Photo by OlyaKobruseva on Unsplash
By Liz Crowe
Ah, February… there you are with your hearts, flowers, chocolates, expensive dinner dates, and fancy, overthought cocktails. I see you. And I’m about to teach the loyal Booze 101 readers what kind of extras to have on hand in order to make you — the cocktails, that is. Not the hearts, flowers, chocolates, or dinner dates.
I’m not here with recipes, but I can recommend a few sites for that later. First, let’s talk about those fancy bottles sitting at the bar that only get used every now and then, and why you should consider keeping one or five of them in your home bar arsenal. Some of these names you will recognize, some you won’t. Some are both beautifully packaged and contain something necessary inside, while some of the options I’ll share with you are too beautifully packaged not to have around.
We’re going to break them down by flavor, since that’s the only real reason to have any of these in your home bar. But what, exactly, IS a “liqueur” and why is it spelled so funny?
A “liqueur” is a liquor, but a “liquor” is not a liqueur.
That’s not terribly helpful, is it? Allow me to explain. “Liquor” is a word used to describe any distilled beverage. A “liqueur” (which took me a while to speel right!) is a sweetened version of a liquor. Liqueurs are flavored with oil or via another method, and are primarily used as mixers, unless you’re like me and prefer your Bailey’s poured over ice cream. (Did I say that out loud? Not sure I meant to).
I don’t know why it’s spelled that way other than it’s French for “liquor,” which means “dissolved” or “liquified.” Or, in my case, “That which sweetens the drink so much you forget it’s liquor and then you’re sad the next day. See also: Mint Juleps.”
But enough etymology. Let’s talk flavors. Liqueurs can be broken down into a few basic profiles, coffee being one of the most popular. This encompasses several old favorites, including Kahlúa and the ever-popular Jägermeister. Me? I still have scent-induced nightmares over that last one, vis á vis a college experience gone wrong. Jäger (for short) is technically an herbal digestif, meant to be consumed in small amounts after a giant, meat-filled meal. But you won’t catch me using it for that.
There are a couple of new options out there now that are worth a try if coffee-flavored, sweetened liquor is your bag. Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur may sound like the ultimate hipster reference, but it’s a real thing and growing in popularity amongst mixologists. One not quite as new (or hip), but definitely newer than Kahlúa, is St. George’s NOLA Coffee Liqueur. Because I’m here for you and you count on me for such things, I can assure you that Mr. Black makes a killer White Russian (regardless of what the Dude may say, as he abides. Big Lebowski, anyone?).
On the opposite end of the “When to drink it” scale is the Aperitivo, meant to be consumed prior to a meal to promote one’s appetite. In this group, we can count all those bitters that are gaining on the whole cold brew coffee liqueur thing in terms of Hipster Bona Fides. If you’re a loyal reader — and I know that you are, because you’ve made it this far — you’ll recall that when I toured a few of Ann Arbor’s iconic cocktail bars a million years ago, that “bitter” was the Thing to Add in most of the drinks I sampled. Campari is the flagship in this category, for which we can thank for the Negroni — one of those truly “acquired taste” or “you love it or you despise it” kinds of drinks. Not to be outdone in current popularity is the Aperol Spritz, which is a less bitter cousin of the Negroni, made from (you guessed it) Aperol bitters. If I were to advise choosing one of these for your home bar enjoyment, I’d recommend sticking with Aperol, as it’s a fair bit less bitter.
Remember when I said some of these liqueurs are worth it for the way the bottle looks? St. Germaine is one of these. It’s in the elderflower flavor group, which is growing crowded as more people gain a taste for it, and the bottle is strikingly attractive — a nice addition to any home bar. As for other options, I sampled both Bitter Truth Elderflower Liqueur (Germany) and Fiorente (Italy), which was the least sweet of the options. Elderflower itself is pear-like and floral, and I am here to tell you right now: Your next brunch cocktail should be champagne (or one of the mid-sweet sparkling wines) and St. Germaine. Trust me on this one. You’ll never glance at orange juice again.
