Liqueurs Are Always Sweet

For a splash of sweetness, add a liqueur. Not too much. Add just enough to complement the cocktail. What can you do with Rootbeer Schnapps, Cherry Cordial, or Ginger Liqueur? Of course you could always just enjoy a little in a glass as a dessert. Instead of a alternative to a piece of cake, sip on a liqueur!

Schnapps or Cordial?

Schnapps is a fun word, and something very different in Europe. Cordial is something my girlfriend’s great aunt likes to make. A word of warning, if you aren’t into sweets then best to avoid some of that homemade cordial.

In North America, liqueurs are commonly referred to as schnapps or cordials. Germans call any distilled product a ‘schnapps’ and in the UK a cordial doesn’t have any alcohol. Look for Rose’s Lime Cordial, no alcohol in that, only tartness and sugar. Of course you could always add a little vodka to that lime cordial and create your own liqueur… but save it for a cocktail instead.

By definition, disgustingly sweet

There is one thing that all liqueurs have in common. Sugar! At least 2.5% of the volume of that flavoured liquid needs to be sugar. If you’re diabetic, stay away from shots of Goldschlager or Grand Marnier. Each liqueur producer does things a little different. Different sugar sources, different base spirits, and different amounts of alcohol in the bottled product. In the end though, we’re talking REALLY SWEET!

man looking at liqueur in shot glass
Photo by joel herzog

I say what’s on my mind. The brutal honesty has come to bite me in the ass regularly, but those that know me appreciate that when they ask a question they will get a straight-forward answer. I once told a gal that asked me “Can I be your friend?” that I couldn’t do it. She asked ‘But why?’ and my response was that she was sickeningly sweet. It could have been the beer in my system that night. It might have been the fact I couldn’t stand her, even if my best friend was dating her at the time. Many liqueurs might fall exactly into that same definition, just without the awkwardness.

Liqueurs should be handled responsibly

I’m looking at you… teenagers. That bottle of peach schnapps is not meant to be chugged. I remember seeing empty bottles of Malibu Coconut Rum laying around around back of my small town high school. My mother liked to stick with the old standards of Kahlua or Baileys added to her coffee. A 26 ounce bottle though would last her about 3 months though.  We had a gal in our bartending classes that hated beer. When we were doing a bit of a tasting in the class, she would chase even the tiniest sip of beer with a sour raspberry liqueur. A nice gal, but at 19 she still had some growing up to do. By the way, in Canada the legal drinking age is 19 throughout most of the country.

For the most part, those liqueurs have relatively low alcohol concentrations, sometimes as low as 15% alcohol by volume. Sure, you will find many that still have ABV’s of 40 or even 45% alcohol (I’m looking at you Ricard). For the most part though, lower alcohol concentration is the norm for many liqueurs. That sour raspberry liqueur that Crystal was sipping on only clocks in at 18% ABV. There is a cocktail we teach called a Porn Star. Between the sour raspberry and blue curacao, the combined amount of alcohol is less than half an ounce of vodka. For those rowdy kids that have money to burn and need to manage their inebriation, mix them up a Porn Star cocktail. Bartender’s Rootbeer or a Monkey’s Lunch would also be easy to serve up as a low-proof cocktail.

A Little Goes a Long Way

Cocktails can be made with absolute precision. If consistency is required from drink to drink, then a fixed recipe should always be followed. That’s how these chain restaurants keep their customers coming back for the same cocktails over and over. The reality is that there is a bit of leeway in any recipe. Without that flexibility, a cocktail would just taste wrong 95% of the time. Only expert mixologists would be allowed behind the bar and each cocktail would cost a whole lot more!

A Simple Rule

When mixing a cocktail, think of a 3 to 1 ratio. That’s 3 parts of your main spirit and 1 part of the liqueur. If you’re making a Black Russian, stick with an ounce and a half of vodka to only a half ounce of coffee liqueur. The Kahlua website suggests more, but we all know that’s just to push more of their product. Too much sweetness needs to be balanced out with some sour and that Black Russian doesn’t have any sour to add. A Margarita does. 1.5oz of tequila to 0.5oz of an orange liqueur is great when shaken up with an ounce of fresh squeezed lime juice. Sex on the Beach only needs a maximum of half an ounce in it. Of course, if someone wants a double Fuzzy Navel in a short glass with lots of ice… check their ID.

Different Base Spirits

Spend some time in your local liquor store. Have a look at the products on the shelf. That peppermint schnapps likely tastes like peppermint. For those of us that like minty fresh breath, we know that this liqueur will deliver. There is no additional complexity to it… just one flavour. The base spirit in here is most likely a neutral spirit so as to not complicate the schnapps.

Coffee liqueurs are more complex. Different producers have their own blend of coffee and sugar they add, but most are using rum as a base. Rums can still be light in flavour. Rums can also be quite complex depending on the level of aging, but for something intense like a coffee liqueur you want the coffee and vanilla elements to shine through.

Grand Marnier is another great example of a liqueur using an alternate base spirit. For this expensive French liqueur, they use Cognac! The could use the less expensive regional brandies, but no… it has to be cognac. Even Drambuie uses now scotch whisky as a base. It too was once French brandy, but when import taxes into the UK became to high… the producers switched up the base spirit to whisky. Have you come across Fireball or Southern Comfort? Both of these are using whiskies too for their base spirit. Both also have significant amounts of sugar added, and of course some flavouring too.

Not a Liqueur

I’ve now established that liqueurs are sweet. Without the sugar in the bottle, they are not liqueurs. Obviously gin and akvavit are not sweet, so these are considered flavoured spirits. Absinthe is also not a liqueur. Serving absinthe is a bit of an art unto itself. The big question is, after dissolving that sugar into the ‘green fairy’ does that make it a liqueur? The same could almost be asked of an Old Fashioned. If enough sugar is added… have you as a bartender effectively created a liqueur?

Endless Variations in the Bottle

Check your local options for liqueurs. It was a few years ago we brought a bottle of Glazed Donut Schnapps to a party as a gag gift. There are some fantastic vanilla liqueurs including Licor 43 and Galliano. Check out Glayva vs. Drambuie! Just remember, liqueurs are always sweet… maybe too sweet!

Chris S.

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