The Difference Between Liquors and Liqueurs

Or Geshury

Liquor vs. Liqueur

One of the most confusing things to me when I started to bartend was the differences between liquor and liqueur.  It's something that seems pretty simple, so it's easy to gloss over, but actually is a great way to develop your mental model of seeing the world of drinks and how they are constructed.  Here is everything you need to know!

1) Pronunciation:

Because English doesn't use set pronunciations, it's easy to tell how much of a newbie someone is, by whether or not they can say a word correctly.  Therefore, the first thing I like to teach is pronunciation.

Liquor is pronounced Li-Kore and liqueur is pronounced Li-Kerr, like the supermodel whose ex husband punched Justin Bieber.

2) Process:

A liquor is made by distilling alcohol, starting from a mash similar to beer or wine, then making it into a more concentrated form like vodka, brandy, or whisky.

A liqueur is made by adding a sweetener (usually sugar) and some kind of flavor to the alcohol base.  In order to be called a liqueur, the cut off is that the sweetener (sugar, honey etc.) has to make up at least 2.5% of the weight of the finished product.

3) Liqueur vs. Cordial

While the meaning of liqueur is pretty straightforward, the meaning of cordial is a bit more up in the air.  It can either be used in the same way as liqueur (which is common practice nowadays), to differentiate between liqueurs made from herbs, and liqueurs made from fruits and-to a lesser extent-dessert flavors like chocolate and coffee.  It can even mean a really sweet syrup in the UK, where they call something like Rose's lime syrup, rose's lime cordial.

In my opinion, this is a terrible shame, because we should celebrate the wonderful richness of herbal liqueurs and the sweetness of fruit cordials by using those terms to describe them.

One of the drinks that celebrates the interplay between herbal and fruit is the Last Word, a drink that has spawned hundreds of jazz like variations. 

Last Word Recipe:

1 Part Gin (3/4 oz)
1 Part Lemon Juice (3/4 oz.)
1 Part Green Chartreuse (3/4 oz.)
1 Part Maraschino (3/4 oz.)

Shake and Strain, then add a Maraschino cherry garnish!

How To Break Down A Last Word Into Any Other Cocktail

Here's how the recipe breaks down into a ratio that bartenders can use to create an infinite variety of pleasing drinks:

1 Part Liquor- Something strong, which gives the drink character and backbone.
1 Part Sour- Something sour, which gives the drink freshness and astringency (we'll talk more about basic cocktail balance in a future article).
1 Part Liqueur (Herbal) - Something sweet and herbal, which balances out the sourness and adds complexity.
1 Part Cordial (Fruit or Dessert) - Something sweet and usually fruity.

Shake and Strain, try to match the garnish with the cordial to compliment those flavors.