Herbal Liqueurs Today: Past, Present, & Sweet Future
While the words liqueur and liquor may look similar and sound similar, the similarities end in that they both contain alcohol. They are two very different types of spirits. In preparation of liquors, the distillation and fermentation process keeps the ABV (alcohol by volume) at least 20%, and for liquors like vodka, the alcohol content can be up to 40% ABV.
Liqueurs, By Definition
Liqueurs, by contrast, feature a lower alcoholic content, varying between 15-30%. Flavored with herbs, spices, fruits, or nuts, liqueurs are sweeter than liquors, as well. As the name implies, herbal liqueurs are spiced with herbs such as licorice, fennel, ginger, and anise and are considered sweetened spirits.
Origins of Herbal Liqueurs
With their roots planted in the medicinal spirits of the sixteenth century, herbal liqueurs enjoyed commercial production in the eighteenth century. While the monastic liqueur Chartreuse is actually made by Carthusian monks dating back to 1737, Benedictine liqueur borrowed the idea sans actual monks. Today, herbal liqueurs are consumed around the world with extensive consumption in France and Italy.
Making of Herbal Liqueurs
Liqueurs are made by combining a base spirit or “liquor” with flavoring ingredients. One can assume this base spirit is a neutral or grain-based spirit unless indicated otherwise. By immersing herbs in alcohol, one can preserve the medicinal power of the herb without damaging the herb with heat. The alcohol extracts the essence of the herbs.
There are three methods of extracting the flavors of the ingredients, namely maceration, percolation, and distillation. By adding the ingredients to the alcohol itself, maceration preserves the taste of soft fruits such as strawberries, peaches, or bananas for which distillation would be too harsh.
Percolation is much like brewing coffee in that the base spirit is dripped through the ingredient, thereby extracting the essence. By heating the base spirit at the bottom of a tank and then pumping the spirit toward the top of the tank where the ingredients reside, the alcohol becomes infused with the essence of the ingredients and then drips to the bottom of the tank.
And finally, during distillation, both the alcohol and the ingredients are mixed and distilled together. Rather than extract the alcohol, the point is to extract the essence of the ingredients, especially dried flowers, plants, or seeds.
Apertif et Digestif
Traditionally, people consume herbal liqueurs to help promote digestion. Taken as apertifs or digestifs, herbal liqueurs can serve as an appetizer, or one can consume them in between courses or even after a meal. Served with desserts, herbal liqueurs can be decanted over ice.
New Life for Herbal Liqueurs
Beyond their origins and beyond their traditional roles, herbal liqueurs experience new life today in blending with cocktails, mocktails, creams, and coffees. Their sweetness makes them ideal to flavor a cocktail or a mixed drink. Herbal liqueurs can even be used to add spice to a meal. With countless herbal liqueur varieties, there are a range of choices in taste and flavor.