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Updated on January 4, 2017

A liqueur is a sweetened alcoholic drink that is flavored with fruit or herbs. Liqueurs, particularly those flavored with fruit, are also known as cordials. Liqueurs are pleasant to drink, and many of them have a beneficent effect on the digestion because of the herbs, plants, and fruits they are made from and usually served after meals.

The essential ingredient of all liqueurs is alcohol. Liqueurs may be made by fermenting and distilling all the ingredients together and then adding sugar and coloring. They may also be made by adding the flavoring, sweetening, and coloring agents to a base, usually brandy, that has already been distilled. Liqueurs vary in their alcoholic content from about 3 percent to more than 50 percent, and according to U.S. law they must contain at least 2.5% sugar.

The flavoring may be given to the liqueur by adding herbs, plants, or fruits to the alcoholic base and subjecting the mixture to a process of infusion, percolation, or distillation. Some liqueurs achieve their flavor by the use of a single herb or spice. Anisette, for example, is flavored with anise, which has a taste similar to licorice. Creme de menthe is flavored with peppermint, creme de cacao with cacao, and kummel with caraway or cumin seeds.

Some other liqueurs, however, particularly the proprietary, or privately owned and produced, liqueurs, contain a large number of different spices and herbs. The exact ingredients of such liqueurs are heavily guarded trade secrets, and often only two or three persons are permitted the secret of the recipe. Benedictine, chartreuse, Cointreau, Drambuie, Irish Mist, and Grand Marnier are examples of proprietary liqueurs.

Fruit liqueurs are made by adding fresh fruit to brandy and allowing the mixture to steep, or soak, for at least six months. The brandy is then drained off, filtered, sweetened, and bottled. Practically all fruits have been used for flavoring liqueurs, including peaches, raspberries, apricots, oranges, and cherries.

Some liqueurs are sold with fanciful ingredients in the bottles. Fieri Alpini, for example, has rock candy crystals in its bottles, and Goldwasser bottles contain tiny flakes of gold.

The flavoring and sweetening of alcoholic beverages goes back to ancient times. During the Middle Ages the making of liqueurs was closely connected with medicine. The combinations of alcohol and herbs, which were known as elixirs, were believed to have great curative and digestive powers. Although the Arabs and Chinese are known to have used primitive distillation methods, a Catalan French doctor, Arnaud de Villeneuve (Arnau de Vilanova), and Raymond Lully (Ramon Lull) in the late 13th century are credited with being the first distillers of eau-de-vie, or brandy, which, when sweetened, became the first liqueur. By the Middle Ages the manufacture of liqueurs was widespread in Europe, mostly in monasteries.

Two of the most famous modern liqueurs, Benedictine and chartreuse, are still produced by the monastic orders that invented them.


Sage, mint, caraway, and aniseed are common ingredients, and their flavors can be discerned in many well-known liqueurs. The complete list of herbs and the proportions that are used are always the well-kept secret of the maker. Some herb liqueurs like chartreuse contain 100 or more ingredients, and most are a mixture of at least 30.

Herbal liqueurs include Benedictine, chartreuse, and creme de menthe from France; kiimmel from Holland; Strega, millefiori, and Galliano from Italy; and several on a base of Scotch whisky. The most elegant and driest of these is Glen Mist; the best known is Drambuie. Aniseed-flavored liqueurs are made in most Mediterranean countries.

Citrus Fruit

Many liqueurs are made from citrus fruit, especially oranges, and these are generally an infusion of the peel in brandy or a neutral spirit. Curagao and creme de mandarine are well-known types. Only the peel is normally used- Cointreau and Grand Marnier are variations on this theme. Van der Hum is based on the South African tangerine orange.


Soft-fruit liqueurs are numerous and are also made on the infusion principle: the flavoring ingredients are macerated or infused with spirit or brandy. Cherry and peach brandy are of this type, as is creme de cassis, made from black currants, the best of which are grown around Dijon, France.

Eaux-de-vie are fruit spirits distilled like grape brandy, not a simple blend of fruit and spirit. This class of spirit is subtle, dry, and worthy of the connoisseur's attention. Kirsch, prunelle (plum brandy), and poire william (pear brandy), are also delicious, but they are strong and fairly expensive. They are specialties of Alsace, the Black Forest, Switzerland, and the Balkan countries.

Bean and Kernel

Liqueurs are made from beans and kernels in many countries. Coffee liqueurs are available from Jamaican (Tia Maria), Mexican, Danish (Kahlua), Irish (Gallweys), and several American companies. Creme de cacao is made by every major liqueur distiller. Two of the newest liqueurs, royal mint-chocolate and royal orange-chocolate, are British inventions, made in France. Sabra, from Israel, is also an orange and chocolate liqueur.


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