Next up on the flavor-go-round is bananas — as in banana liqueur. I’m told by the sort of mixologists I trust that banana is one of the most mixable flavors out there. Who knew? As for bottles of this to keep around, find yourself a bottle of Bols Crème de Banana, Tempus Fugit Crème de Banana, or 99 Bananas (which is actually banana-flavored schnapps). There are plenty of fun new cocktails to try with it, so you’re not stuck with a Bahama Mama or a daiquiri unless you love those — and if so, more power to you, this is a judgement-free zone.
Finally, we reach a catch-all category of necessary liqueur bottles, or what I like to call the “Why Nots?”
Why not have a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream? If you like whiskey and coffee, then put them together with cream using this stuff — you won’t be sorry. There are a myriad different other flavors within the Bailey’s world these days as well — everything from vanilla and salted caramel to red velvet and apple pie. I’m a fan of the original myself, but can state with full authority that the chocolate cherry version tastes more than a little bit like sin. But who am I to say what sin tastes like?
Why not have a bottle of Chartreuse, which is both a description of its color and the name of the stuff itself? I had a drink made with this from The Raven’s Club over on Main Street, and it was unexpectedly good. Also, why not have a drink that includes a liqueur made by French Carthusian monks using a proprietary recipe of 130 various herbs and botanicals? The flavor is without a doubt green — which is to say vegetal, herbaceous, and positively earthy — but with a tang of spice. It’s hard to describe. Get some and try it. There’s a yellow version of it too.
Why not try an artichoke liqueur? I got to taste a fancy cocktail made with Cynar, which is a rather specific take on a digestif known as amaro. The artichoke addition puts an interesting and sort of dried fruit spin on the typical bitterness of an amaro. Worth a shot, along with some of the recipes in the links I’ve provided.
Why not make a drink with a chili kick? You can do that if you add Ancho Reyes Verde or Ancho Reyes Chili Liqueur to your bar. You can get heat plus the rich flavor of roasted poblano peppers in your cocktails — indeed, why not?
Finally, no moderately helpful missive about why you should add liqueurs to your life is complete without a few characters dedicated to Aquavit*. Calm down, purist; it’s not technically a liqueur, but it’s one of those “You added what?” ingredients that so many bartenders are using that you owe it to yourself to grab a bottle and experiment a bit.
The National Spirit of Scandinavia, Aquavit is kind of like gin, as it’s got lots of botanicals for flavor. Try to picture what “Viking Gin” might taste like. Its name means “water of life,” and it’s believed to have healing powers — not unlike, I imagine, the sort that Guinness has, which is to say, none. But you don’t feel bad anymore, unless you go overboard, of course. What I like about it is the distinct kind of tang that’s not unlike drinking fresh dill pickling mixture. It’s also got a bit of caraway flavor too. Each region of Norway has its own flavor, so I’m told. I’ve only had one kind, Norden Aquavit, which would qualify for the “pretty bottle” category too. It’s made in Detroit, so I’m sure if I tried some from Norway I’d have a different experience, but you should get some. Try it in your next Bloody Mary in place of vodka, or your next French 75 in place of gin. It’s fun. And worth the effort.
[*You honestly thought I was going to say Malört didn’t you, silly reader? I have two words for that stuff: No. Thanks. Although I’m told that having a shot (okay, two shots) of it at a legit Chicago Dive Bar after selling beer all day is a rite of passage. I have done this for you so you don’t have to. And I recommend that you let me take it for our team. Anything made from a bitter herb once used to kill stomach worms and other parasites (an ingredient shared with Absinthe, another notable that I left off of this list because yuck) is worth avoiding. Although it does have quite the storied and fascinating history, so let’s leave it for another time and place, shall we?]
So what are you waiting for? Make a list of these and head to the liquor store. It’s time to change things up!
I’ve included some links to recipes you can try with all your new knowledge. Cheers!
20 Best Elderflower Liqueur Cocktails [Difford’s Guide]:
11 Most Appealing Banana Liqueur Cocktail Recipes to Try [The Manual]:
11 Impressive Coffee Liquor Cocktails [The Spruce Eats]:
Drinks & Cocktails with Bitters [Absolut]:
Aquavit Cocktails [Cocktails of Copenhagen]:
Chartreuse Cocktails: 12 to Try [Imbibe]:
Cynar Cocktails: How to Use Cynar [Distiller]: