A liqueur is an alcoholic beverage made from distilled alcohol that has been flavored with fruit, cream, herbs, spices, flowers or nuts and bottled with added sugar. Liqueurs are usually sweet drinks that contain over 330 g/l sugar. This definition is not set in stone and what some may call sweet vodka, others may think of as a liqueur. Liqueurs do exhibit certain characteristics that differentiate them from other drinks. First, they are bottled in original containers; they carry fancy labels and closures. Secondly, they incorporate dessert types of ingredients such as chocolate, cacao, coffee, cream and aromatic essential oils. One can make orange vodka by adding 10% of sugar or one can make orange liqueur by adding 30% sugar.
Until the discovery of distillation the art of making liqueurs was not known. Wine and beer were common but did not contain sufficient amounts of alcohol to fully extract flavors from fruits, herbs and spices. When the first alembic had appeared we started to produce strong alcohols, but that knowledge was reserved for the clergy. In those times monasteries were the centers of human science and monks were always looking for some magical drinks and powders. Not surprisingly, they were the first ones to soak herbs and spices in alcohols creating what is known today as infusions. Eventually, some monks went a step further and distilled such an infusion. To everyone's surprise it turned out to be clear having a new aroma and flavor. This led to more experiments and many new drinks were created. The best example is Dom Bénédictine or Chartreuse liqueurs, the last one consisting of over 120 different herbs and spices. Those early liqueurs were herbal medicines; they were made as early as the 13th century and were usually prepared by monks. Nowadays, liqueurs are very popular and don't necessarily require distilling equipment to produce them.
Original liqueurs were quite strong, for example Dom Bénédictine had an alcohol content of 43%, however, consumer preferences are changing and as of late it is made at 40%. The sweeter the liqueur is, the lower alcohol content it carries, as there is less available space to add alcohol, especially if one has access to 75% alcohol only. The hardest liqueurs to make are herb liqueurs which require sophisticated combinations of herbs, spices, dry flowers and time. For example, Dom Bénédictine liqueur was invented by Alexandre Le Grand, a wine merchant and industrialist in 1863 after he stumbled in the library of the abbey of Fécamp on an old herbal recipe collected by the monks of the abbey. The recipe looked reliable yet somewhat unusual. Via the aid of a pharmacist he refined the recipe and created the liqueur that would make him famous. The recipe incorporates over 20 spices and is a closely guarded trade secret, ostensibly known to only three people at any given time.
Another classic, Chartreuse, is a French liqueur made by the Carthusian Monks since the 1740's. It is composed of distilled alcohol aged with 130 herbal extracts. The liqueur is named after the Monks' Grande Chartreuse monastery, located in the Chartreuse Mountains in the region of Grenoble in France.
There are two types of Chartreuse:
- Green Chartreuse (55%), is a naturally green liqueur flavored with extracts from 132 plants with its coloring coming from chlorophyll.
- Yellow Chartreuse (40%), which has a milder and sweeter flavor and aroma.
Chartreuse liqueur is credited with the naming of Chartreuse color, halfway between yellow and green, it was named because of its resemblance to the green color of one of the French liqueurs called green chartreuse, introduced in 1764. The term chartreuse was first used to refer to "apple-green" in 1884. This was codified to refer to a brighter green color when the X11 colors were formulated in 1987; by the early 1990's, they became known as the X11 web colors. The web color chartreuse is the color precisely halfway between green and yellow, so it is 50% green and 50% yellow.
To summarize, some liqueurs have a long history and it will be impossible to duplicate the recipe. Making liqueurs provides unlimited possibilities for a creative person who is keen on inventing new beverages. Many liqueurs such as Cointreau and Royal Mint Chocolate are clear liquids. We could obtain a clear liqueur even from coffee or cacao beans but that will require distillation, a process which is not permitted in home production.
Liqueurs need time to mellow. They often contain many ingredients and some of them may stand out when a liqueur has just been made. Given time, all ingredients blend in together creating the unified harmony of flavors. For example, Chartreuse and Benedictine mature for at least 3 years in oak casks. Liqueurs require top quality ingredients. The recipes are more complicated and they cost more to produce. Creating a good liqueur requires some experience and the process is more involved than making a fruit infusion.