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.


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.

Nonetheless, fully a third of the world’s 50 bestselling cocktails contain a liqueur, and just about every major brand counts the pole stars of the UK and US as their biggest current markets. Thomas Bennett, customer marketing controller at Global Brands, is buoyant about prospects for its Teichenne range: “Generations Z is four times more likely to spend £15 on a cocktail, and the market for cocktails has grown 7.5% year on year.” De Kuyper CEO Mark de Witte relies similarly on the UK and US, but asserts that future growth will come from Asia. “Standalone liqueurs will have stronger traction in more mature markets such as Europe and North America, riding the wave of authenticity and premiumisation.” This is echoed by Philippe Jouhaud, marketing director for Benedictine: “Obviously, in terms of regions, North America with its strong cocktail culture is a major market, as is western Europe, but what’s going on in eastern Europe, and in a lot of Asian countries, is extremely promising. [In Kuala Lumpur and Singapore], Benedictine is one of the bestselling brands in travel retail.”

De Witte also sees life for liqueurs beyond the cocktail: “With our successful classic liqueurs like Cherry Heering, Mandarine Napoléon and Italicus, we are addressing the premiumisation trend of the category. [These] brands can be perfectly consumed neat or on the rocks.”

And so to the crystal ball. Whither liqueurs? Persson is adamant that new drinkers can best be introduced to liqueurs through cocktails – and premixes, such as the RTDs Pernod has for both Kahlua and Malibu. There is even Malibu Beer in some US states – hey, if Smirnoff can do it with Smirnoff Ice, why not? We can expect to see low-sugar liqueurs, a whole lot of responsible sourcing, and perhaps even the holy grail of liqueurs, fresh juices. For a lot of liqueurs, the flavour is derived from fruit juice – strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, et al. But juice goes off eventually, so liqueur firms typically don’t use it, instead boosting flavour by adding more sugar.

But a liqueur with a best-by date, a liqueur that contains real juice… well, that would be a game-changer. We’ll see standalone brands that do for unexploited range liqueur stalwarts such as banana, apricot, cacao and cassis what St Germain did for elderflower. Asia and Africa will boom. Europe

and the Americas will require constant innovation to tickle our jaded palates. It’s been good times for liqueur producers for centuries, and if they remain as flexible as they have been in the past, there’s no need to call last orders just yet.