After the base spirits, these modifier liqueurs are the most popular in mixed drinks. They come in flavor families like orange, coffee, anise, nuts, and whiskey creams. Discover the differences between them and when you can substitute one for the other.
Introduction to Modifier Spirits
In addition to the base spirits, there are hundreds of modifier ones. These are the liqueurs, vermouths, fruit brandies, schnapps and cremes that cover the entire flavor spectrum and rainbow of colors.
Most can be organized into flavor families. This is useful because one spirit, say in the orange flavor category, can often be substituted for another, based on what you have available. The result is a cocktail that resembles the original recipe and is also pleasant to drink.
Since it’s impossible to stock all the modifier spirits, this section focuses on those found in the world’s most popular cocktails. There’s also a few oddballs reviewed here, that you’re likely to run into as you adventure into the cocktail wilderness.
To find out what you like, organize a tasting party based on a theme. For example, buy one bottle of each member in the orange family for a blind taste test. Serve each guest about 1/2 an ounce (15 ml) of each spirit and compare them side by side in a Glencairn glass. Take notes and have fun, while you discover which one you like best.
The Orange Liqueur Family
Triple Sec, Curacao, Cointreau, Grand Marnier
In an average bar, any recipe calling for orange liqueur is made with triple sec. It’s cheap, usually domestic instead of imported, clear colored, very sweet and has little character other than orange flavor.
Curacao is domestic or imported. It can range from sweet to dry. It usually has slightly more orange flavor, or character than triple sec, but not enough of it to be missed, if triple sec is substituted. The only curacao that will be missed is the blue stuff, because its artificial color is used to create blue cocktails.
Cointreau has successfully distanced itself from the rest of the orange liqueurs. It’s clear in color, but adds definitive layers of orange flavor, including burnt orange and sour orange peel with notes of clove, fresh ground nutmeg and other spices.
Can a recipe calling for Cointreau use triple sec instead? Yes, but only if the cocktail is like a sling or punch, with many other ingredients. If the cocktail has four or less ingredients, it will suffer, losing much of its character. On the other hand, if a cocktail calls for triple sec and all you have is Cointreau, it’s strong character may overpower the other ingredients, leading to a taste imbalance.
Grand Marnier by comparison is an orange liqueur made in the original curacao style, which seems to have been forgotten by most manufacturers. It has the orange liqueur based on bitter orange peel, but features a Cognac base, making it a rich golden color from being aged in wood.
The heavy Cognac character and color of Grand Marnier makes it a difficult spirit to substitute. That’s why its better sipped on its own in a brandy snifter, as an after dinner digestive, or in front of a crackling fireplace on a cold winter night.
The bottom line? If you can only have one bottle of orange liqueur, make it Cointreau. Its bitter orange character combines with the other ingredients to make truly spectacular cocktails. You can substitute triple sec, but the recipe, although enjoyable, will be a shadow of the original version.
If however, you are making Margaritas, White Ladies, or Yellow Birds that specifically call for triple sec, and you substitute cointreau, you’ll have to cut the amount in half and add a bit more syrup. Cointreau’s big character and bitter orange peel flavor, can easily overpower delicate ingredients.
So buy Cointreau first, unless making delicate cocktails that call for triple sec. Better yet, get them both, but skip the blue curacao, because a drop of organic blue food coloring in triple sec can replace it.
The Coffee Liqueur Family
Kahlua, Tia Maria, Coffee Liqueurs
There are dozens of coffee liqueurs and it’s certainly fun to try them all. Most however are disappointing wannabes, when compared to the two undisputed heavyweight champions Tia Maria and Kahlua.
Tia Maria appeals to black coffee drinkers. The aroma is like fresh brewed, dark roast coffee, with notes of chocolate, caramel, vanilla, nuts and molasses.
The flavor of Tia Maria, is sweet dark coffee with touch of caramel and a shot of white rum. The mouthfeel is quite thin, not thick like most liqueurs. It would bring a satisfying coffee component to any drink calling for a strong coffee flavor, like the Espresso Martini.
Kahlua is the more popular of the two coffee kings. It is dark, thick and opaque. The coffee scent is present, but equally strong is the aroma of vanilla and white chocolate. The mouthfeel is completely different from Tia Maria, it is very thick, very sweet and coats the entire mouth in warmth. There’s vanilla, chocolate and caramel, all competing with the coffee flavor and the abundant sweetness, creating a complex plot of flavors.
