The first time I heard the term liqueur, I thought the person who said it was just talking in an accent for the fun of it. The similar sounding words are often a source of confusion, so to clear things up, let's jump right into the spirited comparison between the two of them.
Liquor is an alcoholic beverage that is usually distilled from grains or other plants which have been fermented. The six most common liquors are whiskey, gin, rum, vodka, brandy, and tequila, although there are several others. The main difference between beer and wine or a liquor is the distillation process. This process increases the alcohol content to at least 20 percent. Liquors usually have a 40% ABV(alcohol by volume) content, although whiskey can be as high as 55% ABV, while gin can be anywhere rom 37.5% to 50% ABV. Liquor can be distilled a number of times, which is said to give it a cleaner and smoother taste-most bottles will say if they've been distilled more than once. For flavored liquor, the flavors are usually added after the first distillation. Then the liquor may be distilled again, or the percentage of the liquor may simply be decreased due to the flavors weakening it.
The flavoring tends to add to the confusion between liquor and liqueur, as both can be flavored. But there is one key difference.
Sugar. It kind of rhymes with liqueur (in a way that Eminem would rhyme), and is the main difference between the two. Although to be more specific, the difference is a sweetener, as some are now completely sugar free. People may add a variety of flavors to them; such as fruit, honey, milk, roots, and herbs. To simplify, they are liquors with added flavoring AND sweeteners. These sweeteners can be added multiple ways, including:
- Infusion: As technical as this term sounds, it simply means adding fruits or herbs to the mixture; no distillation takes place.
- Compounding: Same as infusion, but with water and sugar.
- Maceration: The ingredients are added months in advance to soak in and strengthen the flavor(the same technique that is used with wine)
- Percolation: This method involves a percolator (go figure), and is a laborious but effective method. The percolator uses a pump to pump the liquor through a basket, which holds whatever type of fruit they want to infuse.
The product that results from any of the above processes is then distilled, and may be redistilled or mixed with other liqueurs. Some distillers may distill their different liqueurs separately, then mix them, while some will mix the liquids together then distill them as a whole.
While this is not always the case, many of the top brands will age their final product, usually in a wood vat, but sometimes in aluminum or stainless steel tanks.
Originally, the main purpose of liqueurs was to aid in digestion, which is why they are watered down in comparison to liquors, and are made to taste pleasant. For those looking to have a more casual, pleasant tasting drink, a liqueur is more often a go to. Liqueurs are fairly common in cocktails as they add multiple pleasant flavors to it. People who claim not to like the taste of alcohol in general will often go for a liqueur instead of a liquor.
Liquors were not made with the purpose of settling stomach's in mind, although they have had some historic medical use in the past. They have been around for much longer, 1000 years compared to the liqueur's mere 600 years in existence, and are the more common go to for someone looking to have a good time. Liquors do not need to have any sweetness whatsoever, although they are commonly mixed with sweet ingredients and are also used in cocktails. When liquor is drank straight, it is called a shot; when liqueur is drank straight, it is called a shooter.
So for those looking to make the ultimate cocktail, experimenting with liqueurs may be your best option. Liquors may be the simplest way to go when you are starting out, or if you're going for a simpler taste; but if you're looking for a diversely sweet flavor, a liqueur may be the way to go.
Image curtesy of HH Bespoke