Cordials and liqueurs have long been a staple on the backbar. But there’s been a shift from the super-sweet, brightly colored concoctions to more natural and even savory formulations.
Take the emergence of the bitter Italian amaros. Brands such as Campari, Aperol and others have always been included in the cordial category, as they are in many cases nearly as sweet as more fruit-driven liqueurs.
But until 10 years ago, amaros were mainly found in Italian restaurants, in classic cocktails like the Negroni or as the bartender’s favorite shot (namely Fernet Branca), consumed mostly by hardcore fans.
Amaros may not yet command an enormous volume, but they are part of the confluence of trends affecting consumption of cordials and liqueurs.
The catch-all cordials and liqueurs category includes fruits, creams, schnapps, sours and amaros, as well as flavored whiskies. Consumption was flat in 2016, according to data from The Beverage Information & Insights Group’s 2017 Liquor Handbook.
Most growth down to the cinnamon-flavored whiskey Fireball and other flavored whiskies and moonshines including Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Ole Smoky, Junior Johnson and Wild Turkey.
In fact, the entire category’s growth from 2011 can be ascribed mostly to Fireball, which has overtaken Jagermeister as the best-selling cordial. Fireball went from 350,000 cases in 2011 to 4.58 million last year, an increase that outstripped the category’s entire growth over that same period.
The top-three domestic brands—DeKuyper, Southern Comfort and Hiram Walker—accounted for about 4.5 million cases in 2011; last year that number was down to less than 3.9 million. Among imports, the three leaders in 2011 (Jagermeister, Baileys and Kahlua) accounted for about 4.8 million cases; that fell to around 3.8 million in 2016.
Not Too Sweet
Many classics, especially orange-based liqueurs, still do well as cocktail consumption soars. But the American palate and preferences are changing from fruity, tart and sweet, to more herbal, whiskey-based and bitterly complex.
The liqueur category stalwarts have also been challenged by a number of factors. One is the emergence of newer cordials and amaros. There’s also the preference for higher-end ingredients with more natural flavors, and the growth of house-made syrups and infusions.
The four-unit Urban Farmer modern steakhouse chain, operated by Denver-based Sage Restaurant Group, does rely frequently on liqueurs. But the shift to more herbal types is prominent, says Josue Moreno, a senior restaurant manager who also heads up the beverage program at Urban Farmer in Portland, OR.
Like many bars attached to restaurants with seasonal influences, Urban Farmer outlets also are opting for locally made cordials and liqueurs to bolster their farm-to-table credentials. But the classics still rule.
“I love to use Chartreuse, both yellow and green,” says Moreno. “It’s one of the oldest spirits around, and there is so much going on from the first sip through the mid-palate to the finish, that it mixes really well with a number of other spirits in building cocktails.”.
Classic and Craft Brands
Jared Sadoian, assistant bar director at Boston’s award-winning The Hawthorne, agrees. He points out that older classics such as Benedictine, maraschino and curaçao are essential ingredients among the 35 or so liqueurs the Hawthorne uses frequently.
In fact, he notes, when The Hawthorne opened in late 2011, the beverage team made a conscious decision to use well-made brands of cordials rather than creating house syrups for sweetening and flavoring cocktails.
“We were more interested in seeking out commercially made products that have a story and are made in a way we believe in, that could provide more consistency and flavor than something we could make in-house,” Sadoian says.
The folks at the Hawthorne sought out specific and often pricier brands that offer flavor profiles close to the original source. “As more and more people are focusing on how to differentiate their cocktails from another or how to introduce novel flavors, there are more companies trying to provide those flavors for them,” Sadoian says. He mentions a number of French suppliers, such as Combier, Mathilde and Giffard, that produce liqueurs that differ in flavor, sweetness and price from more colorful and sugary flavors widely sold at retail. “Sometimes the major brands can be too sweet,” Sadoian notes, “although when we need a good sweet component—as long as we write our recipes properly—we can balance that out.”
The Monarch Cocktail Bar and Lounge opened in August in Kansas City with an ambitious beverage program. The bar wanted to incorporate the full range of flavor possibilities, from classic to modern, bitter to sweet, with international representation.
“The entire point of the list was to be globally inspired, with liqueurs and cordials from every country in all sorts of styles and types, including cordials and amaros,” says general manager Mark Church. Smaller, classic European brands such as the gentian liqueur Suze, the wine-based aperitif Cappelletti and others are part of the “bitter is the new cordial” trend, he says.
“Our clientele’s palates are getting more diverse, and they’re wanting more complexity in drinks and ingredients, and that’s where these liqueurs come in,” Church says. “It’s great to have a lot of options, and our customers notice our drinks are different, with flavors that are more complex.”
He also points out the novelty factor: Cocktail consumers today want to learn more about the obscure brands they discover. And that gives bartenders an opportunity to engage them in conversation about the cocktails and the ingredients.
Syrups are important at the Monarch, as well, primarily when trying to develop an otherwise unavailable flavor. The bar boasts a number of unique, house-made syrups.from fresh berry Sauterne to black garlic yogurt,
But cordials with more complex flavors aren’t easily replicated. That’s why Monarch frequently uses liqueurs such as maraschino, marasca cherry cordial, Chartreuse, Campari and Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao. The bar offers more than 20 liqueurs, priced from $4 to $40 per oz., and more than 30 amari ($4 to $18 an oz.).
