Liqueurs: Sweet Dreams


Ah, but whither the range liqueurs – the Bols and Hiram Walkers and Marie Brizards, to name but a few? They have a tough time of it. At their best, such range liqueurs taste as good, or better than, brand-name liqueurs, yet sell at a significant discount. What this results in is cannier drinks firms using range liqueurs as a sort of free R&D department – seeing which flavours gain traction, and then launching their own standalone brands. It doesn’t help that in the US, the world’s most significant cocktail market, range liqueurs are generally far cheaper than in the EU, but also are often made in the US and are of far lower quality, even if they carry the same brand name as the mother company in Europe.

When the second cocktail boom kicked off in the mid-1990s, most American bartenders would rather make their own cordials than use such American-produced range liqueurs, such was their low regard of those available. Many large range liqueurs simply chug along, adding two flavours per year, deleting two more, and getting “sales through inertia” by being the only liqueur range listed with a distributor or importer. Its telling that Bols, a big player, refused to release sales figures for 2018 to the DI Millionaires List researchers. Plus, not every liqueur is like the venerable Benedictine, which can trace its roots to the 1500s and is made to this day in the same stills that were first fired up in 1863.

The commercial secret to a great many range liqueur brands is that they don’t make the stuff at all. They buy flavours and colours from Givaudan or IFF or Firmenich, mix them with some similarly bought-in neutral alcohol and sugar, and Bob’s your uncle. Indeed, the sales staff of those flavour companies very often determine what ‘new’ SKUs a range liqueur firm will launch, coming armed to the teeth with trend reports and demographic data when they make a sales call.

Remember the projected acai-liqueur boom? No, me neither.

Not to say that there’s no transparency. Kina Persson, senior global brand manager for Pernod-Ricard’s liqueur juggernauts Malibu and Kahlua, is at pains to stress the importance of responsible sourcing. Kahlua has committed to getting its coffee beans from 100% sustainable sources by 2022. Its director of sustainable development Billy King has created a programme that involves NGO-based education on sustainable agriculture, coaching for communities to identify and work towards collective goals, and spurring economic growth by both paying a guaranteed premium for coffee and training farmers in efficient, low-impact agriculture. In today’s world, that’s the kind of un-gimmicky altruism that will get even the most cynical of bartenders reaching to use Kahlua in their Espresso Martinis.

Back to the bar. The picture there is rosy – a recent report details how the UK drank 56% more liqueurs during the summer heatwave of 2018, and a CGA MAT 2018 put the UK liqueurs market alone at £1.39bn. You would think this would be a boon to brands mentioned here, and the Instagrammability of colourful cocktails has certainly led to an uptick, but I have my suspicions that ‘liqueur’ was stretched to include ‘bitter liqueur’ such as Aperol and Jagermeister. That’s another funny old thing about liqueurs. Many a brand that would qualify easily as a liqueur – minimum 100g sugar/litre, minimum 15% abv – chooses to play in another, cooler category, such as ‘herbal bitters’ or the like.