Liqueurs: Forever Young

From their traditional role in the cocktail firmament, liqueurs are now being used to make spirits more accessible to the younger generation, says Patience Gould

Easy to drink, usually fruity and relatively low in alcohol, and that’s just for starters. One would be forgiven for thinking that liqueurs were invented for today’s drinking environment. Indeed, with their versatility and mixability, liqueurs also play a vital role in the expanding cocktail arena and the growing popularity of the cocktail is aiding and abetting progress. As a result innovation is central to liqueurs’ ongoing success.

To this end De Kuyper has poured significant investment into expanding its distilling capacity and the state-of-the-art production unit – fondly referred to as the ‘creative kitchen’ – is also going to be used for developing and testing new flavours using fruits, herbs and spices, as the company looks to expand its already impressive range. 

Last year was something of a watershed for the Dutch company as it repackaged its liqueurs range, which is now divided into four groups – Essentials, Traditionals, Fruits and Distiller’s Signature. Bigshot joined its original shots family, Dropshot and Hotshot, while the classic liqueur Elderflower was added to its Traditionals range.

Pioneering launch

Innovation has also been at the heart of Bols’ progress over recent years, which have seen the pioneering launch of Bols Yogurt, Bols Foam and, most recently, Bols Honey. This is a blend of honeys including acacia and sunflower and is the result of an extensive consultation with 20,000 bartenders. The brilliance though of this introduction is that at a stroke it overcomes the difficulties of using honey in cocktails – as such it is the first of its kind.  Priced in line with the other Bols liqueurs it is available in 50cl and 70cl bottle sizes and has debuted in selected markets around the world.

Bols has also geared its annual cocktail competition, Bols Around the World, to innovation as this year the aim is to find “the most visionary” barman “who is not afraid to take risks”. Now in its eighth year the contest regularly attracts participants from 70 countries, and this time around competitors are invited “to develop a new drink concept – a twist on an existing trend, a fusion of trends or a completely new idea”. 

It must inspire, be innovative, yet easy to replicate. Bartenders will then be asked to develop a drinks menu inspired by their creation. The final will be staged in May this year and will be live-streamed around the world for the first time.

“Innovation is very important,” says Richard Ridley, export director at family-owned Dutch company Wenneker. “Bartenders are always wanting something new. And this year we are looking to increase our range with new flavours brought about by popular demand.” Currently the company’s Melon liqueur, launched in 2012, is proving “very successful” and is the fastest growing on the flavour front, though Triple Sec, Blue Curaçao and Amaretto remain the staples in the 40-plus strong range.

The producer’s top markets in volume terms are Thailand, the UK,  Russia and Italy – while in growth terms Russia and Italy, along with Thailand, have been enjoying double-digit increases – interestingly all countries which boast a growing cocktail culture.

While Holland is something of a bastion when it comes to liqueurs producers, it is innovation which has been at the heart of Italian producer Volare’s progress in recent years. In particular the development of its bespoke pouring mechanism has really helped to put the producer on the liqueurs map.

“Innovation is a key factor for the development of our brand and our company is constantly investing in research and development,” says export director Nicola Dal Toso. “The design of ‘pro pour technology’ is considered a great innovation and a key factor for the success and recognisability of the brand. It has allowed us to enter into markets where other competitors were already established.”

Vital community

The international bartending community is vital to Volare and the company is strengthening its position in emerging markets through training and sponsorship activities. “It’s important to educate and demonstrate product usability,” says Dal Toso. “The most popular flavours among bartenders are Vanilla and Cinnamon Red as they can replace regular sugar in all-time classics and help bartenders create well-balanced twists on classics.”

While eastern Europe is Volare’s prime stronghold in terms of development, the company is also finding growing interest in Asia, in particular South Korea and Japan. “This testifies that the consumption of cocktails is growing rapidly in these markets that previously have been very tied to the consumption of traditional liquor,” says Dal Toso.  

