The 1980s bar culture that aimed to recreate a scene from the movie Cocktail brought about a new use for cordials and liqueurs, while also inspiring new lines of sweet liqueurs that were intended to create fun and fruity quaffs. The current cocktail trend that focuses on the use of freshly made ingredients, however, has proved somewhat troublesome for the cordials and liqueur category. In 2009, the category decreased some 6.5 percent on-premise, according to the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company.
That said, the revival of the classic cocktail scene offers operators a new opportunity to focus on the category. “The trend for cocktails seems to be leaning, as it has for several years, toward ingredients that are used sparingly but with great depth of flavor and flavor potency to create balanced drinks,” says Colin O’Neill, manager of Herbsaint Bar and Restaurant in New Orleans, which features local cuisine.
“People are trying to use better ingredients across the board,” says Scott Beattie, bar manager at Spoonbar in Healdsburg, California, and author of Artisan Cocktails. “If you are going to use great ingredients, you aren’t going to compromise on the great products.”
All the same, the category’s top brands on-premise last year, according to BIG, were Jägermeister, Southern Comfort, Baileys, Kahlúa and DeKuyper. From tried and true flavors to new upgrades to obscure cordials and liqueurs brought back due to a revival of classic cocktails, bar managers and mixologists across the country are excited about the future of the cordial and liqueur category.
Tried and True
Many restaurants and bars across the country continue to create signature cocktail menus where cordials play an important role. At the 700-unit, Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings, the DeKuyper brand works for most cocktail needs. “DeKuyper is easy to work with and can enhance recipes we already have,” says Patrick Kirk, marketing and brand manager, who runs the beverage program at Buffalo Wild Wings.
For example, for a summer “Tempting Tea” promotion, the chain featured the Loaded Lemon Tea, made with Jeremiah Sweet Tea Vodka and lemonade. The teas are priced from $4.50 to $7.50, depending on the market. “As a twist, we added PeachTree Schnapps and it’s been a hit,” he says. They haven’t been able to determine exact sales numbers, but Patrick says, “They have been outselling most of our signature cocktails like our Wild Punch and everyday favorites like our Strawberry Daiquiri and Piña colada.” Some of the chain’s top brands include Midori, Chambord and Disaronno Amaretto.
That sort of creativity abounds at Buffalo Wild Wings, where Kirk notes that as more base spirits introduce flavors, there are fewer flavors that mixologists needs to add to the mix, which has reduced his reliance on the cordial category a bit. For example when the chain wanted to make a play on a Mojito it used a new flavor of rum: Cruzan Black Cherry. “We didn’t have to play around with any cherry flavored liqueurs” he notes. “The alcohol already had the flavor in it.”
Cordials are key to the cocktail program at the 100-location Old Chicago chain, a part of Louisville, CO.-based Rock Bottom Restaurants Inc. “Cordials remain an important component of cocktail development, as they have flavors and textures that can’t be duplicated with other flavored spirits,” says Tracy A. Finklang, beverage director for the chain. “In my opinion, cordials are essential to making interesting cocktails.”
Finklang has intentionally incorporated more cordials into her cocktail menu. For example, the French Mojito and Flower Power Martini both feature St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur and the Ginger Mojito is made with Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur. They are priced from $6 to $7.50, depending on the market. She also uses cordials to add variety to popular cocktail recipes. “We reengineered our Lemon Drop Martini into our new Tickle Me Pink Martini by adding Chambord Black Raspberry Liqueur,” she explains, adding that another popular cocktail, the Tiramisu Martini, is made with Frangelico and Baileys.
Guests do also call for some specific cordials at Old Chicago. “It’s the usual suspects: Jägermeister, Grand Marnier, Goldschlager, Baileys, Rumple Mintze and now St. Germain,” says Finklang.
Upping the Ante
Core liqueurs like triple sec will always be needed behind the bar. But some savvy mixologists are also upgrading to higher-quality versions of well-known quaffs and replacing some with new flavors.
“The current bar trend is pretty much going to homemade, quality ingredients whenever possible,” says Scott Clime, wine and beverage director for Passion Food Hospitality, which runs four restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area. To do so, he upgraded his restaurants’ line of cordials. For example, instead of traditional triple sec, he now uses Patrón Citronge Liqueur. The traditional Margarita ($9.95 and $5 at happy hour) is made with Cuervo Gold Tequila, Patrón Citronge Liqueur and house-made sour mix.
He adds that he has stopped using of some of his more traditional cordials. “I really see the trend to eliminating some brands because we aren’t needing those ingredients.” That said, he still uses Hiram Walker for cocktails requiring flavors like crème de cacao, amaretto and sour apple.
