So, you’ve got the basics, eh? You built yourself a bar cart and stocked it with the best whiskey, the smoothest vodka, the wildest rum, the greatest gin and the tastiest tequila you could find. Excellent. Good. Great. Looks as though you even procured yourself a quality set of bartending tools, too? Perfect.
But what about some liqueurs? You know, those bottles that make Manhattans, Margaritas and Irish Coffees possible. Yes, if you’re going to have a collection worth the money you paid for those special spirits, you need to invest in some high-quality liqueurs.
But first, what exactly is a liqueur? And how do liqueurs differ from liquors?
What’s the Difference Between Liquor and Liqueur?
Your average liquor and liqueur actually share quite a lot in common. In fact, they have the same base: liquor. See, liqueur is really just sugary liquor, usually flavored by some sort of oil or flavoring agent. For this reason, you can find just about any type of liqueur you can think of, from the delicious-sounding options like orange or elderflower to the, er, less delicious-sounding options like artichoke. No hate on artichoke, it’s just that drinking them doesn’t sound that great.
What Are the Best Liqueurs to Buy?
It’s hard to say that certain bottles of liqueurs are true must-haves because, well, every one has a different flavor profile. Some people naturally prefer certain drinks over others, which means they’ll prefer the Cynars, Aperols and Chartreuses of the world over other less adventurous options. However, we think there are a few bottles you should always keep on hand. This is because they tend to come up the most when making cocktails. And it’s pretty much always a good time for an Irish Coffee.
Here are the absolute must-haves to include in your bar:
- Baileys Irish Cream
- Grand Marnier
If you can stock up on the best liqueurs, odds are you’ll be able to satisfy any cocktail request that comes your way. However, if you truly want to explore the wonderful and wacky world of liqueurs and cocktails, we suggest going a bit further.
Ready to start finishing meals with an artichoke liqueur and mixing gin cocktails with elderflower liqueur? Thought so. Take a look at our list of the best liqueurs below.
1. Cinzano Rosso Sweet Vermouth
When it comes to making quite a few classic cocktails (from Manhattans to Negronis) you’re going to need sweet vermouth. Vermouth is a red wine that’s been mixed with various herbs and spices, making it suitable to drink on its own, but excellent with a powerful liquor (like a rye whiskey in the case of your Manhattan). But, don’t overlook the fact that this vermouth is sweet. In fact, it may be too sweet for some to drink on their own. However, there is another type of vermouth to consider: dry vermouth. Dry vermouths typically show up in a Martini, so if you’re trying to get your James Bond on, you may want to opt for one of those. Both are great options to have on hand. But as we’re fans of a great Manhattan, we’re sticking with sweet.
Cinzano’s sweet vermouth comes from Italy using their own proprietary blend. It’s not particularly strong on the alcohol front, weighing in at a 15% ABV, which is just the right amount for an after-dinner sip or an excellent additive to your drink.
If you want to stock your home bar with the world’s best liqueurs, then you have to own a bottle of Fernet-Branca. This Italian liqueuer is sometimes called “the bartender’s handshake” because of its reputation behind the bar. True mixologists and bartenders love to order Fernet-Branca to show off their bona fides. Of course, it’s not just a form of hipster virtue signalling; it’s also a damn tasty liqueur. According to Drizly, this spirt has distinct tasting notes of “balanced, bitter, bold, cinnamon, citrus, currant, dark fruit, dried fruit, earthy, floral, herbal, intense, mint, pine, rich, [and] strong.” If that sounds like flavor overload, we promise it’s not. While this liqueur definitely has a bold flavor, it boasts a rich finish that grows on you over time. This legendary liqueur is technically an amaro, but it’s created from a mix of 27 herbs and botanicals based on an ancient family recipe known to exactly one person.
3. Disaronno Originale Amaretto
That’s right, it’s another Italian liqueur. Disaronno is yet another classic that many could call a must-have liqueur. Not only is Disaronno’s almond liqueur tasty on its own, it makes for great cocktails. And if you’re still in college (or feel like acting that way), you can’t have a Flaming Doctor Pepper without Disaronno. According to the brand itself, the original recipe for Disaronno dates all the back to the 16th century. The popularity of this Italian import makes stocking up on it pretty easy. And if you haven’t yet, we highly recommend sipping on it straight. It has more punch than a lot of liqueurs, but a taste that requires no chaser.
4. Baileys Irish Cream Original
Perhaps one of the best-known liqueurs out there, Baileys tastes great in just about every way, shape and form. On the rocks it’s a fairly sweet, chocolatey drink that’ll act like a warm sweater around your heart. Add it to coffee and watch as that warm, sweater-y feeling transforms into an undeniable itch to cause mischief. Or perhaps that’s just us.