Over in France, the quality liqueur producer and one rightly famed for its Crème de Cassis, Gabriel Boudier also prioritises innovation but links it to ‘creativity’ as well.  “Innovation and above all creativity is essential in what we do, particularly as trends move very swiftly,” says Claire Battault, export director of Gabriel Boudier. “Even though the classics such as cassis and triple sec remain important, we are constantly being asked to innovate around new fruits, plants and spices. Indeed, we are increasingly inspired by the creativity emerging in desserts and sweet offerings which we try to adapt and make delicious liqueurs.” 

Interestingly, following increasing demand from the on-trade, Gabriel Boudier unveiled its Bartender range of liqueurs in bottles designed to fit the speed rail. The move clearly underlines the growing following the French liqueurs have among the cocktail fraternity. 

“Without doubt these have been successful, along with our Saffron gin and the more exotic flavours in the range,” says Battault. “The concentrated flavours of our liqueurs make these a perfect base for a successful cocktail.”

Like a number of producers  Boudier has also found a growing demand for its products in supermarkets as consumers take the cocktail mixing habit home, and this is furthered by “a ready-to-use cocktail recipe at point of sale which has been inspired by an innovative barman”.  

Indeed, Volare has taken this one step further by introducing a 50cl bottle for its Antica Sambuca especially for supermarket listings and creating a signature cocktail called A Star. “This is sambuca and tonic and as such a very simple ingredient which allows everyone to create a cocktail at home while promoting a different way to drink sambuca,” says Dal Toso. 

Of course, innovation has always been at the heart of the sprawling and hugely fragmented liqueur market, and arguably the greatest innovation of all was the advent of Baileys Original Irish Cream – and that was more than 25 years ago. Boasting case sales of 6.5 million in 2012 (DI’s The Millionaires’ Club) Baileys easily remains the world’s leading liqueur brand and is the fifth best-selling brand in duty free, according to IWSR.

It’s only relatively recently in the brand’s illustrious history that flavour variants have been added, but the introduction of its Baileys Chocolat Luxe last year is being touted as the most innovative to date, as it is the first time that real Belgian chocolate has been fused with alcohol “in a way that delivers the multi-sensory experience of chocolate in a glass”. 

It was three years in the making and there were more than 830 attempts before the right mixture was born. It is only available in 50cl bottles, weighing in at 15.7% abv, and is destined to restore Baileys to its former glories – back in 2008 when annual volume was nudging 8 million cases.

The accessibility of liqueurs in terms of taste and easy drinking can also act as a way of introducing younger consumers to a particular spirit. It remains a moot point as to whether someone with a liking for Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey liqueur will take to Jack Daniel’s regular, but with something like tequila the strategy could well work, and Olmeca’s success is proof of the pudding.  “The challenge for tequila has always been attracting women, in particular those who have tended to shy away from straight tequila,” says Lisa McCann, international marketing director for Olmeca. 

To this end the first Olmeca flavoured liqueurs were introduced in 2011– and the strategy has worked, bringing new drinkers to the category “thanks to the sweeter, more accessible taste”.

Following growing demand from around the world Olmeca has since launched more flavours which underline and celebrate its Mexican heritage, including Coffee, Chilli and Dark Chocolate. “Initial feedback has been excellent as adventurous nightlife fans continue to seek out new and interesting drinks they’ve never tried before,” says McCann. 

To date Olmeca Dark Chocolate is “performing particularly well” in South Africa where it has been available since 2011 and also in Spain where it has experienced “strong growth” since its debut in 2012.

“In Russia – which is now one of the largest tequila markets in the world and where Olmeca holds number one status, Dark Chocolate was launched last November and initial feedback has been very positive,” says McCann. “We look forward to continued success following a national roll-out this year.” 

New flavours are clearly in the pipeline as Olmeca plans to expand its reach across Europe, into Africa and into China. Clearly when it comes to the liqueur there are no boundaries – and that probably explains why the category is burgeoning. But it will be interesting to see if the strategy of launching a liqueur variant of a spirit brand will be adopted by more producers or, looking at it another way, will we see Drambuie – that famous Scotch whisky liqueur – launch its own brand of Scotch whisky. These are indeed interesting times.