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The Power of Liqueurs

Whiskey and gin, rum, and tequila—spirits like these are the building blocks of any liquor cabinet or cocktail bar. But great spirits demand worthy dance partners with which they can properly waltz in the cocktail glass. And that’s where liqueurs come into play.

They can be liquid nuggets of drinks history. Early Dutch distillers such as Bols (established in 1575) used spirits and sugar to capture the flavors of exotic fruits and rare spices, brought to Amsterdam from around the world by seafaring traders. Meanwhile, French monks prepared sweetened tonics using secret formulas of herbs and flowers. And from Italian aperitivi and digestivi to new-world liqueurs flavored with Mexican chili peppers or Jamaican allspice, liqueurs can provide delicious insight into the culinary character of their places of origin. 

Take a tour of the world of liqueurs, and explore a few cocktail recipes that showcase their distinctive qualities.

Fruit Liqueurs

Some of the most venerable and versatile spirits on the shelf are fruit liqueurs, which appear in myriad styles. Early Dutch, German, and French producers used the potent combination of alcohol and sugar to preserve the flavors of oranges, cherries, and apricots. And distillers refined their techniques to reach across the fruit spectrum. Liqueurs were enrichened with the flavors and fragrances of pears, pomegranates, bananas, melons, and more.


Flavored with the peel of Caribbean oranges, curaçao became one of the formative liqueurs in the 19th century’s early evolution of the cocktail. Over time, citrus liqueurs blossomed in style. Orange’s flavor extended to rum-based shrubbs (available today from Rhum Clément and Hamilton), and to triple sec (which formed the basis for legacy expressions, such as Cointreau and Grand Marnier). Grapefruit-bright pamplemousse liqueur and Italian limoncello expanded the variety.

Cherries & Berries

Fresh cherries and berries are among the shortest-lived fruit, crossing from under- to over-ripe with only a brief pause at peak flavor. Liqueurs, however, can capture these fruits’ essence, from blackberries in crème de mûre, raspberries in framboise, and currants in crème de cassis. And cherry liqueurs trace the fruit’s character across a spectrum, from rich and jammy (such as Heering) to complex and ethereal in maraschino liqueur—from producers including Luxardo in Italy and Maraska in Croatia. Maraschino’s fragrant nuttiness comes from the inclusion of the cherry’s pit, stems, and leaves in the process.


Apricots have long held a special place in liqueur-makers’ hearts. And apricot liqueur (sometimes confusingly called “apricot brandy”) has played an essential role in cocktails such as the Millionaire, Pendennis Club, and Pisco Apricot Tropical for more than a century. Producers such as Rothman & Winter, Mathilde, and Merlet demonstrate a special skill with liqueurs flavored with orchard fruits like apricots, peaches, and pears.


The past decade saw banana liqueur become a surprise hit on the cocktail circuit in original cocktails like the Social Animal from San Diego’s Raised by Wolves and the Man in the Yellow Hat from Devon [which permanently closed in 2021] in New York City and classic spins, such as the Bananarac and the Bananavardier, with brands including Giffard and Tempus Fugit leading the way. Today, other flavors like mango, pineapple, passion fruit, and kiwi are increasingly rounding out liqueur-makers’ lineups.

Aperitif and Digestif

European distillers long viewed some liqueurs not just as objects of flavor, but almost as tonics or nutritional supplements that could stimulate a healthy appetite and aid in a meal’s digestion.


Where would the drinks world be without the Negroni, the Americano, or the Aperol Spritz? Brightly colored Italian aperitifs, such as Campari and Aperol (and far-flung cousins like California’s Bruto Americano), deploy robust botanical blends to create bitter liqueurs bright with citrus and spice, perfect for pre-prandial highballs and cocktails. In France, distillers created their own approach to aperitif hour, with liqueurs like Amer Picon and earthy, gentian-bittered liqueurs like Suze, Salers, and Avèze.

Italian Amari

Deep, complex-flavored Italian amari have proven so powerfully alluring that entire bars have been built to showcase the category. See: New York’s Amor y Amargo, Chicago’s Billy Sunday, and Seattle’s Barnacle. The diversity among Italian digestivi is vast. They range from soft and gentle (Averna, Amaro Montenegro, Amaro Lucano), to brusque and engaging (Cynar, Ramazzotti, Bràulio), to bold and assertive (Fernet-Branca, Amaro Alta Verde).

Cinchona, Wormwood, Gentian

Bitter flavors challenge the palate—but like all acquired tastes, bitter can be sublime once you get the hang of it. A trio of bitter botanicals is typically used alone or together (and in combination with more agreeably flavored ingredients) to give these liqueurs their distinctive bitterness. Cinchona is common in aperitif liqueurs like Campari, its crisp bite perfect for awakening the appetite; gentian has a savory earthiness, expressive in French aperitifs like Salers; and wormwood’s bitterness is deeply resonant, giving bitter liqueurs like Malört a longer hang time on the palate.


