The words "liquor" and "liqueur" are so similar that it is easy to confuse the two. And although both liquors and liqueurs contain alcohol and are crucial ingredients in favorite cocktails, the terms are not interchangeable. In general, liquor is not sweet, while liqueurs are. Liqueurs are used as flavoring agents in mixed drinks as well as being enjoyed on their own. However, many liquors are available in flavored forms nowadays, which just adds to the confusion.
Liquor, also known as spirits, is an alcoholic beverage—such as gin, vodka, whiskey, and rum—made of grains or other plants that are fermented into a potent drink. The distillation process, which occurs after fermenting, separates the water from the alcohol. This process increases the alcohol content of liquor to at least 20 percent; vodka and rum generally have 40 percent, whiskey usually ranges from 40 to 46 percent, and gin has an alcohol content from 37.5 to 50 percent.
Although sugar is generally used in the fermentation process, the resulting liquor is not sugary sweet. And even though liquors are available today in flavored forms, such as citrus and cinnamon, they are not sweet to the palate. The flavor is usually added after distilling through a steeping process, much like how vinegar and oils are infused.
Liquors are the basis of cocktails and mixed drinks and are also very often drunk on the rocks and neat. Think gin and tonic, Scotch on the rocks, Jack and Coke, rum and Coke, 7 and 7, martini, Manhattan, and Old Fashioned. And when people do shots, it's liquor they are drinking.
Liqueur alcohol content can range from a low 15 percent (30 proof) to 55 percent (110 proof), so potency is not a distinguishing factor. In the past, liqueurs were referred to liqueurs as cordials, and they were often used medicinally.
Liqueurs have a wide range of flavors, from coffee to almond to orange. There are also cream liqueurs, like Bailey's Irish Cream, which have cream added, and creme liqueurs, which are much sweeter and are likened to a potent syrup, like creme de cacao.
Liqueurs are used in a wide variety of creative and legendary cocktails, and they are the ingredients that usually make them extra special. Most are also enjoyed neat or on the rocks.
Grand Marnier is a delicious example of an orange liqueur, and it is an ingredient in classic cocktails such as tequila sunrise and makes a flavorful addition to many recipes. It's also a delight sipped on its own as a nightcap in hot tea. Other well-known (and delicious) liqueurs are Amaretto, Chambord, Cointreau, creme de Cassis, creme de menthe, Irish Cream, Kahlua, and Schnapps, to name just a few.