The sweetest thing: Premium liqueurs tasting and workshop

Clinton Cawood

Clinton Cawood

21 April 2020

The saccharine world of liqueurs has been particularly vibrant recently, with a number of interesting new products hitting the market, often at some premium price points. Clinton Cawood and a team of bartenders put a selection through their paces

Liqueurs aren't exactly the category you'd expect to be full of life at the moment, what with sugar being increasingly in the spotlight. Yet it's full of energy, with all manner of new launches, and some created by top bartenders, too.

The majority of these new additions – and most of the interesting existing ones – are coming in at the premium end. These are top-quality ingredients in a category that isn’t necessarily associated with high prices. For those looking for interesting modifiers for cocktails and increasingly a base ingredient for a drink, there’s never been a better time.

PANEL

Clinton Cawood, freelance journalist; Tani Hasa, Lab 22; Arthur Jarvis, The Bootlegger; Kyle Jones, Pennyroyal; Millie Milliken, Imbibe; Alex Mills, Lab 22; Marius Sakaliunas, The Libertine; Alexander Jeffrey Thompson, The Bootlegger

How it works

We called in liqueurs, both new and old, with an RRP of £20/700ml and above and presented them to a panel of bartenders at Pennyroyal in Cardiff. After tasting through these neat, they had the chance to get behind the bar to create a cocktail with a liqueur of their choice.

Panel comments

Clinton Cawood, freelance journalist

This line-up gave our panellists plenty to work with, creating some interesting and unexpected serves. The liqueurs themselves demonstrated just how versatile the category is at the moment.

Tani Hasa, Lab 22

We are seeing a growing trend towards premium liqueurs, not only in cocktails as modifiers but also as standalone ingredients. We’re seeing consumers take more heed over the quality of ingredients.

Tani Hasa, Lab 22
Tani Hasa, Lab 22

Arthur Jarvis, The Bootlegger

I like to be surprising when making cocktails and have an ingredient that’s super interesting, so the crazier the liqueur the better. I was pleasantly surprised by the premium range of coffee liqueurs – they each had their own personality and complexity.

Kyle Jones, Pennyroyal

It’s great to see the liqueur category keep up with the pace drinks are progressing, and to see some of the traditional liqueurs now start to be challenged for the top spot by some of the new guys. It’s also good to see more liqueurs encapsulating real fl avours from ingredients, rather
than some of the artificially flavoured products we’ve seen in the past.

Millie Milliken, Imbibe

The way the bartenders approached the liqueurs was refreshing. It shows how the category is exciting them, and also how versatile the product is – especially as we were served predominantly light cocktails, which I’m sure consumers wouldn’t expect. The fruit liqueurs were the most divisive. There was a real spread when it came to quality and they didn’t excite the bartenders as much as the more herbal ones.

Marius Sakaliunas, The Libertine
Marius Sakaliunas, The Libertine

Alex Mills, Lab 22

In the future I’m expecting the lines between ‘sweetened spirit’ such as honey-flavoured whiskey and ‘spirit liqueurs’ such as Drambuie to be blurred further. I do think, however, that the liqueur category is in danger of becoming diluted as big names release extensive ranges. Will this restrict smaller, quality driven brands, or push brands with small marketing budgets to the fringes?

Marius Sakaliunas, The Libertine

Some of these were truly unique. One of the main things that stood out was the coffee liqueur range. There are clear differences in the way they taste, their level of sweetness, and the approach one would have to take in order to use them to their best potential.

Alexander Jeffrey Thompson, The Bootlegger

There was a great range of flavours from botanicals to classic coffee. I think there is a gap in the market for liqueurs that stray from the classic syrupy sweetness. I can’t wait to get my hands on more exciting liqueurs.

Results

Berry Bros & Rudd Coffee Liqueur
Excellent coffee notes, with one taster describing ‘a heaviness of coffee you don’t get with most cold-brew liqueurs’. This translated into sweet espresso notes on the palate, with a chocolate note on the finish. One taster suggested using it in a Sazerac.
35% abv, £26.50/700ml, Fields, Morris & Verdin, fmv.co.uk

Borghetti di Vero Caff è Espresso
For many this had the most authentic, intense espresso flavour of the coffee liqueurs in this tasting, complemented by dark chocolate, smoke, leather and hazelnut on both nose and palate. That faithful representation of espresso led some to recommend that on its own, while more than one taster mentioned the Espresso Martini. One recommended pairing it with Fernet Branca, while another saw potential with stout.
25% abv, £21/700ml, Hi-Spirits, hi-spirits.com

WILLIAM & HARRY
by Alexander Jeffrey Thompson, The Bootlegger

Glass Tumbler
Garnish Orange zest
Method Stir and strain over ice.

