While some guests still think of cordials and liqueurs primarily as something sweet to sip in a small glass after dinner, the category today is so much more than that. Bitter apertivi and digestivi, heady floral liqueurs, complex herbal elixirs and naturally derived fruit brandies are tempting customer palates and stirring bartender creativity.
For certain, “cordials are not just for dessert or sweet drinks anymore,” says Danica Guest, lead mixologist for The Circular, one of four year-round dining concepts at the 276-room Hotel Hershey in Hershey, PA. “They can provide a great balance between an array of base spirits and mixers to create inventive new flavors.”
A cocktail at The Circular called The Traveler is a perfect example of the complexity of flavors—sweet, bitter, herbal—that liqueurs can add to cocktails. The $12 drink mixes chocolate-infused bourbon with Aperol, Bénédictine & Brandy, sweet vermouth and orange bitters; it’s served up and garnished with an orange twist.
The Hotel Hershey’s Italian restaurant Trevi 5 offers a drink called the Trevi 5 Iced Tea ($12), which mixes brewed and chilled tea with limoncello, Pama pomegranate liqueur and prosecco. Trevi 5’s Elderfashion cocktail ($11) shakes up muddled lemon and cucumber with Death’s Door gin, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, Thatcher’s cucumber liqueur and Fee Brothers lemon bitters, served over ice in a rocks glass, and garnished with lemon and cucumber.
“The use of liqueurs is evolving in that they are not used to just sweeten drinks,” says Guest. “They can be used for their herbal, floral and bitter qualities to heighten the flavor profile of cocktails.” The Hotel Hershey stocks 61 liqueurs and cordials priced from $8 to $12.
“Cordials and liqueurs can complement the base spirit to create harmony and balance with the finished product,” says Rich Iannone, manager for the 196-seat Big Bar & Brasserie, one of four dining concepts at the 2,019-room Hyatt Regency Chicago. Creative use of cordials and liqueurs can greatly enhance the flavor profile of neutral spirits like white rum, vodka, and to a certain extent, gin, he says.
At Big Bar—which boasts the longest freestanding bar on the continent—The Capone cocktail ($15) stirs Templeton rye with Grand Marnier and bitters, topped with Champagne. The Navy Pier ($14) combine Grey Goose La Poire vodka with Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur and lemon.
While Iannone notes that Big Bar’s top-selling cordials and liqueurs are classic, imported brands such as Amaretto di Saronno, Bailey’s and Grand Marnier, he’s happy about the drink-local trend. “Cordials and liqueurs are evolving to be more regionally produced—this type of artisan-made product excites me, as it spurs imagination and creativity.”
More small-batch, local products are starting to enter the market, Iannone says. “I am always on the lookout for new companies distilling local flavors.” For instance, he says, “we’ve sourced out regional distilleries such as Thatcher’s out of Temperance, Michigan, which makes organic artisan liqueurs, giving us regional flavors such as apple-spiced ginger.”
Hum and Malort are two Chicago-based products that Big Bar carries, he adds. “Both exhibit a unique flavor experience and add to the diversity of our bar.” Big Bar stocks about 11 cordials and liqueurs, priced $12 to $20.
At Bibiana Osteria Enoteca, a 140-seat Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C., general manager Michael King has witnessed another trend: a turn towards bitter bottles. “More people are becoming interested in digestives and aperitivi. And as people become more familiar with the vast selections available from all over the world, I think this segment will grow.”
Half of the nine cocktails on Bibiana’s list contain a cordial or house-made liqueur. The Negroni Contratto ($12) stirs Hendrick’s Gin with Cocchi vermouth, Campari and Contratto Fernet, while the Amari Cup ($12) combines three types of Amari (Santa Maria, Montenegro and Cardamaro) with Hendrick’s Gin, lavender-mint liqueur and cucumber.
