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Liqueurs Get on Track

Posted on  | November 22, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Summers With Mama (made with Mama Walker’s Blueberry Pancake)

With all the focus on fresh ingredients and DIY techniques in mixology, along with the proliferation of flavors across core spirits categories like vodka, rum and even bourbon, liqueurs became stuck in the doldrums, getting little love from the bartending elite.

However, the image of liqueurs took a turn with the introduction of St. Germain in 2007. With its premium profile, and a unique flavor—elderflower—that bartenders could not easily harness on their own, St. Germain quickly became a bartender darling and a reminder of how exciting and original great liqueurs can be.

Fast-forward to 2013 and St. Germain is a successful and fast growing brand, now in the hands of Bacardi Limited, even drawing the ultimate compliment of being imitated by other suppliers. And bartenders and consumers appear more willing than ever to reconsider the allure and convenience of well-made liqueurs, whether they are historic revivals, new innovations or line extensions from trusted brands.

A Not So Cordial Name?

First, some semantics: the terms “liqueur” and “cordial” are used interchangeably by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) which defines them as flavored products that contains “not less than 2.5% by weight sugar.” Tal Nadari, managing director, Lucas Bols U.S.A. Inc., the importers of Bols, the number one liqueur brand worldwide and the number three liqueur brand in the U.S., takes issue with “cordial.” “For me, coming from the U.K., the use of ‘cordial’ here is surprising,” he says. “It implies something that is syrupy and sweet, and often without alcohol, where we are committed to a premium liqueur range that shows balance.” From the bartender perspective, these flavored spirits, which typically range from 15% to 24% ABV, are often collectively called modifiers, for the role they play in modifying the flavor profile of a cocktail.

As the new importers of Bols, Nadari is committed to earning Bols the notoriety deserved by a company that has been perfecting flavors in liqueurs for 400 years. “We are a brand, not just a product that should remain behind the bar, underneath a shelf,” he says, with a mix of pride and indignation that many liqueur artisans would share.

For Bols, advancing the cause will entail taking a closer look at the range of 37 flavors and emphasizing those that mesh well with current bar and consumer drinks trends. Nadari says that the Tiki revival is fueling excitement about Curaçao, both orange and blue. There are also Bols offerings in popular flavors like elderflower and melon, which are being promoted to bartenders through hands-on comparative tastings with standard bearers like Midori and St. Germain. Lastly, the penchant for historic cocktails, has Bols taking a closer look at historic liqueurs, like Maraschino and Parfait Amour, which are yet to enter the U.S. but under consideration.

Bols Yogurt, however, is finding an unlikely following for its tart, creamy flavor profile as it capitalizes on the trend for healthful drinks and supermarket yogurt innovations.

Pernod Ricard also seems to be making a stronger commitment to its liqueur portfolio, recently gathering together the popular-priced Hiram Walker line and Kahlúa under the direction of Michelle Sanders as brand director, liqueurs. In addition to a mission to create awareness of the high quality and natural flavors of the Hiram Walker line, both of these Pernod Ricard bands are latching on to key consumer flavor trends that fit well with the malleability of liqueurs.

“We see consumers want changing flavors and themes. You have to respond to those desires or you kind of get left behind,” says Sanders. A Hiram Walker line extension called Mama Walker’s embraces trends by touching on comfort food, sweet and savory flavor combinations and nostalgic-flavors—the same trends that have helped fuel cupcake shops and marshmallow vodka. “So far, the most popular Mama Walker’s is Maple Bacon, which makes a great Bloody Mary,” says Sanders. “Then we also have Blueberry Pancake and Glazed Donut,” she says, adding that these confectionary flavors are finding fans of both genders, given the on-premise promotion by “hot mamas.”

Seasonality & Authenticity

Both Hiram Walker and Kahlúa are keying in to the trend of seasonality, a popular idea in both restaurant menus and mixology. Especially hot this year were liqueurs in flavors of pumpkin spice. “Kahlúa Pumpkin Spice arrived September 1st and the consumer press has been through the roof. Our depletions are so far beyond the budget. And, when I showed the product slide during an internal meeting people were literally cheering,” says Sanders, noting that pumpkin spice is such a hot flavor she believes it may have the potential to transcend the fall season. Also returning is a limited edition for winter: Kahlúa Peppermint Mocha.

Ryan Seng, head bartender at Grange Restaurant & Bar in the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento, CA, says that even bartenders who make their own liqueurs, himself included, have a desire and appreciation for authentic flavors that are captured in a bottle, ready to access. “The artificial colors and flavors of inferior liqueurs feels very 1990s to me,” says Seng. “Unfortunately that is also what you get with a lot of vodkas. I think there is a growing appreciation of the serious and historic liqueur producers, who go to extremes to coax out authentic flavors.”

Seng has been researching and tasting, not only to find inspiration for cocktails, but with plans to add a cordial list to his menu. This will function as a selection of ready-made desserts, showcasing Old World craftsmanship from producers like Bols and Giffard, the latter newly imported by the aptly named Back Bar Project, started in Seattle and now launching in New York City.

Giffard, created by a pharmacist attempting to extract mint essence in France’s Loire Valley in 1885, now includes two ranges, Specialty and Premium. According to Kaj Hackinen, vice president, Back Bar Project, the Premium line emphasizes single-origin flavors that are very on-trend with ideas for coffee, tea and chocolate. Vanille de Madagascar, Abricot du Roussillon and Banane du Brésil, crafted with Brazilian bananas and a touch of Cognac, all announce the origin of their global flavors. “The Banana is a bit of the dark horse of the line, and it’s getting a lot of attention from high-end cocktail bars. I think bartenders are saying, ‘Why am I putting the effort into fresh juice and high-end spirits, then adding fake flavors from a bottle of high-fructose corn syrup?’” says Hackinen.

The potential to both broaden and upgrade their selection of liqueurs holds appeal for top bartenders like Dan Stern, bartender at Ella Lounge in Manhattan. “Liqueurs like crème de cassis, crème de menthe are great classic flavored liqueurs that you can use instead of fresh ingredients, and in some cases serve the cocktail better because of their consistency and flavor profile,” says Stern, who likes to swap between liqueurs to create new drinks, or use them to augment simple long drinks. “You can take something as simple as a vodka and soda or gin and tonic, add a little liqueur to class it up and provide your guest with a version of their favorite they never would have discovered without your help,” he says.

Because liqueurs are generally utilized in small quantities, a splurge on a premium bottle, like Giffard’s Menthe Pastille, can contribute to a lot of drinks, notes Hackinen, making it a great investment for a cocktail program. “Bartenders are telling us they love having an arsenal of quality liqueurs. When you have 14 or 15 spot-on flavors to pull from, you really expand your options and creativity.”


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