Cordials and liqueurs remain an appealing way to end an evening. Neat, on the rocks, or added with mixers including club soda and cream, they often stand-in for—or are sipped alongside—dessert at many restaurants. But their intense, often multi-dimensional flavors also make them the spice jars of the mixology world. In small amounts, liqueurs add complexity and can punch up contemporary cocktails, while at the same time giving classic ones a fresh makeover. The results are drinks that have “sip appeal” all evening long. Many operators around the country say that cordials are hot: in the snifter, shot glass and shaker.
Traditional favorites enjoyed by themselves continue to be strong sellers and the culinary focus of a venue can influence popular choices. “Since we are a classic Italian restaurant, we serve a great selection of Amaros, Sambuca and Grappa,” says Michael Shapiro, general manager for Casa Nonna, a two- hundred-and twenty-seat Italian restaurant in New York. Most cordials are priced from $9 to $11 and Casa Nonna’s cordial and liqueur sales generally account for about 11 percent of the total alcohol sales year-round, with that number increasing to fifteen percent in the fall and winter.
But no matter the type of restaurant or bar is serving up drinks, Bailey’s Irish Cream remains an über-popular choice among cordials. According to the Beverage Information Group (BIG), Cheers’ parent company, sales of Bailey’s increased three percent from 2009 to 2010. Guests at Casa Nonna often sip it on the rocks; and at the fourteen onsite restaurants and bars at the 2,716-room and suite Wynn Las Vegas, where liqueurs account for fifteen to twenty percent of alcohol sales, Bailey’s over ice remains the biggest selling cordial. Property mixologist Patricia Richards notes that guests also frequently order Amaretto di Saronno or Kahlúa in either a White or Black Russian, and shots of Jägermeister. The latter was the top selling liqueur in 2009 to 2010, according to the BIG.
Though not at the top of the pack sales-wise, Galliano L’Autentico, the yellow Italian liqueur in the distinctive bottle, lends a sweet, herbal component to drinks. At Dram, a cocktail-focused lounge in Brooklyn, New York, bartender Frank Cisneros created the Bucky Done Gun ($10) where Galliano’s sweetness is tempered by the addition of Siembra Azul Blanco Tequila, Cocchi Americano, ginger and lemon. “Galliano L’Autentico’s 1898 recipe lends an authenticity to both classic and contemporary cocktails with its pronounced herbal, anise and vanilla flavors,” he notes.
Old and New Classics Still Reign
Patrons without a proclivity towards sweet, creamy or fruity flavors often opt instead to swirl a snifter of brandy or Cognac. Richards notes that while Hennessy is the Wynn’s top seller—and it’s also the top selling Cognac domestically—she prefers Martell. “They use Borderies grapes in their blend, which round it out beautifully.” Shapiro is partial to Maison Surrenne, a small-lot Cognac from an old family house. “It’s a great bottle to pour tableside and one that people keep coming back for,” he says. At Casa Nonna, Cognac ranges from $13 to $19 a pour.
Cognac and brandy traditionally evoke thoughts of warming a snifter with cupped hands during cooler weather—certainly a fitting scenario for the beverage. But depending on a liqueur’s flavor profile, alcohol content and presentation, it can be successfully used in creative concoctions all year round—not just for winter warmers. Two of Casa Nonna’s signature drinks, for example, are a duo of slushy, cooling Granita cocktails ($14). The Ginny Hendricks combines lime granita, Hendrick’s Gin, Domaine de Canton and lemon; while the Cherry Blossom mixes sour cherry granita with Stolichnaya Vodka, St. Germain, lemon and seltzer; while general manager Michael Shapiro believes success with any liqueur lies in employing them in specialty drinks and encouraging staff to try and stand behind them. “Let them sell what they love. You can always tell when a server really loves a product they are proud of.”
One of the more recent contemporary liqueur success stories has been St. Germain. After it was released on the market a few years ago, the heady and unique elderflower liqueur quickly became a mixologists’ darling. Early favorites emerged with which to mix the aromatic spirit, including gin, lemon and sparkling wine, rendering overtly floral and arguably feminine libations.