The bestsellers at his four locations are Baileys ($9), Campari ($10), Peter Heering’s Cherry Liqueur ($9)—which is featured in the Blood and Sand Cocktail at DC Coast for $11.95—Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur ($10), mixed in DC Coast’s Aviation for $11.95 and Luxardo Amaro ($10). Many bar managers mentioned the Luxardo brand as a quality cordial and liqueur brand.
At Herbsaint, cordials are used to highlight the flavors of more traditional liquors, says O’Neill. For example, The Seville ($9) is made with Meletti Amaro, Dolin Dry Vermouth and house-made Satsumacello. “The Satsumacello is made by “infusing neutral spirits with satsumas and lemons,” he adds. “After about 40 days of aging and agitating daily, we add simple syrup to taste and bottle. Because we have been doing it for a few years we hold back some of the spirit and use that as part of the base of the next batch.” The top cordials used to blend are Lucien Jacob Crème de Mure, Benedictine, Luxardo Triplum, Dolin Dry and Sweet Vermouth.
“However, due to the natural tradition of drinking in New Orleans, many customers prefer to drink cordials and liquors by themselves,” he says, adding that popular calls include Drumgray, Fernet-Branca, Lillet Blanc, Chartreuse and Luxardo Amaretto di Saschira.
In the past five years or so, bar managers have seen an increase in the availability of new flavors and high-profile ingredients. And some are jumping on the opportunity. “The availability of quality ingredients has allowed us to expand the flavor profiles of cocktails and refine the ones we had already established,” says O’Neill.
The classic cocktail revival has proved to be a boon for the more classic liqueurs and cordials, like those used in Ted Haigh’s book Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails. “The most exciting thing is the people who are trying to resurrect the old formulas for liqueurs,” says Beattie. “A long time ago, these obscure liqueurs were an important part of cocktail making.” He uses things like Liqueur Violette, high-quality absinthe and green chartreuse. Even for traditional liqueurs Beattie looks to brands like the more obscure Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and Nolly Pratt Dry Vermouth.
A true liqueur evangelist, Beattie says, “the ones that are special are that way for a reason—they make cocktails taste so much better. There isn’t an option to replace them with something else.”
Clime at DC Coast also uses Carpano in the Martinez, which is made with Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and house orange bitters.
Old spirits are making a comeback. “I see a Renaissance for the old liqueurs like Chartreuse and Benedictine,” adds Lynn House, mixologist at Blackbird, a modern American restaurant in Chicago, noting that people are indeed moving away from the sweeter commercially available liqueurs. House is not alone as many bar managers and mixologists are also looking to more traditional liqueurs like Chartreuse and Benedictine, as well as unique flavors like elderflower, maraschino and crème de violette.
House also uses Benedictine, as a replacement for peach schnapps. Her cocktail The Holy Grail features Benedictine, Espirit Orange Liqueur, Fever Tree Tonic, Fee Brothers Orange Bitters, fresh ginger, lemon juice and basil. The Surrender Dorothy, which she serves as an aperitif, is made with North Shore #6 Gin infused with basil, green chartreuse, fresh lemon and Bele Casel Prosecco. The top three liqueurs at Blackbird are St Germain, Domain de Canton and Campari. Her cocktails are priced around $12.
O’Neill at Herbsaint also experiments with Chartreuse and Benedictine. “We use Chartreuse sparingly to add depth to fruit-based drinks and Benedictine to brighten the corners of spicy rye-influenced Bourbons,” he says. “However, both are probably better by themselves as originally intended.”
He is also open to experimenting with new and niche flavored cordials and liqueurs. For example, notes O’Neill, “Ted Breaux, a native New Orleanian and absinthe distiller, has created Perique Liqueur de Tabac, which will be interesting.”
While many of these niche products are garnering attention at single-unit operators, finding and sourcing them can be difficult on a national level. Chains have a unique challenge with liqueur, as they establish core list that have to work across the country. “I have to make a product is available everywhere or I can’t promote it on the drink menu,” says Buffalo Wild Wings’ Kirk.
For mixologist uncertain about these new flavors, House advises: “It’s really important for people to experiment [with these complex flavors] and have fun.” She notes that learning about the history of liqueurs like Benedictine, Aperol and Chartreuse adds to the romance for customers. “People are a lot more experimental and are looking to see if I have something unique or different at the bar.”
As the focus continues to be on creating the best tasting cocktails, cordials and liqueurs are sure to be involved.