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07.02.10 by  

Bar Party 101: Liqueurs

School yourself in the art of blending science with your sideboard, courtesy of the cocktail masters at Bittercube. Part 5 of 5 in the mixology series.

Our mixology mentors, Partners Nicholas Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz of Bittercube make getting schooled a little bit sweeter with this introduction to liqueurs.

served raw: what are liqueurs?

Nick & Ira: It’s not easy to define what a liqueur is, mainly because there are so many types. Generally, a liqueur is a distilled alcoholic beverage that is then macerated with other flavoring ingredients. Generally, they’re finished with sugar, though many types aren’t sweet by nature, but finish tart, bitter or aromatic. These spirits go by many names: cordial, aperitif, digestif, creme and amari, to name a few. A general misconception is that a liqueur is lower in proof than a distilled spirit, yet some varieties reach a proof upwards of 110. Though, as a generalization, liqueurs are between 24 and 70 proof. Liqueurs can be flavored with just about anything; fruits, nuts, herbs, roots, flowers, etc.

how do liqueurs “round-out” a mixologists go-to cocktail-making ingredients list?

Let’s talk about the role of a liqueur by talking about the daisy. A daisy is a style of cocktail, the two most famous of which are the margarita and the sidecar. Now let’s compare a daisy with a band. Stay with us! The rhythm section of a band is like the spirit in a daisy, it’s the backbone. The citrus and any addition of simple syrup play the role of the guitar, balancing the flavors of the cocktail. The vocalist is of course the forefront of the band, and likewise, a liqueur flavors and drives a cocktail.

House made cranberry liqueur is the star in Bittercube's Wiscosmo, a modern version of the Cosmo with a Midwestern spin.

any rules or guidelines around flavor profiles that work well as liqueurs?

Yes and no. Interesting liqueurs can be made from just about anything, like anise, oranges, flowers, cherries, gentian, cocoa nibs, ginger, etc. The most important thing about a liqueur is the quality of ingredient. The more natural, the better the quality. A blue raspberry schnapps is not too high on our list. Bittecube generally sticks with tried-and-true brands, like Luxardo Maraschino, Chartreuse and Amaro Nonino, to name a few. That is not to say that there aren’t great newer products, like St. Germain, to utilize. Within each type of liqueur there are often multiple companies making similar products. Searching out higher-quality varieties will always improve your cocktails, just like a singer with perfect pitch will help a band more than a tone-deaf singer.

let’s talk about the many uses for liqueurs …

There are more uses for liqueurs than we could possibly describe in one interview, so we’ll focus a few of our favorites. Liqueurs are imbibed as aperitifs to whet the appetite. As digestifs, bitter liqueurs play an important physiological role, by tricking the brain into releasing acids to the stomach to ward off what the brain perceives from the bitterness as poison. In turn the acids help the stomach digest a meal. Ask any bartender in San Francisco how they prefer to use Fernet Branca, or any bartender at the Violet Hour in Chicago how they prefer to use Green Chartreuse, and they will probably pour a shot! Yummy! Bittercube is fascinated by the use of liqueurs in reverse roles in cocktails, where a liqueur acts as both the backbone and flavoring agent. For instance, we have a dessert menu cocktail at Bacchus called the Copper Dagger. It calls for 1 3/4 ounces Averna Amaro, an egg white, lemon juice, and an over-proof rum, which proofs the Averna a touch. We also create various types of reverse Manhattans for our guests, including reverse Fernet or Carpano Antica Manhattans.

what bottles should every sideboard be stocked with?

Chartreuse is the oldest surviving commercially available liqueur and its storied history is not simply hype. Green Chartreuse may be the finest liqueur on earth, and it certainly is the elixir of life. The spirit comes in at an impressive 110 proof and is flavored by 130 plants, roots, spices, herbs, flowers, etc.

St. Germain is a modern liqueur but is packed with impressive flavor. The saying goes that St. Germain improves any cocktail. We wouldn’t go as far as to say that, but it can be used in so many ways and with so many spirits, that is certainly deserves to be on a top-10 list.

Every home bar needs an orange liqueur. Marie Brizzard makes a tasty orange curacao but it can be hard to come by. Cointreau is a the standard by which other orange liqueurs are measured and though it does have an extract-forward flavor, it’s worth having at your bar.

Luxardo Maraschino is a stand-by for all craft cocktail bartenders. Not only is it used in a slew of classic recipes, it is also versatile and can be mixed with nearly any spirit.

