The cordials category used to be defined by an after-dinner snifter of Cognac or a glass of Kahlua on the rocks. And it’s true that classic styles and brands of liqueurs remain popular with many guests: According to the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company, Jagermeister is the leading brand in liqueurs and cordials, followed by DeKuyper, Baileys, Southern Comfort and Kahlua.
But several trends are driving sales in the category, including the growing interest in Italian bitter spirits, the introduction of botanical-infused liqueurs, and the resurgence in popularity of “antique” cordials such as Crème de Violette. Operators are getting more innovative about marketing these spirits and mixing them in cocktails.
CLASSICS AND COCKTAILS
Brandy and liqueurs including Jagermeister, Frangelico and Kahlua are popular on the casino floors at Aria in Las Vegas. Aria’s 16 restaurants and 18 bars offer cordials priced from $9 to $150, and Cognacs range in price from $12 to $900 for a 1-¼-oz. pour, says Michael Shetler, director of beverage for the 4,000-room Aria Resort & Casino. Cordials and liqueurs account for 7.9% of all Aria’s alcohol sales.
The same brands are popular on Norwegian Cruise Line’s 11 ships, as are Goldschläger and Romana Sambuca. “Cordials and liqueurs comprise our largest spirits category, and due to the diversity of this category, the flavor combinations are limitless,” says J. Eric Brown, corporate manager for beverage development for the Miami, Fla.-headquartered cruise line.
As an example of some of Norwegian’s cocktails mixed with cordials, Cagney’s Signature “Speakeasy” Martini ($8.75) combines Southern Comfort, DeKuyper Apricot Brandy, Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge and prosecco. The cruise line’s take on the classic Blood and Sand ($7.50) replaces Cherry Heering with DeKuyper Cherry Brandy.
At the 230-seat Belgian restaurant Brasserie Beck in Washington, D.C., general manager Ramon Narvaez says he still sells a fair amount of the classics such as Grand Marnier, Hennessey and Baileys. Brasserie Beck offers standard liqueurs and cordials for $11 to $13, higher-end varieties (such as Grand Mariner 150, a limited edition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the company) can cost as much as $65 serving. Cordials and liqueurs account for 20% of the restaurant’s alcohol sales.
Some operators eschew big brands for spirits that are more in line with their bar program and culinary focus. At Russell House Tavern, a 220-seat American tavern in Cambridge, Mass., bar manager Sam Gabrielli serves Santa Teresa Araku rum and coffee liqueur from Venezuela in place of Kahlua, and Crème de Cassis stands in for Chambord.
These smaller-batch products, he says, pair better with the venue’s concept of focusing on craft food and beverages. Russsell House Tavern features Rothman & Winter Orchard Peach Liqueur in its Barnum (Was Right) ($10), its spin on a gin sour.
Brown also finds that new brands with recognizable flavors or name recognition are popular with ship guests. He notes that TY KU Citrus Liqueur brings an interesting flavor and a low-calorie alternative to the cocktail category; Norwegian Cruise Line bars use it in Asian Lemonade ($8.50), with Grey Goose vodka and lemonade. “Patron XO Café and Patron XO Café Coco also have unique potential because they are branded with the Patron name and offer a unique flavor profile,” he says.
SPICES AND FLORALS BLOOM
Several products released in the past few years have become undisputed fixtures on the liqueur scene. “Obviously, St. Germain [Elderflower Liqueur] is still very hot,” admits Narvaez. “You can sell anything if you put a splash of that magic elixir in there.”
U.S. sales of St. Germain jumped an impressive 60% in 2011, according to the Beverage Information Group. Domaine de Canton, the ginger liqueur from France made from Cognac, vanilla, honey and ginseng, has also been causing a stir since it was released five years ago. And more new products seem to enter the category every day. Hum Botanical Liqueur, flavored with hibiscus, cardamom, ginger and Kaffir lime, hit the market nearly three years ago.
Brasserie Beck uses Hum in The Humdinger ($14), its riff on the Pimm’s Cup made with gin, cucumber essence and lemon-lime soda. “More U.S. craft distillers are making high-quality cordials that are their own interpretation of the European classics,” says Shetler.
Philadelphia craft distiller Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction offers several potently flavored liqueurs ripe for experimentation: Root (flavored with North American herbs including anise, cloves and nutmeg), Snap (ginger) Rhubarb, and Sage. Aria’s Sage Restaurant uses Root in The Artful Margarita, with Oro de Jalisco Tequila, Cointreau and lemon; the venue’s Jack Snap mixes Snap with Jack Daniels’ Tennessee Honey and Fever Tree ginger ale (both drinks $14).
WHAT’S OLD IS NEW
Rediscovered liqueurs like Crème de Violette and Chartreuse are also steadily finding their niche. Russell House Tavern serves the Resting Violets ($13), a floral take on a martini that replaces gin with Reposado Tequila, and also includes dry vermouth, Crème de Violette, St. Germaine and orange bitters. The bar stocks 27 cordials, priced from $7 to $39 for Grand Marnier 150.
Another vintage violet liqueur, Crème Yvette, is making a splash again as well. The spirit, made from violet petals, berries, vanilla and spices, had been discontinued in the late 1960s, but was reintroduced in 2009 by the developers of St. Germain.
Aria’s Sage Restaurant uses Green Chartreuse in a barrel-aged version of the classic Last Word ($14), with Plymouth Gin and Luxardo Maraschino (lime juice is added just before serving, when shaking with ice). The Grand Cafe in San Francisco is even offering Chartreuse on tap (see sidebar on page 29).
