These are the specialty liqueurs that are not commonly used in a lot of cocktails. That’s because they have unmistakeable flavor profiles that dominate the other ingredients. It’s also the home of the wildly unregulated fruit brandies, schnapps, and cremes.
Creme de Violette
This sweet purple elixir is based on a neutral grain spirit, flavored with vanilla, citrus and violet flowers. The scent is like a rose soap, or children’s perfume, combined with orange flower water to create the citrus notes.
In the food world you may have experienced it as a kid, in the purple ‘soap flavored’ gum called Thrills. It’s also present in floral gummies, which are available from specialty candy stores.
Ingredients listed on the label are sugar syrup, alcohol, flavor, natural violet flavor and coloring. Unless going retro and making the once popular Aviation cocktail, you probably won’t need to stock this liqueur. If you want to make your own, use simple syrup, two drops of orange flower water (or a dash of orange bitters) and two drops of organic purple food coloring, which makes a pretty good replica.
Galliano is a sweet, bright yellow liqueur from Italy, based on a neutral spirit that’s been infused with herbs and vanilla. It has a strong licorice scent with undertones of banana, white chocolate and caramel. There’s also faint floral and citrus notes.
The flavor of Galliano is predominantly vanilla and licorice. Considering the 30% alcohol level, it’s exceptionally smooth. While the flavor is unique, a fair substitute would be to combine equal amounts of anise liqueur, simple syrup and organic Mexican vanilla extract. What you can’t substitute is tartrazine, a colorant they use for that unmistakable yellow hue.
Licor 43 is a best selling sweet dessert elixir, similar to Galliano in color and flavor profile. It’s called 43 because that’s how many secret ingredients go into it.
It is very sweet, bright yellow, and heavy in vanilla. Even when diluted 10-1 with soda water, it’s still sweet tasting like a tutti fruity, bubblegum cream soda. The flavor also reminds me of citrus juice, candied pineapple, along with slight herbal notes and a mild orange peel bitterness.
The sweetness of Licor 43 is like a 2-1 simple syrup. It can be used as a syrup replacement, but use it in moderation, because the intense vanilla can overpower the other ingredients. It’s definitely worth trying at a bar, straight up in a snifter, and if you like it, getting a bottle to experiment with.
Sloe gin is made with the sloe berry, or blackthorn fruit, which are related to the plum family. Some sloe gins are just flavored neutral spirits. But the better ones are made by traditional methods, which means steeping sloe berries in gin for several months.
The best sloe gin brands – like Haymans – do not contain any added sugar. Just sloe berries, gin and water, with no added colorants or flavors. The bouquet is intense with prunes, plums, Saskatoon berries, blackberries, and a very interesting waxy aroma, reminiscent of cedar tree leaves after a heavy rain.
It tastes almost exactly how it smells. It is intense and quite sweet. The waxiness from the berries coat the tongue, as the flavors of citrus, prunes and blackberry come forward. The character is similar to a good quality solera sherry. The tannins in the fruit balance out the residual sugar content, making it a very pleasant to enjoy on its own, or experimenting with in cocktails.
Drambuie, Glayva, Irish Mist
The popular whisky liqueurs all have sweetened whisky as a base, which makes them all familiar to the category, but their characters are quite different.
The most popular one Drambuie, is a liqueur based on blended Scotch Whisky. It’s known to be flavored with spices and heather honey, but beyond that, everything’s been kept secret for hundreds of years.
Being the same strength as whisky, the scent of alcohol is the first thing you notice, along with the woodiness of barrel aging and faint herbal notes. The flavor is huge, yet balanced, between the heat of the whisky and cooling of the honey.
Every part of the mouth starts dancing with flavor, as layer upon layer of sweet whisky cascade on the palate as it warms in the mouth. It’s hard to swallow, not because the heat of the whisky, but because you don’t want to. You just want that flavor to last and linger.
The best way to experience a whisky liqueur is straight up in a brandy snifter, or Glencairn class, on a cold rainy night, where it will warm you straight down to your toes. When it comes to cocktails, Drambuie can be found in the perpetually popular Rusty Nail, where it’s mixed with Scotch and ice. It also mixes well with ginger beer and lime… but why would you want to?
Fruit Brandy, Schnapps & Cremes
Apricot Brandy, Peach Schnapps, Creme de Cacao
Fruit brandy may or may not be real brandy, depending on where it comes from. That may sound vague, but each country has different rules and the product can range from dry to sweet.
In the UK, fruit brandies are usually macerated fruit soaked in neutral spirits. In the USA, they are distilled from the fermented fruit wine, like a brandy is from grapes, but they do allow up to 20% macerated fruit.
Schnapps is another confusing category, because the definition depends on where the spirit comes from. Most European schnapps is distilled fruit wine so it’s technically a brandy. In the USA, schnapps is usually neutral spirits, to which flavor, sugar and glycerine are added, making it technically a liqueur.
The most popular fruit based cordials are apricot and cherry. In most cases, recipes calling for peach schnapps can use peach brandy and vice versa. It’s the same deal with cherry brandy, which can be substituted with schnapps, or maraschino juice straight from the jar. The only time cherry shouldn’t be substituted, except in the case of slings, is Kirsch, which is a dry brandy made from sour cherries.
Other fruity liqueurs found in cocktails are: apple, banana, black current, blackberry, butterscotch, cinnamon, coconut, elderflower, grapefruit, lemon, lychee, melon, peach, pear, strawberry and toffee.
As for the cremes, like Creme de Cacao, they don’t contain any creme or cream. The cream monicker comes from the mouthfeel of the sweetness. By calling it creme, the French word for cream, it just sounds better than saying sweet chocolate flavored liqueur.
In addition to sugar, cremes may also contain extracts, herbs and botanicals that have been infused, or masticated, along with a neutral spirit. They may also contain artificial flavors, caramel, glycerine, colorants and other spirits. Some popular cremes include, Creme de Cacao (chocolate), Creme de Cassis (black current), Creme de Menthe (mint) and Creme de Violette (violet flowers).