Campari is a tried-and-true amari. Of course, we like to stock as many amari as possible, but Campari has a unique blend of bitter notes, sweet undertones and has the bite to stand up in almost any cocktail. For a more off-the-radar bitter liqueur, pick up Cynar or Amaro Nonino — you won’t be disappointed.

for home bartenders who’d like to try making liqueurs at home, what’s a good place to start?

Start simple. Fruit-based liqueurs can be pretty simple to make. Begin with single-flavor profiles. The sky is really the limit. You can use brandy, vodka, rum, etc. Most people’s first crack at liqueurs is generally limoncello. In this case you would use everclear, lemons, sugar and water. The Internet is a great tool for researching recipes. That’s how we started. Use our cranberry liqueur recipe to start and once you get your wits about you, experiment.

and how about getting more complex and creative?

Build complex flavors after you get a couple simple batches under your belt. Take a single flavor profile and expand on it. Think about adding a floral note to your liqueur or a bitter note by using gentian or ginger. We like using cherries with a touch of lavender or grapefruit with a note of Jamaican allspice.

what liqueurs is Bittercube currently making?

Bittercube Orange Liqueur — A sophisticated balance between liqueurs like Cointreau and Grand Marnier and lesser-proof, sweeter triple secs. The orange liqueur is scented with honey and marigold and has a mellow bitter note due to the use of orange rind.

Bittercube Cocoa Nib Liqueur — Our version of Crème de Cacao using simple high quality ingredients like cocoa nibs from Ghana and vanilla beans from Madagascar. There are a few classic cocktails that call for a Crème de Cacao but don’t get made a lot in the craft cocktail world because there really aren’t any high-quality brands available. More chocolate-flavored liqueurs are full of binders and chemicals. Our product is made with all-natural ingredients.

Bittercube Cranberry Liqueur — Made with Wisconsin cranberries and scented with a touch of basil. We use this liqueur in our Wiscosmo, our craft-y answer to the Cosmopolitan.

Bittercube Crème de Flora — A floral and vibrant liqueur, made with six types of dried flowers, giving it a beautiful color, aroma and flavor.

Bittercube Cranberry Liqueur

Makes one gallon jar

  • 48 ounces frozen organic cranberries
  • 4 1/2 cups vodka (not rail)
  • 6 cups 2:1 simple syrup
  • 2 lemon peels
  • 1 orange peel
  1. Create 2:1 simple syrup — 2 parts sugar, 1 part water — keep syrup at the warmed temperature to help blend with the frozen cranberries.
  2. Combine in a blender: cranberries, warm simple syrup and vodka. Blend until you achieve a consistency of grits.
  3. Add cranberry compote to infusion jar and let sit for three months shaking daily.
  4. Strain compote through china cap, then chinoise, then coffee filter.
  5. Bottle.

when crafting a cocktail featuring a house made liqueur, how do you make it unique?

A cocktail with a house-made liqueur is generally going to be unique simply based on the fact that you’re using a house-made liqueur. Sometimes we use our floral liqueur, Crème de Flora, as a aromatic garnish like you would crème de violette. In other cases using our house-made products in replace of a more traditional liqueur is going to make the cocktail stand out. For instance, substituting our Bittercube Orange Liqueur, with notes of honey and marigold, for Cointreau or triple sec changes the flavor profile all together. Not only do we think it makes a better cocktail, but it also tells a great story.

Man with No Name

  • 1 1/2 ounce Cazadores Reposado
  • 1/3 ounce Chartreuse
  • 1/4 ounce Bittercube Orange Liqueur (use Cointreau if you must)
  • 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 13 drops Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters
  • Coriander tincture, for garnish
  1. Shake, strain, serve in a coupe.
  2. Garnish with coriander tincture.

Summer Scene

  • 1-inch slice of cucumber, plus thin wheel for garnish
  • 1 3/4 ounce Prairie Organic Vodka
  • 3/4 ounce Bittercube Crème de Flora (use St. Germain if you have too)
  • 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 ounce simple syrup
  • Dash salt
  1. Muddle cucumber in bottom of tin, add all remaining ingredients.
  2. Shake, strain, garnish with a thin cucumber wheel.

Copper Dagger

  • 1 3/4 ounce Averna Amaro
  • 1/4 ounce El Dorado 151 rum
  • 1/4 ounce St. Germain
  • 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 3/4 ounce simple syrup
  • 1 egg white
  1. Mime shake, then shake vigorously with ice. Strain into a coupe and garnish with a smile.