About Liqueurs

Liqueurs, Schnapps, Anise, and Bitters are terms that cover a wide variety of types of spirits. What they all share in common is that they are flavored spirits. Liqueurs (also known as Cordials) are sweet, flavor-infused spirits that are categorized according to the flavoring agent (i.e., fruits, nuts, herbal and spice blends, creams and such). The word liqueur comes from the Latin liquifacere ("to dissolve") and refers to the dissolving of flavorings in the spirits. Artificial flavorings are strictly regulated in most countries, and where allowed, must be prominently labeled as such.

Top-quality liqueurs are produced by distillation of either the fermented flavor materials or the spirit in which they have been infused. Many liqueurs use finished spirits such as Cognac, Rum or Whisky as their base. Others macerate fruit or other flavorings in a neutral spirit. Crèmes (crème de menthe, crème de cacao, etc.) are liqueurs with a primary flavor (a single, dominant flavor rather than a mix), while cream liqueurs combine dairy cream and alcohol in a homogenized, shelf-stable blend.

All liqueurs are blends, even those with a primary flavor. A touch of vanilla is added to crème de cacao in order to emphasize the chocolate. Citrus flavor notes sharpen the presentation of anise. Herbal liqueurs may contain dozens of different flavor elements that a master blender manipulates to achieve the desired flavor profile.

Liqueurs are not usually aged for any great length of time (although their base spirit may be), but may undergo resting stages during their production in order to allow the various flavors to "marry" into a harmonious blend.

Liqueurs can be hard to classify, but regardless of flavor they can be broadly divided into two categories.

Generics are liqueurs of a particular type (Crème de Cacao or Curaçao, for example) that can be made by any producer.

Proprietaries are liqueurs with trademarked names that are made according to a specific formula. Examples of such liqueurs include Kahlúa, Grand Marnier, and Southern Comfort.

Schnapps is a general term used for an assortment of white and flavored spirits that have originated in northern countries or regions such as Germany or Scandinavia. Schnapps can be made from grain, potatoes, or molasses and be flavored with virtually anything (Watermelon and Root Beer Schnapps from the United States being proof of that). The dividing line between Schnapps and Flavored Vodka is vague and is more cultural than stylistic, although European Schnapps tend to be drier than their American counterparts and liqueurs.

Anise-Flavored Spirits can vary widely in style depending on the country of origin. They can be dry or very sweet, low or high proof, distilled from fermented aniseed or macerated in neutral spirit. In France, Anis (as produced by Pernod) is produced by distilling anise and a variety of other botanicals together. Pastis is macerated, rather than distilled, and contains fewer botanicals than Anis. In Italy, Sambucca is distilled from anise and botanicals, but is then heavily sweetened to make it a liqueur. Oil of fennel (also known as green anise) is frequently added to boost the aroma of the spirit. Greece has a drier, grappa-like liqueur called Ouzo , which is stylistically close to pastis.

Bitters are the modern-day descendants of medieval medical potions and are marketed as having at least some vaguely therapeutic value as stomach settlers or hangover cures. They tend to be flavored with herbs, roots, and botanicals, contain lower quantities of fruit and sugar than liqueurs, and have astringent notes in the palate. Note, these are bitters liqueurs that can be drunk on their own, not cocktails bitters which lack sugar and are designed for accenting cocktails and culinary creations. Classic bitters liqueur examples include: Campari, Aperol, and Suze.

Top Picks for Liqueurs

Joseph Cartron Sureau Elderflower Liqueur
97 points
$26
A delicious melange of florals, herbs and spices dance on the tongue in this begging-to-be-mixed liqueur.
Awards: 2021 Best Liqueur
La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Rouge
96 points
$23
Best Buy
More of an incredibly delicious after dinner drink than an aperitif but this will also be fantastic in Negronis and Manhattans.
96 points $23 Best Buy
Merlet Crème De Poire Williams Pear Liqueur
96 points
$35
A vivid and pure orchard fruit liqueur with delicious length and balance.
Awards: 2021 Best Fruit Liqueur
Bepi Tosolini Amaro Liqueur
95 points
$32
Savory, earthy, vegetal, and complexly delicious; this is excellent night cap material.
Pairidaeza Creme De Banane Fruit Liqueur
95 points
$37
Repping every form of roasted, baked, and caramelized banana; a fascinating and scrumptious dessert drink.
Absinthia Absinthe Superieure Verte
95 points
$45
A new school take on Absinthe that is some of what you expect, yet pleasantly surprises with notes of seeds and grains plus a bit of peppery baking spices mixed in to highlight the anise; a true delight.
Awards: 2023 Best Absinthe
Regal Rogue Lively White Dry Vermouth
95 points
$19
Best Buy
Sweet citrus and jasmine tea lead on the nose; this would make an excellent white Negroni or is well-suited to stand alone.
95 points $19 Best Buy
Cynar 70 Bitter Liqueur
95 points
$36
A chewy, potent bitter liqueur for Black Manhattans and Last Word riffs.
Awards: 2021 Best Bitter Liqueur
Merlet Soeurs Cerises Cherry Liqueur
95 points
$38
A bold berry liqueur with subtle chocolate nuances.
BroVo Uncharted Rhapsody American Forest Liqueur
94 points
$60
Bring back the classic cocktail for this one and you'll have someone crazier than Harvey Dent banging down the walls in the most delicious way.