25ml The King’s Ginger
12.5ml gin
12.5ml sweet vermouth
25ml Campari
2 dashes orange bitters

Drambuie
This is a classic for a reason, as tasters heaped praise on its warming, wintery flavours of clove, liquorice, anise and black tea, as well as honey, orange zest and lemon, all with a backbone of whisky. This needed little more than ice and a log fire, said one panellist, while a few others advocated its use in Flip-style cocktails. The Rusty Nail had a few mentions, too.
40% abv, £27/700ml, William Grant & Sons UK, williamgrant.com

Fair Café
Fair’s coffee offering drew praise specifically for its balance. On the nose tasters spoke of biscotti, nuts, creamy coffee, cocoa powder and walnuts. That balance on the palate, as well as darker roasted coffee notes, led one taster to recommend a coffee Boulevardier or a long serve with soda. ‘If I was ever to make a coffee Negroni I’d use this,’ added another.
22% abv, £23/700ml, Fair Drinks, fair-drinks.com

Fair Kumquat
An exotic take on classic citrus liqueurs, tasters found zesty, fresh citrus notes on the nose as well as a distinct floral element. This led to a mouth-coating sweetness and more citrus and floral notes. Several panellists suggested this would work well as a substitute for triple sec, recommending twists on a White Lady or Margarita. One thought it would work well in a Ramos Gin Fizz, while another imagined a Spritz-style drink.
22% abv, £17.99/700ml, Fair Drinks, fair-drinks.com

Hedgepig Cambridge Gage 2017
This was an interesting combination of light floral notes like rooibos tea and cooked pear alongside a richer caramel, toffee and honeyed sweetness. It had a touch of spice too, as well as some cacao-nib bitterness. One panellist’s suggestion was to serve it warm with a slice of lemon and hot water, while another also imagined a warm drink, paired with a young, malty scotch whisky.
28% abv, £16/200ml, Pinkster, orders@pinkstergin.com

Hedgepig Glorious Gooseberry 2018
This was complex and unusual on the nose, with tasters describing potpourri, hemp, baked pastry and plum notes, as well as a stalky earthiness, before the gooseberry really came through alongside white grape, melon and passionfruit – all with significant amounts of acidity. The food-pairing potential saw panellists recommending cheese, baked desserts or served neat as a digestif.
27% abv, £16/200ml, Pinkster, orders@pinkstergin.com

Hedgepig Wild Bullace & Quince 2016
Tasters found this to have autumnal fruity notes of violet, strawberry, pear, plum and a bittersweet element too, with some noticeable gin character. Apple-like acidity on the well-balanced palate was joined by dried apricot and gooseberry notes. ‘This one has a sophistication to it,’ said one taster, while another was reminded of dessert wine. More than one panellist thought this would work well with tonic.
30% abv, £36.00/500ml, Pinkster, orders@pinkstergin.com

Hedgepig Zesty Elderflower 2018
This was indeed zesty, with some overtly elderflower notes, joined by additional notes of apple, grape, lavender, nettle and lemon peel. Our panellists were inspired by this to create an array of fresh, summertime drinks, from adding it to a pitcher of Sauvignon Blanc and cava, to a take on the French 77. Another imagined it with a grassy agricole in a twist on the Cosmopolitan.
29.8% abv, £16/200ml, Pinkster, orders@pinkstergin.com

FIRST WORD
by Arthur Jarvis, The Bootlegger

Glass Nick & Nora
Garnish Grapefruit twist
Method Shake and double strain.

20ml Italicus
50ml pink grapefruit juice
20ml Dyfi Original Gin
10ml Yellow Chartreuse
5ml Aperol
10ml lemon juice

Italicus
Bergamot is the star of the show when it comes to Italicus, with sweet yet crisp citrus notes on the fresh, clean nose, along with a herbal element like gentian. One taster was reminded of the sea, while another noticed a floral, rose element. The palate was on the sweet side, but well balanced with citrus zest. Tasters suggested Spritzes, as well as serves with tonic, or even a neat serve over ice. The Bootlegger’s Arthur Jarvis used it to create a breakfast-themed Last Word twist he called the First Word, combining it with pink grapefruit, Welsh gin Dyfi , Yellow Chartreuse, Aperol and lemon juice.
20% abv, £28/700ml, Cellar Trends, cellartrends.co.uk

Licor 43 Baristo
More than just a coffee liqueur, but rather a liqueur with a coffee component, Licor 43’s Baristo variant saw its coffee notes bolstered by the other botanicals, with vanilla particularly dominant. Tasters described toffee, nuts, nougat and caramel alongside espresso and a hit of cocoa on the finish. Tasters suggested using it in a Revolver, or just serving it neat as dessert.
31% abv, £22/700ml, Cellar Trends, cellartrends.co.uk

Mac by Brookie’s
This macadamia and wattleseed liqueur was arguably the most unusual product in this tasting. Notes covered the spectrum of nuts, marshmallow, chocolate, rocky road, butterscotch, carameland more. The palate was far drier than expected, which combined with its relatively low-abv made more than one taster remark on its versatility. The panel imagined it would pair well with dark rum, rye whiskey or cognac, in creamy dessert drinks or Flips.
25% abv, £35.95/700ml, Sea Spirits, seaspirits.co.uk

