Understanding Liqueurs and Cordials in the Bar

Many of the Best Cocktails Require a Liqueur or Two

Liqueurs come in every color and flavor you could imagine.
Liqueurs come in every color and flavor you could imagine. They are the backbone of flavor for many of our favorite cocktails. Larry Washburn / Getty Images

A liqueur, or cordial, is a sweetened distilled spirit. Liqueurs are just as important as the base liquors in the bar, and some liqueurs, such as triple sec, amaretto, and Irish cream, are used more often than others. If vodka, gin, whiskey, and the like are the rock stars of the cocktail, then liqueurs are the backup singers.

These are the drink ingredients that contribute more flavor than alcohol, as many are lower than 40 percent alcohol by volume (80 proof). That is not always the case, however, because some liqueurs (e.g., Cointreau and Grand Marnier) are 80 proof and others like Southern Comfort can vary from 42 proof to 100 proof, depending on which bottling you purchase or which market its sold in.

Cordial Has a Few Meanings

Cordial and liqueur are often used interchangeably to described these sweet spirits, but cordial does have a few other meanings in the drink world.

  • Cordial is often used to describe sweeter distilled spirits that are very dessert-like. You might see 'cordial' on labels for chocolate or cream spirits.
  • Cordial can be used to describe a nonalcoholic, syrupy drink such as a lime cordial or elderflower cordial. The word is used in this sense more often in the United Kingdom. In the past, this was used to describe a sweet medicinal tonic that was rather pleasant to take.

How Liqueurs Are Made

Liqueurs begin with a base liquor, which can be anything from neutral grain alcohol to brandy, whiskey, or rum. Sugar is often added along with a mix of herbs, fruits, spices, and other ingredients to obtain the desired flavor. A number of liqueurs use artificial flavors and colors, this is particularly true among the cheaper brands.

The exact process of adding that flavor depends on the style of liqueur and each producer's specific method. In general, all of the ingredients are blended together according to their specific recipe.

It is also possible to make your own liqueurs at home using a simplified method of that used by commercial producers. All you need is the base liquor, the flavoring ingredients, and sugar. Homemade amaretto and Irish cream are the most popular, and fruit liqueurs are rather easy to replicate as well.

The Variety of Liqueurs Available

The variety of liqueurs on the market today is diverse and expansive. You will often see liqueurs with a specific flavor profile, such as curaçao (orange) or crème de framboise (raspberry) or coffee liqueurs. Among these, a few brand names stand out—Kahlua (coffee) and Chambord (black raspberry), for example—and have almost become synonymous with the flavor they represent.

There are also distinct classes of liqueurs, such as absinthe, amaretto, Irish cream, and triple sec, for which a variety of brands are available. For instance, Baileys may be the most popular Irish cream, but there are other great brands to try like Carolans, Irish Manor, and St. Brendan's.

Other liqueurs use a proprietary blend of flavors to create a signature taste. The recipes are protected by specific brands and known only by that brand's name. Some of these recipes (e.g., Benedictine, Drambuie, Frangelico, Galliano, and Tuaca) were created over a century ago and are as popular today as they ever were. Others like Hpnotiq, Pama, TY KU, and X-Rated Fusion are newer to the scene and are just as unique and proprietary.

Fun fact: Many of the oldest liqueurs were once medicinal cordials used to cure all sorts of ailments. Chartreuse is a perfect example; its secret recipe originated in 1605 and produced by French monks who remain in control of its production today.

Due to their sweet nature, many liqueurs can be considered digestif and are great when served straight with dessert.

Is It Liqueur or Liquor?

Let's begin with the confusing part: liqueurs are liquors, but not all liquors are liqueurs.

  • The definition of a liquor is a distilled alcoholic beverage. That means the word liquor includes all of the "base spirits" (e.g., gin, rum, vodka, whiskey, etc.) as well as all of the liqueurs.
  • The word liqueur is typically reserved for the sweetened and/or lower proof distilled spirits.
  • The spelling of the two words is the real issue, particularly if you are reading or writing it quickly.