The world of bartending is vast and various, so for the average person, the world of spirits can be truly mystifying. In fact, ordering a drink off of a craft cocktail menu can often feel more like an AP chemistry oral exam you didn't study for. This is especially true when it comes to understanding the difference between liquor and liqueur, and from there, knowing the specific types of liqueurs.
What Is Liquor?
Liquor describes any alcoholic beverage that's been distilled, which is also referred to as a spirit. Spirits include everything from vodka and whiskey to gin, tequila, and mezcal.
To set the record straight and make home bartending a lot more manageable yet gourmet, we decided to go straight to the experts. During our last visit to the NoMad's hotel lobby bar in New York, we asked one of the bartenders to break down the difference between liquor and liqueur.
What Is Liqueur?
Liqueurs are types of liquors with added sugar flavored from other ingredients. The sugar is usually derived from flowers, fruits, herbs, coffee beans, nuts, and more. They typically range from 15 percent to 55 percent ABV and are used in a variety of cocktails to enhance and balance out their flavor profiles.
While liqueurs may sound like an unnecessary "extra" ingredient, they're actually considered essential in most classic cocktails, from Manhattans to martinis, negronis, and old-fashioneds (though you can also drink them straight on the rocks). One bartender at The Foundry Hotel in Asheville once mentioned he completely forgoes simple syrups to sweeten his cocktails and relies mostly on liqueurs.
For your home bar, keep reading to learn about the most common types of liqueurs to keep in stock at home and what to make with them. We promise they're not as fancy as they sound (though they taste like they are.)
The Basic Profile: Vermouth refers to a broad range of liqueurs, usually broken down into three categories: Dry, sweet, and blanc. Dry vermouth is tart and herbaceous while sweet vermouth is rich and spiced, and blanc is sort of a combination of the two, with slightly citrusy flavors. It's made from 75 percent wine, grape juice, and alcohol. Fun fact, the Coca-Cola recipe is a non-alcoholic derivative of vermouth. They range from 16 percent to 22 percent ABV.
Common Vermouth Cocktails: Manhattan, martini, and sodas (or take it straight, or "con gas," meaning, with a spritz of seltzer like the locals do in Spain.)
The Cocktail Recipe to Try: For classic Americano made with vermouth, follow this recipe from Salt and Wind.
The Basic Profile: Made from bitter almonds, this sweet Italian liqueur is commonly enjoyed on its own as a dessert drink, though it's also a popular mixer, too. Although it's known to taste a lot like a sweet and bitter almond paste (kind of like marzipan), it's often made from apricot pits, which give it a cherry-like flavor. It can range from 20 percent to 40 percent ABV depending on the brand.
Common Amaretto Cocktails: Alabama Slammer (made popular in the 1970s, featuring orange juice and gin), Amaretto Sour, and Godfather
The Cocktail Recipe to Try: Follow this recipe from Honestly Yum for an Amaretto sour that uses a cask-strength bourbon to balance out the sweetness of the almond-based liqueur.
The Basic Profile: This popular orange liqueur—made from dried orange peels—gets its name from being distilled three times, which also means it's strong, sweet, and clear. Cointreau, for example, is one of the most recognizable triple sec brands as far as high-end liqueurs go. The ABV ranges from 10 percent to 40 percent.
Common Trip Sec and Cointreau Cocktails: Cosmopolitan, Margarita, Sidecar, Kamikaze, and Long Island Iced Tea
The Cocktail Recipe to Try: This Aperol Paloma cocktail with Cointreau from Salt and Wind
The Basic Profile: This rich, creamy liqueur was created in Mexico during the 1930s. It's made from Arabica beans, rum, sugar, and vanilla beans, which gives it a coffee-like flavor. It's also caffeinated, which makes it one of the most popular liqueurs for coffee-based cocktails as well as many desserts, from chocolate cupcakes to tiramisu. It has an ABV of 20 percent.
Common Kahlúa Cocktails: Black Russian, White Russian, and Mudslide
The Cocktail Recipe to Try: This boozy horchata cocktail recipe from Minimalist Baker is going to be right up your alley if you love cinnamon and vanilla rice pudding or coffee ice cream.
Domaine de Canton
The Basic Profile: Domaine de Canton is a premium French ginger liqueur (made from Vietnamese baby ginger) with a super-fresh, sharp, and crisp flavor. It has an ABV of 28 percent. It's one of the younger liqueurs on this list and has only been around since 2007, though it enjoys a top-notch reputation and is used in many high-end bars and restaurants. Use it when you want a slightly sweet, slightly spicy beverage.
Common Domaine de Canton Cocktails: Gold Rush, Hot Ginger Toddy, and Dragon's Heart
The Cocktail Recipe to Try: For something complex, beautiful, and special, try this ginger hibiscus cocktail from Serious Eats.
The Basic Profile: Created in 1920, this beautiful, distinct liqueur is the only one in the world with a naturally derived green hue. Fun fact: The actual color of Chartreuse green is named after the liqueur, not the other way around. It's often paired with refreshing ingredients like watermelon, cucumber, and mint since it's distilled with over 100 different herbs. With an ABV of 50%, it's one of the stronger liqueurs (yellow chartreuse is slightly lower at 40% ABV).
Common Chartreuse Cocktails: Last Word, Bijou, and Tonic
The Cocktail Recipe to Try: This basil citrus berry smash with chartreuse from Salt and Wind is refreshing, tart, sweet, and oh so boozy.
The Basic Profile: St~Germain is a liqueur made with handpicked elderflower blossoms in France. If you're looking for a super-fragrant sweet spirit to elevate your home bartending skills, this is it. Oh, and the chic Art Deco-inspired bottle is pretty enough to display out in the open. It has an ABV of 20 percent.
Common St-Germain Cocktails: Spritzer, Gimlet, Hugo, and Rob Collins
The Cocktail to Try: This light spiked blueberry lemonade from Edible Rhody is refreshing and aromatic.