The Monarch’s Terrace offers three iced cocktails on draft that are also available in a large format that serves four people. The De La Cruz cocktail, made with J. Wray silver rum, Chateau Arton Peche liqueur, Dolin Blanc vermouth, passion fruit-honey syrup and Boulder Blues and hibiscus petals sun tea, is one. It’s priced at $14 or $45 for a large format.
Reinventing the Classics
The bartenders at Monarch also have been working on tweaking well-established ingredients. For instance, they make an apple-infused Aperol.
Another spin is the bar’s applewood-smoked Grand Marnier, which adds sweet smoke to the Cognac backbone of the classic French liqueur. It’s used in The Monarch Terrace’s Wanderlust Julep cocktail, along with Chateau Arton Fine Blanche Armagnac, Appleton Estate Signature Blend rum, Cinzano 1757 and Cascara-scented J. Rieger & Co. Caffé Amaro liqueur.
“We’re a Kansas City cocktail bar, and everybody knows we in Kansas City love our barbeque and smoke,” Church says.
But the Monarch’s broadest usage of sweeter products comes with its Negroni cart. “We realized having a simple one-to-one-to-one cocktail with equal parts bitter, strong and sweet gave us a lot of room to move around,” says Church.
In some cases, resulting Negroni variants ultimately include up to 10 ingredients. For instance, the El Pilli is an agave-based variant, made with three mezcals, a blend of Cardamaro, Cynar and Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, with prickly pear, ginger liqueur and molé bitters.
To make these drinks tableside, the staff prepares the strong, sweet or bitter mixtures that include three or four ingredients well in advance to be stored in decanters on the cart. This enables servers to discuss the drink while they stir, pour and talk with customers. “It gives us a pretty big canvas to work on,” Church says.
Finding cordials and liqueurs that can work in many drinks is key, says Simon Vazquez, general manager of Wild Standard in Boulder, CO. “I would say versatility is key right now, which is why we carry so many flavors,” Vazquez notes. “With the ever-expanding world of spirits, and the availability of great ingredients, you want something tailored to your specific need.”
Cocktails such as the Corpse Reviver #2 and the Last Word, which call for four ingredient at equal parts, are a great framework for many recipes and a good way to integrate liqueurs into drinks, Vazquez says. “We carry more than 90 different liqueurs and fortified wines, which gives us a lot of different flavor profiles to play with.”
Mixing It Up
Bartenders at Wild Standard are lately drawing inspiration from Tiki culture. This has opened the door to a technique similar to what the Monarch is doing with the Negroni cart: creating house mixes.
For instance, Wild Standard’s Tropics Mix, combines creme de cassis, velvet falernum, Pimm’s Cup Number One, gentiane liqueur and Giffard banana liqueur. The Monk’s Mix green Chartreuse, yellow Chartreuse, Boomsma Cloosterbitter liqueur and Benedictine
“We’ll use a one-quarter or one-half ounce, and that really drives the complexity of the drink—allowing you to get all those flavors together in small quantities,” Vazquez says. “You might say the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Wild Standard also uses a combination of banana and coffee liqueurs in the cocktail There’s Always Money in the Banana, a crushed-ice, Swizzle-type drink made with rums and juices. “The two together create a flavor combination that would be hard to replicate with anything else,” Vazquez says.
Other liqueur cocktails include Monks in the Mosh Pit (pictured atop, left), with Laws “secale” rye whiskey, Monk’s Mix, Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters and an absinthe rinse, and Say Your Pisco with Waqar pisco, Pimms #1, Pamplemousse grapefruit liqueur and lemon juice.
At The Townsend cocktail bar in Philadelphia, tweaking classic drinks has made room for more use of sweeter spirits, says bar manager Jeff Jagger. The Townsend serves a Manhattan variation made with two of the lighter amaros—Amaro Nonino and Meletti—replacing half the sweet vermouth.
The Townsend also relies on syrups quite a bit, with as many as 12 in use at any time. When it comes to cordials, bartenders favor newer producers at the higher-end, such as the broad range of classic liqueurs including creme de cassis, creme de cacao and creme de menthe from Novato, CA-based Tempus Fugit Spirits.
But the basics are always in demand. “Nothing can replace a Campari or a Benedictine or a Cointreau,” Jagger says. “If you want to make these classic cocktails, they are a necessity.”
Do consumers care about natural flavors and ingredients in liqueurs? For the most part, no, says Sadoian at The Hawthorne.
“Many probably can’t tell the difference between an artificial banana or butterscotch schnapps and the things made from real flavors,” he notes. “But we are seeing a lot of folks who are a little more discerning coming into the Hawthorne or [sister restaurant] Eastern Standard, who see the bottles and ask questions.”
And for many upscale restaurants with seasonally changing food programs, higher-end cordials offer a chance to capture the flavors that may be in season but not available in a certain region.
In Boston, “We go for long periods of the year without fresh, local berries,” Sadoian says. “These liqueurs let us have a snapshot of the fruit at its absolute ripest or from a place known for producing fantastic fruit, and that helps make for much better cocktails.”
Jack Robertiello is a wine and spirits writer and judge based in Brooklyn, NY. Read his recent piece: These Cocktails and Bars Have Helped Gin Rebound.