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Clair McLafferty

How Liqueur Is Made, And How to Make a Drink With Liqueur

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Clair McLafferty

Why make a drink with Liqueur? Because they can add complexity and sweetness. The first (or second, depending on whom you ask) published definition of the word "cocktail" defined it as a “stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” Within this context, a liqueur could serve several purposes.

Put simply, liqueurs are sweetened, flavored products made with a base liquor. It’s not accurate to say that there’s a limit on the alcohol content, as products range from 15 to 55 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). This definition may seem almost identical to that of a cordial, but the interchangeability is a U.S. thing. In the U.K., cordials are sweet, non-alcoholic beverages.

And though this category includes mainstays like triple sec and Irish cream, it’s also the home of a group of complex, bitter tipples known as amaros. With a name that literally translates to “bitter,” it’s no surprise that this subcategory is in a class of its own.

Process focused

At least four methods for making liqueurs exist, says Alan Kennedy, creator and co-owner of Adelaide liqueur. They may be made by extraction, distillation, infusion, or smoke methods. “Each one will pull out different [flavor and/or aroma] compounds,” says Kennedy. “Our job in making liqueur is to pull out the ones we want and minimize the ones we don’t.”

To start, you must first choose a base liquor. “I usually start with a neutral grain spirit or a malt whiskey to see how the flavors come together during the process,” says Kennedy. “After that, I’ll modify the spirit to change the flavors depending on what else I want to do.”

This process can take anywhere from a few minutes to several years. “If you’re using extracts, which you sometimes have to, it’s literally just blending them together,” he says. “Some members of the amaro category take up to three years to fully make. They’re probably the most complicated both flavor-wise and process-wise.”

Extraction plan

Once the base liquor is selected, the producer begins his or her chosen method to extract flavor compounds from the component ingredients. Producers can either make a single liqueur that contains all the components, or multiple liqueurs that can be blended to create the desired flavor profile.

But shaping a liqueur’s taste profile gets tricky. Heat, time, barometric pressure, humidity, proof of base liquor and other factors can impact what flavor compounds are absorbed by the base liquor. “If you’re extracting mint, you heat the mint to get the grassier, earthier notes,” says Kennedy. “If you do a cold extraction, you get menthol, which is what we think of as mint. Menthol is destroyed by heat, so you don’t get as much minty flavor if it’s heated.”

Though using water as a base might be cheaper, it would yield a completely different result. Some flavor molecules are soluble in alcohol but not in water and vice versa. “With alcohol, you get different chemical reactions, so you get different flavors coming through,” says Kennedy.

Age and beauty

To complicate matters further, some liqueurs’ flavor profiles will change as they age. The amount of oxygen in the bottle and its exposure to UV light can radically alter the taste compounds in a given liqueur. “UV light can break down flavor and taste compounds and change them negatively and positively,” says Kennedy. “Chartreuse, one of the world’s most famous liqueurs, is known as an aging liqueur. Fresh is one thing; when you buy it, it’s slightly different, and over time it may change completely.”

Hit the Lab

After you’ve sipped a liqueur by itself, it can be fun to use it in new and classic recipes. But if a recipe gets too sweet, you can rebalance the cocktail without tossing it entirely. Just add a dash or two of something bitter. If it gets too bitter, add a tiny bit of salt. If you add too much of that, well, you may just have to start over.

The Last Word

This classic is more famous for its disappearance than its existence. After its introduction in the early 1920s, it didn’t resurface until Ted Saucier’s 1951 cocktail book Bottoms Up. From there, it remained obscure until the Zig Zag Café in Seattle brought it back into vogue in 2004.

Recipe:
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz Green Chartreuse
3/4 oz maraschino liqueur (I prefer Luxardo)
3/4 oz gin

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake vigorously for 15-20 seconds or until cold. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with a traditional (Luxardo or similar) maraschino cherry.

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What's the Right Way to Make a Sazerac?
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If you pronounce New Orleans "New Or-leens," or if you can’t get enough of those Big Ass Beers sold on Bourbon Street, you’re probably not actually from New Orleans. But if you’re feeling adventurous and missing the Big Easy, a Sazerac might be just what the doctor ordered. 

‘Tails and Stories

A few hundred years ago, you might have actually gotten a doctor’s order for a Sazerac. One of the drink's origin stories claims that it was invented by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud. According to this tale, Mr. Peychaud mixed up the drink with his eponymous bitters and served it in an egg coupe in his shop. 

