Liqueurs: Sweet Dreams

There’s more to liqueurs than meets the eye. Philip Duff ventures into a world beyond cocktails for these sugary – and not so sugary – drinks.


LIQUEURS ARE A funny old game. For starters, in what other category can a brand command a higher price by using just about any word other than the category descriptor? Witness the re-purposing of the word ‘schnapps’ by the De Kuyper company when it called its new peach liqueur Peachtree Schnapps (presumably instead of Peachtree Liqueur) on launching in the US in 1984. It hit 1m 9LEs in the first year of sales. Liqueurs are sweet, too – that’s part of their EU definition, a minimum of 100g of sugar per litre – but sugar in the past few years has been publicly denounced from the modern-day pulpit of social media. The truth of it is, liqueurs taste better with more sugar, because sugar preserves and transmits flavours better. Don’t believe me? Try this at home: take a bottle of any liqueur you like, and pour three samples of, say, 60ml each. Do nothing to the first, to the second add 10ml of water and to the third add 10ml of sugar syrup (made with equal parts of sugar and water). Give the last two a good stir and then taste all three. The one you watered down will taste worse than the original, and the one you added sugar to will likely taste better than the original.

Plus, liqueurs are colourful – it is expected, and originated in a time when life was dull and drab, so a brightly hued liqueur was as a ray of sunshine piercing the unforgiving greyness of your day. Except that we now live in a retina-screen HD world and get all the colours we need constantly, so colourful liqueurs now just seem gaudy.

The business of liqueurs these days is firstly cocktails, then shots, and then confectionery. Brands such as Cointreau make high-proof extract versions of the mother brand for use in patisserie. Once upon a time there was a hefty business in after-dinner liqueurs, but the bottom fell out of that market somewhere after the 1960s. Liqueurs struggled until the 1970s, when the singles bar revolution really kicked off, and hordes of young men and women converged on bars which, for the first time, had been designed and optimised for nothing else except meeting members of the opposite sex. Colourful cocktails very different to dad’s Martini and mom’s Manhattan were the order of the day, and as liqueurs poured, they reigned. Liqueur brands that dominated the likes of TGI Fridays’ 468-drink cocktail menu included the mighty Baileys (launched in 1974), Frangelico and Midori (1978) Chambord (1981) and Malibu (1982). Baileys, as the world’s best-selling liqueur, rules supreme at more than twice the sales of #2 Malibu, and #3 the De Kuyper range. Indeed, here’s a statistic for you: Baileys outsells the world’s bestselling international gin brand, namely Gordon’s. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. A new entrant in the bestsellers club is Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, which has come from nowhere and now outsells more established brands such as Cointreau and Amarula, although it seems to be little-used in cocktails.