Muyu Chinotto Nero
Inspired by the Amazon, Muyu is a range of liqueurs created by bartenders Monica Berg, Alex Kratena and Simone Caporale. The Chinotto Nero variant, created by Caporale, offers a complex mix of dark chocolate and leather alongside citrus and mineral notes, too. The palate had some Riesling-like acidity and very well balanced sweetness, along with some dried red fruits and a touch of bitterness. One taster thought this would bring complexity and depth to fruity drinks like a Cosmopolitan, while another thought to use it in a festive drink with rum or gin. Lab 22’s Alex Mills used it for a Mizuwari-style drink using Glenmorangie, bitters and soda. ‘Orange and scotch is an easy pairing, but the Chinotto has some bitterness too, which goes well with a longer drink like this,’ he said.
24% abv, £28.75/500ml, thewhiskyexchange.com

Muyu Jasmine Verte
Monica Berg’s creation is a perfumed liqueur that reminded our tasters of incense and herbal teas, with some grassy notes, too. The sweetness was well balanced on the palate, with candied petal notes and potpourri, lifted by citrus. Tasters imagined this working well with champagne, or even just with a mineral white wine for a twist on the Bicicletta.
24% abv, £28.75/500ml, thewhiskyexchange.com

Muyu Vetiver Gris
The third and final Muyu was Alex Kratena’s, offering a complex mix of fruit and floral notes, with apples and grapes joining cedarwood and pepper notes, and with an earthiness and a subtle honey note. ‘This whole range has mouthfeel on point,’ said one taster. Panellists thought this would work well with tequila, agricole, pisco or cachaça, and would be ideal for aperitifs. Lab 22’s Tani Hasa picked this to experiment with. ‘Tasting it, I thought that it would make a mean Gimlet, and would go well with pisco,’ he explained. He was right about that, with the resulting drink having great complexity, yet
freshness too.
22% abv, £28.75/500ml, thewhiskyexchange.com

PISCO GIMLET
by Tani Hasa, Lab 22

Glass Nick & Nora
Garnish Bay leaf
Method Shake ingredients with mint sprig in the shaker and strain.

37.5ml Waqar Pisco
12.5ml Muyu Vetiver Gris
20ml lime juice
10ml sugar syrup
Mint sprig

The Braemble Gin Liqueur
This was packed with fruit, with everything from blackberry and raspberry to strawberry, stewed plum and berry compote, with an additional floral element, not to mention a savoury note that reminded one taster of tomato. When it came to drink recommendations, it was all in the name, with tasters imagining it working perfectly in a Bramble, or in other Sour drinks, perhaps paired with bourbon. Ultimately a really cocktail-focused ingredient, with plenty of acidity to balance that sweetness.
24% abv, £24/700ml, When We Are Giants, whenwearegiants.com

The King’s Ginger
Not one panellist had a bad thing to say about The King’s Ginger, with its excellent backbone – described as both stem ginger and gingernut biscuits – supported by additional herbal and honeyed notes, not to mention its distinct whisky base. Penicillins were the order of the day, while one taster suggested a Gingeroni, substituting it for gin in a Negroni. Others saw its potential in warming winter drinks like a Hot Toddy.
41% abv, £21/500ml, Fields, Morris & Verdin, fmv.co.uk

Tuaca
Tasters described notes of caramel and butterscotch, as well as hazelnut praline, tonka bean, vanilla pods, banana and coffee, not to mention a spiced element, all leading to a buttery mouthfeel. One panellist thought it would pair well with spiced rum and coffee, while others recognised its potential in Sour-style drinks. The Libertine’s Marius Sakaliunas made a Tuaca Sour with the sugar dialled back compared to a regular Sour, resulting in a light drink that really highlighted the best aspects of the Tuaca.
35% abv, £23/700ml, Hi-Spirits, hi-spirits.com

ON YOUR BIKE, BORIS
by Kyle Jones, Pennyroyal

Glass Tumbler
Garnish Seville orange spray
Method Build over ice and top
with soda.

40ml Muyu Jasmine Verte
70ml Sicilian Catarratto
white wine
1bsp Cynar
Soda

White Heron British Cassis
Everything about this cassis was dialled up to 11 and yet it was ultimately balanced by ‘perfect acidity’ and some dry tannins – a big hit with our panel. One thought it was port-like with its raisin, blackberry cordial and stewed blackberry notes. Another thought it would work well as a float on a Sour, and would pair nicely with pisco and plum bitters, while another imagined it in a peated French Martini.
15% abv, £14.70/500ml, Love Drinks, lovedrinks.com

White Heron British Framboise
There were plenty of red wine comparisons with this grown-up framboise. Tasters drew parallels with Pinot Noir in particular, owing to its raspberry tartness, appealing stalky, funky farmyard element and dryness to the finish. That funkiness led one taster to imagine this paired with calvados, perhaps in a Calvados Manhattan, while another thought it would work as a modifier for prosecco. The Bootlegger’s Alexander Jeffrey Thompson put it front and centre in a cocktail, supported by amaretto and a touch of Benedictine, as well as lemon juice and some peach bitters, using the nuttiness in the amaretto to enhance its fruitiness.
15% abv, £14.60/500ml, Love Drinks, lovedrinks.com

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