A more likely origin story states that the drink was invented by a different New Orleans resident (though in the same neighborhood). Around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor sold his bar to Aaron Bird and went into the import business. One of his products happened to be Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brandy. While Taylor was importing, Bird renamed his bar the Sazerac House and began serving a house cocktail that featured Taylor’s brandy and, as the story goes, bitters made by his neighborhood apothecary, Mr. Peychaud.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe's grape crops were decimated by an infestation of American aphids. In just four years, French wine production was cut by 67 percent, and even the most dedicated cognac drinkers switched to whiskey. For New Orleans, that meant switching to rye whiskey that was shipped to the city down the Ohio River and through the Mississippi. Thomas Handy, who owned the Sazerac Bar during that time period, likely switched the drink's main ingredient. This take on the signature cocktail is the one that found its way into the 1908 edition of The World's Drinks and How To Mix Them, with the recipe calling for "good whiskey," not Sazerac cognac. 

The origins of the Sazerac’s name is vague. It’s possible that it was a nod to the fact that it was the bar's house cocktail, but it’s also possible that it’s a reference to the brand of brandy. In those days, “cocktail” referred to a specific alcoholic drink format. As put forth by The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, a “cock-tail” is “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” If you wanted this type of drink with whiskey in it, you would ask for a Whiskey Cocktail. If you wanted Sazerac brandy (until the aphid plague, at least), you'd ask for a Sazerac cocktail.

Hit the Lab

Sazerac Recipe:

2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
.25 oz simple syrup (or a sugar cube)
2 oz good rye whiskey (use the good stuff)
lemon peel for garnish

Place the sugar cube into an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass. Dash the bitters onto the cube and muddle. Add whiskey and one large ice cube and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

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Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0
What’s the Right Way to Make a Caipirinha?
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Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0

The Rio Olympics start in just a few weeks, and all eyes are on Brazil. To celebrate, we decided to focus on the country’s most famous cocktail creation: the Caipirinha.

In form, the Caipirinha is pretty much a Brazilian Daiquiri. It’s made from sugar, lime, and cachaça. Cachaça could be considered a cousin to rum, but it is altogether unique. While most rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice.

Unlike rum, which can be made anywhere, cachaça can only be made in Brazil. Though it’s often sold unaged, it is usually matured in woods that are native to Brazil, like peanut and balm. As with wine, beer, and whiskey, different kinds of wood affect the product inside differently.

The classifications of cachaça aren’t based on the type of cask in which it’s aged. It can get a bit confusing: Spirit that is not stored in wood or is kept in stainless steel vats before it’s bottled is often called branca (white). But cachaça aged in wood that doesn’t color the liquor may also be labeled as branca. This category goes under several other names, including prata (silver) and clássica (classic).

Cachaça that’s stored or aged in wood is usually labeled as amarela (yellow), in reference to its color. These may also be labeled as ouro (gold). Envelhecida (aged) cachaça, a subtype of amarela, is a bit more involved: it’s considered aged if more than 50 percent of the content of the bottle has been aged for at least a year in a barrel that’s 700 liters or smaller.

Cachaça is the “third most produced distilled drink in the world,” according to Alcohol In Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Though more than 5000 brands existed in 2008, it was relatively ignored outside of Brazil until the recent resurgence of craft cocktails. In fact, until 2013, it had to be labeled “Brazilian rum” to be imported into the U.S. As a result, it’s often mistaken by many people for being a type of rum.

Unfortunately, we don’t really know anything definite about the origins of the Caipirinha. Like the Mojito and the Old Fashioned, the formula was perhaps first used in folk medicine. Carlos Lima, the executive director of IBRAC (the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça) told Casa e Jardim that a mix of lime, garlic, and honey with a pour of cachaça was probably used in São Paulo around 1918 as a remedy for the Spanish Flu.

As the story goes, someone eventually decided to skip the garlic and honey. Then, to balance the acidity of the lime, sugar was added. Over time, the drink spread into bars, ice entered the equation, and it became the Caipirinha we know today.

HIT THE LAB

Like the Mojito, the classic Caipirinha recipe is quite simple, but it’s also been the subject of many, many variations. We’ve included the International Bartenders Association (IBA) recipe as well as a modern take on the drink.

Caipirinha
Modified from the IBA website.

2 ounces Cachaça
1/2 of a lime
1 tablespoon sugar

Muddle lime and sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Fill with ice and pour cachaça over it. Stir and enjoy.

Prata B. (Puerto Rico Asta Ah Brazil)
Recipe by Luis Ramos, bar manager of Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco.

1 3/4 ounces Avua Prata Cachaça
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce pineapple gomme syrup
1/2 ounce Pedro Ximenez sherry
1/4 ounce Punt e Mes
Grated nutmeg, lime zest, lime wheel for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass. Add crushed ice and stir until glass frosts. Top glass with grated nutmeg, lime zest, and lime wheel.

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