Can you substitute Tia Maria for Kahlua? Yes, but only after considering the flavor profiles of the two. Tia Maria is thin in texture but has a strong, dominant, black coffee flavor. Kahlua is thick and creamy with a mild coffee flavor, but complex with vanilla, caramel and many other flavors.
So if there’s just couple of ingredients in the drink, stick with Kahlua, or the mouthfeel and complexity will be too thin. If there’s a lot of ingredients, a cream component, or the recipe calls for a strong coffee flavor, go ahead and use Tia Maria if that’s all you have on hand.
The Licorice (Anise) Liqueur Family
Anisette, Ouzo, Pernod, Sambuca, Absinthe
There are many spirits in the black licorice or anise flavor family. It seems to be one of those childhood memory flavors, that adults either crave or try to avoid.
Most start off as neutral spirits that are infused, or masticated, with anise, licorice, fennel and other botanicals. Some of the well known anise flavored spirits are Anisette, Ouzo, Pernod, Sambuca and Absinthe. Most are consumed neat, mixed with water, or served on the rocks as a digestif, or aperitif.
Other than the strongly herbal Absinthe, the anise family is rarely used in cocktails, because the licorice flavor overpowers the other ingredients. In fact, many of them were created to fill the gap, when Absinthe faced a 100 year ban in some countries, because of the wormwood content.
Some suggest that Galliano should be classified as a licorice as well, but it has a strong herbal and vanilla component as well. So like Absinthe, it’s pretty hard to substitute in cocktails that call for it.
Absinthe is like a second cousin of green Chartreuse. The aroma is prominently licorice with woody herbs, but there’s also a slight rubber or wet latex paint smell.
Its flavor is very intense licorice, hot and alcoholic, even when diluted 3 to 1 with water. There’s pine and cedar notes, along with a slight bitterness, as the alcohol warms the tongue, revealing several herbaceous layers in addition to the licorice. The end result is a harmonious quartet of sweet, bitter, warmth and herbs.
All that said though, absinth is expensive and overrated, unless you ‘love’ the taste of licorice. Since it’s usually added to cocktails in drops, most people can’t tell the difference between it and a good anise extract.
Yes, absinth seems to be making a comeback. People are curious to see what all the fuss was about. Then again, maybe they want it, because they think it’s a bit naughty, since it was banned for nearly a century in most of the world.
It’s also interesting to note that most anise flavored spirits louche, or turn milky when combined with water. You’ll want to take that into consideration when experimenting with cocktails, so there’s no surprises.
The Nut Liqueur Family
Almond Liqueur, Amaretto, Disaronno, Frangelico
The nut family features mostly almond flavor liqueurs. Some other popular nut flavors include Trader Vic’s Macadamia Nut and Frangelico Hazelnut, which includes cocoa and vanilla among its ingredients.
Amaretto is a rather catch all term for any liqueur that’s almond flavored. However, some of the higher quality liqueurs contain no almonds at all. The complex ‘almond’ flavor comes apricot seed oil and other drupes, which are similar to the almond, but as agricultural byproducts, are inexpensive alternatives. The other flavors come from neutral grain spirits, burnt sugar (caramel), herbs and spices.
When it comes to a domestic nut liqueur, the ingredients are steeped in a neutral grain spirit, infusing it with flavor. The resulting liquor is filtered, sweetened and flavored, with natural and artificial flavors. The color comes from a caramel additive.
Like most liqueurs, the premium brands stand out in their depth flavor and character. The generic ones taste of imitation almond extract, vodka and glycerin, which isn’t a very pleasant experience.
So if making cocktails with 3 or less ingredients, go for the premium brands like Disaronno. If there’s 4 or more ingredients, or if the recipe calls for tiny amounts, use the homemade almond liqueur recipe, found in the “How to Make Homemade Liqueurs” section. It will be just as good, if not better than most generic amarettos on the market, with no chemical additives or preservatives.
Whiskey Cream Liqueurs
Baileys, Carolans, O’Darby, Feeney’s
Most whiskey creams are flavored and colored with Irish Whiskey, fresh cream, sugar, cocoa, vanilla, herbs and caramel. Some of the most well known brands are Baileys, Carolans, O’Darby and Feeney’s. They all have their own flavor nuances, but unless consumed straight up, or on the rocks, its difficult to tell them apart once mixed with several other ingredients.
Irish Cream, most notably the Baileys brand, is found in a couple of popular cocktails including the B52 and the Mudslide. Although the B52 is started life as a layered shooter, most people don’t layer drinks at home. It’s most often mixed with the other ingredients turning it into a true cocktail, which is why its included here.