rather than boiled, a process that can last weeks.
Faster and more economical procedures for extracting flavors involve distillations in alcohol or water, the latter often used for delicate herbs and flowers. Once the liqueur is finished, pure distilled water is used to bring the product down to a level between 50 to 80 proof. Then, sugar or another sweetener is added, and food coloring or herbal dyes are inserted to give the liqueur its distinctive color (such as Green Chartreuse).
Distinctive and oozing with class, the old-guard liqueurs come in a range of styles and flavors. There are four basic types: herbal, seed and plant, fruit and a small, special group that uses whisky or brandy as the base spirit. What sets them apart are the closely guarded recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation, each relying on a key ingredient or handful of ingredients.
Preeminent among all liqueurs are those flavored with various types of herbs. The essential characteristic of herbal liqueurs comes from the blending of many botanicals to form a distinct aroma and flavor wherein no one flavoring agent dominates.
Today's herbal liqueurs are little more than modern adaptations of ancient elixirs; blends of specific herbs and plants steeped in alcohol that had reputed health benefits and restorative powers. As early practitioners of holistic medicine, Middle Age alchemists developed the recipes for these secret herbal brews. Oftentimes, members of religious orders made the crude medicines and dispensed them to the needy.
The most famous of the herbals are the French "monastery liqueurs" Benedictine and Chartreuse. Benedictine, a proprietary blend of 27 ingredients, is the oldest of the herbal liqueurs. In 1510, Benedictine monks first made the elixir that we now know as Benedictine, reputedly to fight malaria. In 1873, production of Benedictine was placed in secular hands. Benedictine DOM is a wonderful, complex honeyed liqueur with a bouquet of spice and citrus blossoms. In 1938, a recipe from Manhattan's 21 Club was adapted to create B&B (Benedictine & Brandy), a spicy, slightly caramelized blend of the original liqueur and aged Cognac.
Chartreuse was first produced in 1605 as a digestive for the cloistered monks of the Charthusian monastery near Grenoble, France. The recipe, which is believed to contain 130 Alpine herbs and plants, is reputed to be known to only three monks at any one given time. Chartreuse is made in two styles: the original yellow, at 40 percent alcohol, and the green, a stronger potion at 55 percent alcohol. Both masterful blends have high notes of basil and mint, citrus peel and spices. There is also the incredibly complex and limited V.E.P. edition, aged 12 years, that takes the elegant and complex flavors of Chartreuse to new heights.
Italian herbal liqueurs that bear some similarity to the French include the mild, smooth Liquore Galliano and the assertive, sweet anise-flavored Strega. Galliano's neon-yellow color and complex, herbal-floral aroma and flavors are intriguing. Sweet and unctuous without the refined balance of its French cousins, Galliano, in small amounts is a pleasurable drink that gained fame among American tipplers as the key ingredient in the Harvey Wallbanger. Another favorite is Spain's Cuarentya y Tres (Liqor 43), a blend of 43 different herbs and plants, with hints of anise, vanilla and citrus.
Unlike herbal liqueurs, in which blending of various raw materials characterizes the flavor, seed and plant liqueurs rely on the flavoring from one or two substances, such as mint, almond, apricot pits or aniseed.
Amaretto is a seed liqueur in a special category all its own. Its bittersweet almond flavor comes from crushed apricot pits and apricot pulp. Amaretto di Saronno, with its sweet, bitter and fruity flavors, is the best known brand of Amaretto. Another popular Italian liqueur is Frangelico, a soft elixir with the overlying taste of hazelnuts.
The French liqueur with a licorice taste is anisette, made from aniseed (licorice, a relative of the pea family, is just one a number of plants that tastes like aniseed). Marie Brizzard makes the best-known anisette. Similar in taste is the legendary (and illegal) absinthe, a cloudy drink based on wormwood and aniseed. Today's less lethal absinthe descendent is pastis, made popular by Pernod Fils & Ricard. There's also a legal absinthe taste-alike, using a safe form of wormwood, called "Absente."
Crystal clear, with anisette-like characteristics, Sambuca derives its flavoring from the fruit of the elderberry bush, not aniseed. Traditional Italian Sambuca, like those from Romana and Molinari, are elegant and nicely balanced, with subtle anise flavors and moderate sweetness. Sambuca is often served at the end of a meal with coffee, an association that likely brought on the somewhat affected habit of floating three coffee beans in a glass of Sambuca.
Fruit liqueurs are the most difficult to make because capturing the true, delicate flavor involves selecting fruit at its peak of ripeness and then extracting as much flavor as possible. Citrus liqueurs, especially orange, are the most popular of the fruit liqueurs, with the best known, Cointreau, the premier French curacao, made from West Indies bitter orange peel and sweet orange essence from Spain. Similar in style is Triple Sec.
The classic citrus liqueur is Grand Marnier, a stand-alone that is both a fruit and a brandy-based liqueur. Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge is a balanced blend of Haitian bitter orange essence and Cognac, with hints of exotic spices, citrus zest, vanilla, cloves, aged Cognac and more. More sophisticated and complex is Grand Marnier Cuvee Cinquantenaire, blended with XO Cognac and presented in an elegant hand-painted bottle.
Also in the citrus mode are Mandarine Napoleon, a Belgian liqueur flavored with Cognac and laced with essences of tangerines and herbs. The high-end version of Mandarine is called Millennium. Originating from the Tuscany region of Italy is Tuaca, a liqueur flavored with citrus and brandy that is reputed to get its body from a small amount of milk added in the final blend.
Beyond citrus, the basket of fruit flavored liqueurs is almost overflowing with apricot, blackberry, peach, banana, raspberry, black currant (yes, cassis is a liqueur), strawberry, pear and passion fruit to name but the most popular ones. A reliable producer of true-fruit liqueurs is Marie Brizzard, a French firm that covers the broad spectrum of fruit-based liqueurs including Parfait Amour, an exotic blend of citrus oils and the essence of violets.
There are a few special elixirs that incorporate a grape brandy or grain whiskey as the base spirit, an infusion that gives the liqueur an added level of flavor complexity. The two best known are Drambuie, the Scottish liqueur that blends Scotch whisky, heather honey and selected herbs with a subtle peppery back note. Irish Mist is a lighter, drier liqueur that uses honey and Irish whiskey. An American version is Southern Comfort, a very sweet liqueur with a peachy flavor and a hint of citrus in the finish.
Liqueurs are best enjoyed chilled, over the rocks or in a mixed drink. For creative cookery, try substituting a liqueur when the recipe calls for a citrus, herbal or fruit flavor. However you use them, venerable liqueurs are a treat to savor.