Digestivi is the top-selling category of after-dinner drinks at Bibiana, with Amari, Nonino, Cardamaro and Tagliatella being the most popular. Bibiana stocks 40 cordials, priced from $12 to $20.
Elizabeth Staino, senior brand manager for Anchor Distilling Company, has also seen an increased interest in bitter flavors. Anchor’s portfolio includes a selection of popular bitter and herbal liqueurs. One is Luxardo Aperitivo, which is akin to a cross between Campari and Aperol. “The mild alcohol content and bitter orange flavor offers an ideal complement,” says Staino, especially for drinks like the Spritz, which combines Luxardo Aperitivo with prosecco.
San Francisco-based Anchor Distilling recently became the distributor for Tempus Fugit, which specializes in bitter, herbal and floral liqueurs recreated from pre-Prohibition drink recipes. These include the red vermouth-esque Gran Classico Bitter, the menthol-tinged Fernet del Frate Angelico, the floral Liqueur de Violettes and a Crème de Cacao. Consumers are also gravitating to liqueurs in flavors such as apricot, ginger and cherry, Staino says.
Big on Baking Spices
Liqueurs flavored with baking spices such as cinnamon stick and vanilla bean have been picking up steam in recent years. For instance, the venerable Irish cream liqueur brand Baileys released a Vanilla Cinnamon expression last fall.
The brand just came out with “Stylish Shot” mini-cocktail recipes for the flavor. For instance, the Sweet and Vicious mixes Bailey’s Vanilla Cinnamon with Don Julio Blanc tequila, garnished with a strawberry slice; Derby Girl combines the liqueur with Bulleit bourbon, garnished with a mint leaf; and the Glamour Shot shakes it with Goldschläger cinnamon liqueur. (Baileys also has a new Chocolate Cherry flavor.)
Heaven Hill Distilleries in 2013 launched Fulton’s Harvest Apple Pie Cream Liqueur; the brand started in 2010 as a Pumpkin Pie Cream Liqueur. Southern Comfort just announced a limited edition Gingerbread Spice holiday expression, while Bols released a Pumpkin Spice liqueur.
Then there are the liqueurs inspired in part by horchata, a traditional Spanish beverage made with ground almonds, rice, cinnamon and other ingredients. RumChata, launched in 2009, is crafted with Caribbean rum, rice, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla, and blended with dairy cream.
The Hotel Hershey’s Guest likens RumChata’s flavor to a childhood favorite: “Think of it as the milk at the bottom of a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch [cereal],” she says. RumChata works on its own served up or on the rocks, and it’s a great addition to sweeter-style cocktails with a fall or winter spice component, Guest adds.
Other horchata-like cream liqueurs include Ricura, Chila ’Orchata and Caruva Horchata.
Turning Up the Heat
What’s the next big flavor profile for liqueurs? It just may be chili. Dekuyper in late 2012 unveiled its new line of Crave chocolate liqueurs, which includes one that blends chocolate with habanero chili. Patrón Spirits this month introduced Patrón XO Cafe Incendio, a spicy chile-chocolate liqueur.
And William Grant & Sons this year rolled out the chili liqueur Ancho Reyes in the U.S. Several New York bars have incorporated Ancho Reyes into their beverage programs. Mike Ryan, head bartender at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago, is currently using it in a few cocktails.
For instance, Sable’s Mimic the Moon mixes strawberry-infused Cana Brava rum with Ancho Reyes, which is shaken and served up in a Georgian glass. The Chambers of the Mind cocktail is made with blackstrap rum, Green Chartreuse, Ancho Reyes and lemon juice, also shaken and served up. Both cocktails are priced at $14.
It’s no surprise that “friendly” and “pleasant” are synonyms for the other definition of cordial. The variety of aromas and flavors of cordials and liqueurs means that one exists for every taste and mood. Whether guests are looking for just a splash in a well-crafted cocktail, or indulging in a slowly sipped glass, these spirits are affable, approachable, and versatile.
Kelly A. Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.