What Is a Liqueur or Cordial?

A Guide to Buying, Drinking, and Storing Liqueurs

Lemon Liqueur in small glass

The Spruce / Sonia Bozzo

A liqueur, or cordial, is a sweetened distilled spirit. Flavored with a variety of fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices, as well as things like chocolate and coffee, liqueurs contribute more flavor than alcohol to cocktails and mixed drinks.

As drink ingredients, liqueurs are just as important as the base liquors in the bar. Liqueurs like 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.

Liqueur vs. 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 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 read or write it quickly.

Some distilled spirits get classified as a liqueur, but they don't technically qualify. Absinthe is a great example: It may appear with anise liqueurs in bars and liquor stores, but it is not sweet, so it's a liquor and not a liqueur. This tends to happen with vermouth as well; it is wine fortified with a distilled spirit, but neither a liquor nor a liqueur.

Fast Facts

  • Ingredients: Base distilled spirit, sweetener, various flavorings
  • Taste: Sweet with a specific flavor (e.g., fruits, herbs, nuts, and other ingredients)
  • Serve: cocktails, shots, straight-up, on the rocks

What Is a Cordial?

Cordial and liqueur are often used interchangeably to described these sweet distilled spirits. However, cordial has a few other meanings in the drink world:

  • Cordial is often used for the sweetest distilled spirits that are very dessert-like. You might see "cordial" on labels for chocolate or cream spirits, for instance.
  • Cordial can also describe a nonalcoholic, syrupy drink such as a lime cordial or elderflower cordial. It's used more often in the United Kingdom.
  • Historically, cordial described a sweet medicinal tonic that was rather pleasant to take.

How Are Liqueurs Made?

Liqueurs begin with a base liquor. It 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. Several liqueurs use artificial flavors and colors; this is particularly true among the cheaper brands.

The exact process of adding flavor depends on the style of liqueur and each producer's specific method. In general, all of the ingredients are blended according to their specific recipe. The amount of sugar added varies as well, and some are cloying while others are off-dry. "Crème" liqueurs have a lot of sugar but are not creamy.

It is also possible to make liqueurs at home by simplifying the method commercial producers use. All you need is the base liquor, the flavoring ingredients, sugar, and a little time for an infusion. Those that use flavoring extracts or syrups can be ready immediately. Homemade amaretto and Irish cream are the most popular, and fruit liqueurs are rather easy to replicate as well.

How Strong Are Liqueurs?

Due to the sugar and other flavoring ingredients, many liqueurs are low-proof spirits. They contain less alcohol than whiskey, gin, and the other base spirits. The average is between 15 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 30 proof) and 30 percent ABV (60 proof). A few liqueurs—including Cointreau and Grand Marnier—are full strength and bottled at 40 percent ABV (80 proof).

You'll often find varying strengths within a particular flavor of liqueur, and it can even change under the same brand name. For instance, peppermint schnapps can be anywhere from 15 percent ABV (30 proof) to 50 percent ABV (100 proof). A brand like Southern Comfort ranges from 42 proof to 100 proof, depending on where it's sold.

Types of Liqueurs

The variety of liqueurs on the market today is diverse and always expanding. You will find liqueurs with a specific flavor profile, such as coffee liqueur, crème de menthe (mint), and crème de framboise (raspberry). Among these, a few brand names stand out—Kahlúa (coffee) and Chambord (black raspberry), for example—and have almost become synonymous with the flavor they represent.

There are distinct classes of liqueurs, such as amaretto, Irish cream, and orange liqueurs like triple sec and curaçao, 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, including 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 under that brand's name. Some of these recipes (e.g., Bénédictine, Drambuie, Frangelico, Galliano L'Autentico, and Tuaca) were created over a century ago and are as popular today as they ever were. Others like Hpnotiq, TY KU, and X-Rated Fusion are modern creations, though 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.

How to Drink Liqueurs

Due to their sweet nature, many liqueurs can be considered digestif and are great when served straight with dessert. If you like, chill the bottle or serve it on the rocks. Small cordial glasses are designed for enjoying liqueurs straight.

For the most part, liqueurs are used in cocktails where they add their sweet flavor to the drink. Many recipes use a small pour of the liqueur to accent and soften the drink's main liquor, and you'll find countless recipes that combine two or more liqueurs. In some drinks, the liqueur becomes the main ingredient, particularly if it's a high-proof liqueur like Grand Marnier with a complex taste that can stand on its own.

How to Store Liqueurs

The sugar and other additives reduce the shelf life of liqueurs when compared to unsweetened and unflavored distilled spirits. The more sugar and less alcohol it contains, the less time you have before a liqueur goes bad. Any open bottle may show signs of flavor loss or sugar crystallization after a few years. It's best to enjoy open bottles within two years, and liqueurs that contain dairy or eggs within 18 months.

Refrigeration is not necessary and will generally not prolong a liqueur's life, though some people prefer it for certain liqueurs. The best approach for your entire liquor cabinet is to keep the bottles tightly sealed with the original cap and stored in a cool, dry place out of direct light.