Cultures across Europe and around the world have embraced the bitter tradition. Hungary’s Unicum, the Czech Republic’s Becherovka, Germany’s Jägermeister, France’s Bigallet China-China Amer, and Trinidad’s Amaro di Angostura are all vital to today’s digestif category. And American producers are also in on the action, with liqueurs such as High Wire Southern Amaro from South Carolina, Calisaya from Oregon, Brovo Spirits Amaro from Washington state, and Amaro Delle Sirene from Washington, D.C.


Liqueurs flavored with herbs, flowers, seeds, and spices are among the earliest spirits in the category. Some have histories dating back several centuries. Whether focusing on a single ingredient, such as allspice or elderflower, or weaving elaborate tapestries of flavor using secret blends of dozens of different botanicals, these liqueurs offer an immense range of opportunities to give an otherwise simple cocktail a dazzlingly complex character.


Vintage cocktails including the Aviation and the Blue Moon shared a sweetness and hue lent by a liqueur aromatized and flavored with violets. Violet liqueur returned to the bar as part of the modern cocktail renaissance. And starting in 2007, elderflowers began a full-scale cocktail invasion via St. Germain (joined in the U.S. more recently by offerings from Giffard and St. Elder).


With a history tracing back to the 17th century and a secret recipe of 130 botanicals, Chartreuse has long been considered the epitome of an herbal liqueur. But it’s not alone—Bénédictine shares with Chartreuse a history rooted in French monasteries (and an elaborately herbaceous sweetness). Génépy strikes a similar botanical chord as Chartreuse. And Italy’s saffron-hued Liquore Strega and anise-accented Galliano, Spain’s vanilla-rich Licor 43, and Scotland’s honeyed Drambuie offer many elaborately flavorful avenues to explore.

Seeds & Spices

Anise (or aniseed) occupies its own neighborhood of botanical liqueurs. Its licorice-like fragrance and flavor extend to liqueurs including sambuca and anisette (as well as non-liqueur spirits like absinthe, arak, pastis, and ouzo), traditional favorites in Mediterranean cultures. Germany contributes a savory touch to the liqueur category via kümmel—flavored with caraway, cumin, and fennel. Allspice lends its Christmas-like flavor to Jamaica’s rum-based pimento dram (also made in other countries and sold as allspice dram).

Other Botanicals

Ginger’s subtle spiciness can be added to cocktails via liqueurs including Domaine de Canton—in which ginger mingles with vanilla and honey—and The King’s Ginger, first produced in 1903. Mint liqueurs are essential for cocktails like Grasshoppers and Stingers; Giffard Menthe-Pastille is surprisingly dry and bright, while Tempus Fugit’s Crème de Menthe Glaciale is fresh and herbaceous. Meanwhile, aloe vera and cucumbers are combined with other botanicals to produce Chareau, a vegetal, aromatic liqueur from California.

Favorite Flavors

Liqueurs can be part of an after-dinner ensemble act. They work in concert with coffee and dessert to round out a meal. Distillers reach into every part of the kitchen when creating liqueurs, perfect for post-prandial sipping or an anytime cocktail.

Coffee & Chocolate

Crème de cacao and its chocolate relatives reach back and tap a favorite flavor from childhood. Classic cocktails like the Twentieth Century and the Brandy Alexander use chocolate liqueur to delicious effect. Good brands today include Tempus Fugit, Mozart, and Giffard. Coffee liqueur gives depth to drinks such as a classic White Russian or a modern classic Revolver; Australia’s Mr. Black, California’s St. George Spirits NOLA Coffee Liqueur, and Colorado’s Leopold Bros. Frenchpress-Style American Coffee Liqueur are all excellent options.


Pours and dashes of nut-flavored liqueurs can be a secret weapon in cocktails. Walnut liqueurs offer spice, richness, and a bittersweet depth to stirred whiskey or brandy cocktails. Examples include Austria’s Nux Alpina, and the nocinos from Ohio’s Watershed Distillery and Washington state’s Skip Rock Distillers. Hazelnuts flavor Italy’s Frangelico, while pecans enter the glass via Rivulet Artisan Pecan Liqueur from Kentucky.

Cream & Honey

Honey isn’t just about sweetness. It also has a distinctive floral character of its own, as showcased in honey liqueurs like Germany’s Bärenjäger and Poland’s Old Krupnik. And cream liqueurs go beyond the classic Bailey’s. Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace Distillery makes a luscious Bourbon Cream, and Castries Peanut Rum Crème from St. Lucia has been known to convert cream-liqueur skeptics.

Savory Liqueurs

The 2014 American debut of Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur (produced in Mexico since the 1920s) brought the flavor of chili peppers to cocktails, such as Nonna’s Biscotto from the Hotsy Totsy Club in Albany, California. More recently, Nixta Licor de Elote—an ancestral corn liqueur from Jilotepec, Mexico—began appearing in American glasses, with its bright, evocative flavor of fresh masa.

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