One of my favorite things to do is peruse the liqueur section of my local alcoholic beverage store. For most wine and beer drinkers, liqueur is simply a misspelling of liquor. But to aficionados, liqueurs (also known as cordials) are typically sweet--but not always--while liquors are usually dry, the sugar used up in the fermentation process to create the alcohol. The sweetness in liqueurs comes from the addition of sugar in the form of fruit and other ingredients. These sweet flavorings of fruits, herbs, seeds and barks also usually impart something tasty in to the base spirits, the steeping and marinating of ingredients after distillation rather than prior.
On my recent trip to the liquor store I perused the colorful liqueur section. I saw many of my favorites such as Cointreau, Kahlua, Bailey's, Grand Marnier, Frangelico and Tuaca. Many are used in popular cocktails to sweeten and flavor. One of my favorite liqueur based cocktails from the British Virgin Islands is a Bushwacker, made with equal parts Bailey's, Tia Maria, Kahlua, Vodka and Frangelico. Blended over ice, this 80 percent liqueur based beverage will inspire one to dance naked by moonlight on the beach, and seek a hammock and shade the entire next day. While liqueurs are mostly combined they can also be sipped neat or over ice. But I digress. Back to the liqueur shelves.
One can often be drawn in by the beauty of the bottle, or the exquisite color of the liquid within, but do not be fooled. Liqueur bottles are often intricate, delicate, original and beautiful to behold but it is important to inspect the ingredients when listed and the proof, which may vary from the strength of wine (about 30 proof) on up to over 100 proof where approximately 50 percent of the liquid is alcohol. Judging a book by it's cover can be risky, so can judging a spirit or liqueur by it's bottle.
As I scanned the shelves, three new bottles caught my eye: Intrigue, Hideous and Zen, all distinctly different and from my perspective, worthy of giving a try.
Intrigue's label says it is made from premium French vodka blended with Cognac and passion fruits. Made in France, this 17 percent alcohol liqueur (wine ranges from about 12 to 16 percent) is green in color. (There is also a tangerine version that is orange in color.) The bottle is beautiful but the spirit within was anything but intrigueing. I admit my tastes are well defined--perhaps a little snobby--but this liqueur may appeal to a sweeter, more tropically tuned palette. For my money I'd buy it for the bottle. I admit, the corked cap is a nice touch.
Hideous, "Made from the finest berries in the Pacific North West," is anything but hideous. This tall bottle corkscrews at the top and the maroon colored liqueur within is definitely berry. A sip of this 70 proof liqueur with roots from Texas and Louisiana (but made in Rigby, Idaho) reminded me of my grandmother's berry cobbler, but with a definite kick. By serving it over ice with a splash of club soda it made a refreshing beverage, but I felt it still needed something more. I splashed a dash of Amaretto, for a nutty almond overtone and invented a new drink, which I named for a drinking buddy, a Karmic Kelly. According to their website (www.hideous.com), Hideous is only available in a few states right now, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana and Georgia, but it has been my experience that quality exports fast and these days you can get most spirits mail order.
Zen is perhaps the most unique of the three. This 40 proof liqueur by Suntory in Japan is made from "the essence of ceremonial Japanese green tea." Its dark green color has overtones of grass, bamboo and, well, green tea. Suggested to be sipped over ice, mixed with tonic, or blended with a little citrus vodka and a splash of lime for a martini variation were all well received by my tastebuds.
My best advice for experimenting with liqueurs is just that--experiment. You never know what gems will show up.