Understanding Liqueurs and Cordials in the Bar

Some 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 are used more often than others.

These are the drink ingredients that contribute more flavor than alcohol, as many are lower than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof). That is not always the case, however, because some liqueurs like Cointreau and Grand Marnier are 80 proof and others like Southern Comfort can vary from 42-100 proof.

If vodka, gin, whiskey, and the like are the rock stars of the cocktail, then liqueurs are the backup singers.

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 non-alcoholic, very syrupy drink such as a lime cordial. The word is used in this sense more often in the United Kingdom.

How Liqueurs Are Made

Liqueurs begin with a base liquor, which can be anything from a 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 and brand. In general, all of the ingredients are blended together according to their specific recipe.

The Variety of Liqueurs Available

You will often see liqueurs with a specific flavor profile, such as curacao (orange) (orange) or creme de framboise (raspberry). Other liqueurs use a blend of flavors to create a signature taste. Examples of these would include Campari, Drambuie, and Tuaca.

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, Bailey's may be the most popular Irish cream, but there are other great brands to try like Carolans, Irish Manor and St. Brendan's.

Then, there are proprietary blends protected by specific brands and known only by that brand's name. The recipes of some of these liqueurs, like Averna, Benedictine, Chartreuse and Frangelico, date back centuries and are as popular today as they ever were. And yet, others like Hpnotiq, PAMA, TY KU, and X-Rated are new on 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.

Due to their sweet nature, many liqueurs can be a 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, so the word liquor includes all of the 'base spirits' (e.g. whiskey, vodka, rum, etc.) as well as the liqueurs that have been discussed in this article.

  • We typically reserve the word liqueur 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.