However you choose to drink this delightful mix of Irish whiskey, cream and cocoa, it’s sure to put a smile on your face no matter the season. Though, if we’re being honest, Baileys tastes best on a cold, winter morning. Baileys Irish Cream only packs a 17% ABV but be wary, it’ll sneak up on you after a few Irish Coffees.
If you’ve ever had a Maragarita (and you probably have), then you know Cointreau. Cointreau is an orange-flavored liquor and it’s found in many popular Margarita recipes. Now, some may replace it with Triple Sec, another orange-flavored liqueur, but the results are largely the same: tasty Margaritas.
Cointreau is a French liqueur that uses the somewhat bitter flavor profile of oranges and orange peels to add just the right amount of zest to any drink. But, don’t over do it with this one. Cointreau may be a liqueur but it hits like a liquor, knocking you flat after just a few sips thanks to its 40% ABV. If you like Margaritas even a little, this is a must-have in the liquor cabinet.
Kahlua is a coffee liqueur that is absurdly popular thanks to a certain movie with a certain dude who has a certain penchant for White Russian cocktails. We don’t need to get into that though because you already know what we’re talking about. But here’s what you might not have known: Kahlua comes from Mexico; Kahlua’s base is rum; and finally, the liqueur has been around since 1936.
Needless to say, Kahlua is an excellent liqueur to have on hand. If you want a kick in your coffee that has a slightly different flavor profile from your Irish pals over at Baileys, give this one a try. Not only will the vanilla and caramel notes do wonders to the average cup of joe, but that 21% ABV will help start any day on the right foot.
7. Chartreuse Green Liqueur
Ready for something a bit more fun? Give some Chartreuse a try. As the only alcohol to sport a green color naturally (according to Chartreuse), Chartreuse Green is one of those outrageous things in life that needs to be tried to be understood. Take that, absinthe. To further double down on the strangeness of the product, according to Chartreuse, only two monks know how to identify the 130 plants and herbs that go into making this liqueur. The flavor is a refreshing and floral one with plenty of fire, it runs at 55% ABV, after all.
Chartreuse recommends several different cocktails to try, but to us, if you’re going to pony up for big green, you should first try it on the rocks. If only to see what all the fuss is about.
8. St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur
If you’re looking for a slightly different, fruity flavor to bring to your favorite cocktails, give St-Germain’s Elderflower Liqueur a try. Aside from the notes of crisp pears and ripe peaches, what’s especially exciting about St-Germain is its rarity. See, St-Germain only picks the elderflowers when they’re at their ripest, which gives the brand about a three-week window for harvesting. This gives each bottle a sort of varied and unique quality to it, as every one has the potential to be a little different.
While we recommend trying it straight after an afternoon meal on a hot summer’s day, don’t skip out on the cocktails with this one. Especially with your favorite gin or vodka cocktail, St-Germain can add to and freshen up your favorite drink.
To be honest, we were a little hard on Cynar up in the intro. It’s actually not gross or off-putting at all. Yes, the idea of drinking an artichoke is less than pleasant, but in reality, Cynar makes for one fantastic digestif. Cynar is a specific take on a popular post-dinner drink known in Italy as amaro. There are plenty of types of amaro to try, but we stuck with Cynar for its low barrier to entry. Amaros are bitter drinks that are generally sipped after dinner. The idea is that the slight sweetness of the drink will curb any cravings of dessert, while the herbs blended in the drink will help aid in digestion.
With a main ingredient is artichoke, this amaro tastes like dried fruit and herbs and is a refreshing way to polish off a meal. It spots a mild 16.5% ABV which means it’s good for sipping lightly but won’t knock you sidways.
It’s almost summer, which means one of Instagram’s favorite drinks is bound to resurface: the Aperol Spritz. But what exactly is Aperol? Aperol is an Italian digestif with a pretty mild ABV of 11% but a very aethsetically pleasing orange color (hence all the pics clogging up your timeline). Aperol gets its bitter flavor and summery color from a mix of oranges and herbs and actually does pair quite well with sparkling wine. Instagram trends be damned, we support this one.
11. Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge
And finally, we come to one of the classics. If you’ve spent time around a bar, you’ve likely seen this funny-shaped bottle. Grand Mariner is a delicious spirit with the taste of tropical oranges mixing with strong French cognac. It works incredibly well in a cocktail, from adding some zest and bite to a Tequila Sunrise, to some serious horespower in a champagne cocktail. Grand Mariner also does well alongside chicken when mixing a glaze. The alcohol burns off and leaves a juicy, orange flavor.
As the base is a cognac, you can certainly sip on this one after a nice meal. But buyer beware, Grand Mariner is no lightweight.