The 3,933-room Bellagio Resort and Casino in Las Vegas operates 19 restaurants and 15 bars. It stocks 110 cordials, which account for 8% to 10% of total beverage sales.
Many cordials and liqueurs years ago were comprised of a base modifier, with artificial ingredients and low-quality flavors, says Steve Ely, the Bellagio’s general manager for pool food and beverage operations. But the current cocktail culture is changing all that, he says.
“As bar chefs look for the latest and greatest, spirits manufacturers are moving with the trend, creating flavors using high-quality ingredients that not only taste great on their own, but take basic cocktails to the next level,” Ely says.
The aromatic and distinctive nature of these quality products makes them memorable for patrons, explains Ely. “Guests tend to identify more with a cordial or liqueur explanation than a base spirit,” he says. He cites the example of Crème de Violette: “Most guests can remember what a violet smells like, and can identify with that as a selling point for a cocktail.”
BITTER GETS BETTER
At the seven restaurants owned and operated by the Washington, D.C.-headquartered Passion Food Hospitality Group, wine and beverage director Scott Clime has witnessed a surge in complex bitter liqueurs, including Campari, Amer Picon, Fernet Branca and Aperol. “They’re definitely picking up speed,” he says, and used in classic and original cocktails like the Potomac Sunrise ($12), with U’luvka vodka, St. Germain, Aperol and grapefruit juice.
“Amari is hot,” declares Aria’s Shetler. “I see traditional liqueurs with stronger flavors like Chartreuse, Averna and Strega being incorporated more into mixology programs as opposed to stand-alone liqueurs.”
Aria’s Sirio Ristorante is offering amari on draft, with taps of Fernet Branca and Carpano Antica, served solo and in drinks. For instance, The Old Country cocktail ($14) adds both Fernet Branca and Averna to Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur, Angostura Bitters and Scrappy’s Cardamom Bitters.
Sirio staff even wheels around a cart stocked with bitter-sweet options. “Sirio markets their amari program as a natural extension of Italian culture, and focuses on the cordials on draft as a unique selling point,” Shetler says.
Both Fernet Branca and Averna continue to have impressive jumps in sales, increasing 46% and 65.6%, respectively, in control states in 2011, according to the Beverage Information Group. Russell House’s Gabrielli singles out the cult-like status that Fernet Branca has taken on in the mixology community. “Shot straight, mixed with cola or in a cocktail, Fernet Branca is probably so popular among bartenders it is becoming cliché—which frightens me, because I truly love it so.”
Norwegian Cruise Line finds that cultural factors influence amari sales, Brown says. “We normally see an increase in consumption of these particular items on our European and Mediterranean cruises. Guests who are familiar with these time-honored favorites tend to inspire other inquisitive minds to explore these unique flavors.” He singles out Campari and Pimm’s as being especially in demand during European jaunts, and contrasts this to the newer, trendy liqueurs frequently ordered during Caribbean cruises.
Mixologists don’t always need to turn to complex cocktails to get guests turned on to their bitter appeal, Ely notes. “With amari [like] Campari and Aperol, it can be as simple as adding soda and an orange twist to change the way some guests think about these otherwise bitter spirits,” he says.
Thanks to bartender creativity, along with the increased availability of exotic and once-rare liqueurs and the endurance of the classics, “cordials have become more relevant and will continue to be so,” says Gabrielli. “New products are always exciting to work with, but working with old, established cordials is just as fun.”
Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter @kmagyarics.
CRAZY FOR HOME-MADE ‘CELLOS
House-made limoncellos are a tart and tantalizing cordial option. Scott Clime, wine and beverage director of the Washington-based Passion Food Hospitality Group, notes that guests at its District Commons and Acadiana restaurants each go through 20 liters of limoncello each month. It takes a full three months from start to finish to create 20 liters of the citrusy cordial, but the resulting high-quality flavor makes it a win-win for staff and guests. Limoncello is served chilled, and also shaken in sips like the District Collins ($10), with Rain vodka, mint, simple syrup and seltzer.
At Sirio Ristorante at the Aria Resort and Casino, executive chef Vinceno Scarmiglia turned to his grandmother’s recipes as inspiration for his flight of ‘cellos, all paired with an accompanying dessert. Earthy, umami-laden trufflecello is the most requested flavor; it’s served with a truffle chocolate brownie. Cocoacello is poured alongside cocoa nib cookies; polenta cookies are the partner for sweet-tart tangerinecello; berrycello is enjoyed with raspberry vacherin and crème Anglaise; and classic limoncello is paired with a coconut macaroon. Guests can request one ($10), three ($25) or all five ($35) ‘cellos, served in fluted stemware.
San Francisco-based Italian restaurant Palio D’Asti also has a signature house-made limoncello, which sells for $7. It currently offers just the traditional lemon-flavored version but maitre d’ and owner Martino DiGrande says he’s made orange and wild fennel variations in the past.–KAM
CHARTREUSE ON TAP IN SAN FRAN
As further evidence that that vintage liqueurs such as Chartreuse are making a comeback, the Grand Cafe inside San Francisco’s Hotel Monaco in August became the first restaurant in the U.S. to offer green Chartreuse on tap. The Grand Café, which even boasts a Chartreuse menu, offers shots of the centuries-old, herbal French liqueur for $5, or for $8 if paired with a Kronnenbourg 1664 beer. The café’s bar manager Kristin Almy is also providing the “Grand Old Fashioned” cocktail on tap, which is made with Pierre Ferrand Cognac and Chartreuse and sells for $8.–KAM