Liqueurs: A Beginner's Guide to Bartending Techniques

Archaeologists discovered a green glass bottle marked "Elixir of Long Life" in 2014 on New York City's Lower East Side. In NYC's "DNAinfo," an online neighborhood news journal, the story is covered in-depth. The bottle, which is a relatively modern rendition of a "elixir" that has been sought after since antiquity, was found among a larger cache of 150-year-old bottles.

There is no "contemporary" alchemy, thus it's reasonable to argue that liqueurs originated from both old medicine and ancient alchemy. The first varieties of liqueur were intended to be medicinal, much like amari, the bitter cousins of liqueurs (although amari are officially a subgroup of liqueurs). Aloe, alcohol, and gentian root—a component found in gin, amari, and liqueur—were used in the comparatively modern NYC version. Gentian root was originally thought to help with digestion. Aloe's existence suggests that it was intended to be a medication.

Searching for the Elixir of Life

Yet medicine only tells part of the picture. The fact that some of the earliest liqueurs, including Chartreuse and Benedictine, were created in monasteries and likely served as herbal remedies is no accident. Alchemists created serums and potions in their hunt for the so-called elixir of life, in addition to seeking for ways to turn mundane metals like lead into gold. The elixir of life, which didn't necessarily have to be in liquid form and was more of a fantasy cliché than a legend, was thought to be a formula that, when consumed, would give the drinker eternal life.

A common item thought to have divine origins like honey was included in early incarnations of the elixir along with poisons like mercury. Honey would later influence the development of elixir manufacturing as a forerunner to liqueurs.

Liqueur is fundamentally a neutral spirit or redistilled wine, such as Brandy, to which sugar and flavorings have been added. Compounding is the term for the procedure. Alcohol is heated throughout the distillation process until it vaporizes, and the vapor is then collected and cooled, producing a purer and more concentrated distillate. Compounding usually takes place after distillation, but redistilling is a popular practice when the distillate contains components like plant and nut solids.

Although the process of flavor addition differs from distiller to distiller, infusion, percolation, and maceration are the only three main choices. Prior to distillation, infusion is possible, but the flavor components will be noticeably thinner. In that flavoring ingredients are maintained in a basket and the base spirit cycles and recirculates over them, percolation functions very similarly to a regular coffee machine. This procedure produces flavors that are more robust than infusion, while maceration—which typically uses fruit, floral, herbal, and nutty solids—creates the three methods' strongest flavors.

The main variations come into four categories: fruit, nut, herbal, and crème, aside from the process. The latter category consists of goods made from base spirits like Irish whiskey. There are well-known examples for each category, such Irish creams for creme, Chartreuse for herbal, and Chambord for fruit. Generally speaking, all can be consumed neat or on ice, without being added to a cocktail, but several are great mixers: It's an additional way to enhance popular base spirits with sweetness, flavor, and alcohol.

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