But as St. Germain’s name and brand recognition have increased over the past few years, bartenders are now reaching out to a new batch of ingredients for fresh cocktail ideas with which to use it. Bartender Misty Kalkofen of Drink in Boston recently created a beverage for Tales of the Cocktail that adds Del Maguey Mezcal and Ramazzati Amaro to the elderflower liqueur. Drinks like this one, where smoke meets floral and the feminine meets the masculine, show that no matter what a liqueur’s aroma or taste, combining it with the unexpected can lead to unexpectedly delicious results.
At Bobo, a 154-seat Contemporary American restaurant in New York’s West Village, beverage director Adam Rothstein uses St. Germain in two current offerings that also contrast its flavors with the drink’s other included components. In the Stealth Margarita, St. Germain serves as the sweetening agent against Jalapeño-infused Milagro. “It also counters the bitterness of Nonino Amaro in a stirred rum drink called Blonde on Blonde,” explains Rothstein, “balanced against chile tincture and Santa Teresa 1796 Rum [from Venezuela].” Each drink sells for $13.
Another relatively new liqueur that was quickly embraced behind the bar is Domaine de Canton, crafted with Cognac, ginger, vanilla, honey and ginseng. Bartenders have been experimenting with its “bitey” gingery kick, mixing it a range of spirits including tequila, Bourbon and gin. It finds a fitting place in the distillery-created Gold Rush cocktail, which mixes it with Bourbon and lemon; the Opening Act adds it to the shaker along with Campari, lime and mint, all topped with tonic. Playing up the liqueur’s Asian influence, Wynn’s Pan-Asian restaurant Wazuzu uses Domaine de Canton in the Thai Silk Cocktail ($14), with Thai Basil, lime and Momokawa Coconut-Lemongrass Nigori Sake.
Other new or creatively flavored liqueurs are proving useful in creating modern interpretations of classic cocktails. Rothstein has found himself reaching lately for a bottle of Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur. Its clean, fragrant, forest scent mixes perfectly with Beefeater Gin and Aperol for a woodsy, aromatic riff on the Negroni ($13).
Chartreuse’s intense herbal flavor can be a tough sell, but Rothstein tempers it with lemon, mint, Turbinado sugar and Haus Alpenz Battavia Arrack, for an herbaceous take on the Whiskey Smash ($13). “I’ve been particularly inspired by the portfolio of the importer Haus Alpenz,” says Rothstein. “I see a lot of bartenders leaning towards the more savory side of things,” he says, mixing with products like Chartreuse, Nux Alpina Walnut Liqueur and Amaros.
Indeed, more widespread requests for bitter aperitifs and digestifs like Amaro demonstrate the increasing popularity in this liqueur sub-category that also includes Campari, Aperol and Fernet Branca. Shapiro cites an increase in the number of guests in their twenties and thirties ordering Campari and Soda ($10)—an old school drink that’s making a comeback. Though many crave Campari’s bitter complexity, others find it just too intense. For those guests, Richards recommends replacing it with the less bitter, sweeter and more approachable, bright orange Aperol, which she says appeals more readily to a broader audience—like the one she encounters in Las Vegas.
Shots of the herbal, bitter digestivo Fernet Branca have been popular in San Francisco since the pre-Prohibition era, and today the city accounts for twenty-five percent of its domestic consumption. Recently released liqueur E**X**R shares a similar aromatic profile to an Amaro—both bitter and sweet, with clean herbal notes and is often used in place of traditional ingredients in classic libations.
Just as with other categories of spirits as well as wine, organic products are also making their mark in cordials and liqueurs. Richards appreciates the complexity of flavors in Hum Botanical Spirit—fair trade hibiscus, organic ginger, cardamom and Kaffir Lime. “You will see more ‘layering of flavor’ to minimize the number of ingredients needed to prepare a delicious, creative cocktail behind busy bars,” she predicts.
Whether enjoyed to kick off the night, keep the party going or wind down the evening, liqueurs and cordials hold a respected place on bar shelves. By both embracing new products as well as not eschewing traditional ones, operators can appeal to a wide variety of guests. Neat, on the rocks or in classic cocktails or inspired riffs, no matter the flavor, liqueurs make any bar experience sweeter.