Spirited Away: Liqueur vs Liqueur (vs Liqueur vs Liqueur)
For those who don’t know, there are a lot of different types of miscellaneous liqueurs. Creamy and fruity, nut based and herb orientated, laughably weak and dangerously strong; all of which have their own special places both in the bar and in our hearts.
Despite these various factors, spirits or often seen as nothing more than enrichments to a drink, much like a shot of syrup supposedly transforms a coffee into a vanilla latte, but I’m here to dispute that. Liqueurs are the unsung heroes of the spirit world, the champions of the cocktail, so allow me to dive head first into the myriad taste bud tantalisers.
Normally I’d take a good, long look at two clashing spirits, but with liqueurs it isn’t as simple as saying A is better than B because of Y and Z because, as aforementioned, there’s a cornucopia of choices when it comes to types. Therefore I shall look at four distinct liqueurs and see not only how they match up against each other but how they work as spirits as a whole. This will of course include how they taste, so biased or unbiased views aside I’m ruling out talking about herb based liqueurs (if anyone tells you they like the taste of Jagermeister they’re lying and have clearly not drunk as much as I did during my festival years).
My somewhat sensitive palate will be judging fruit, cream, nut and coffee based liqueurs, with Chambord, Baileys, Disaronno and Kahlua each representing their respective liqueur. Of course, there’s an almost endless variety of choice for each type of liqueur, yet I personally believe there’s little else in the way of competition for the top spots. So with that in mind let’s get started, seeing what these liqueurs work best in, what food pairs splendidly with them and, to some degree, how they are on their own. I say this as it seems a little unusual to down a bottle of Kahlua, yet Baileys over ice is divine, so it’s tough to look at them all equally in that respect.
But enough talk, it’s time for action, and by action I mean ‘talk’ but without a little more of a purpose. Let’s kick things off with what may very well be the most popular of the contenders; Baileys. Fairly weak on its own, Baileys consists of an average of 17% alcohol content, making it an extremely casual drink; though you shouldn’t let this fool you into thinking it’s weak enough to make a Baileys Coffee an acceptable beverage to have first thing on a Bank Holiday weekend morning. Trust me on that one. Anyway, Baileys was created 1974, originally made by Gilbeys of Ireland as a means to expand into the international market, as since its inception in the middle of the 19th century it was merely a gin distillery that only shipped to the UK. It goes without saying that this venture was successful, with Baileys being beloved across the world and a dozen different flavours having been created, with such notable jewels as salted caramel, biscotti and mint chocolate.
Each of these diverse indulgences can be the basis of some sublime cocktails, such as my recently crafted ‘Smooth Lady’ (that someday I may share the recipe for), but for now I’ll stick to a heavenly classic called the Honey Bee. Ultimately sweet and creamy, this potent drink could easily be mistaken for a dessert thanks to its delectable taste and smooth texture. It consists of 2:3 Baileys, original, and 1:3 Jack Daniel Honey with a tablespoon of honey and a glass of milk all shaken with ice cubes. Pour into a martini glass and feel your insides go a creamy beige; no one can say no to that. It’s the versatility of Baileys that I adore, the sheer flexibility one can utilise when making drinks with it, though if there’s an area it falls flat it’s definitely food pairing. Sadly, unlike other liqueurs on this list, I’ve only ever been able to pair Baileys based drinks with desserts, given that creamy beverages seldom lend themselves as complementary partners to any form of meal. Though as I say this I must note it’s not a particularly bad thing, as for example partnering a Honey Bee with a serving of salted caramel ice cream adorned profiteroles (especially those sumptuous ones from Co-Operative Food that are filled with Baileys tasting cream) is an almost unbeatable way to round off a rich meal.
Moving onto something a little easier to eat with, though I’d argue somewhat less adaptable when it comes to cocktails, is Disaronno. With a recipe that has remained untouched for just under five centuries, it’s not a mystery why so many people love this almond based cocktail. It even claims to take origin from an adored tale in Saronno culture, in which Bernardino Luini, one of da Vinci’s pupils, requested a widowed innkeeper to model for a commissioned painting of the Virgin Mary. Many versions of this story ends up with the artist and the model falling in love, with Luini receiving a gift of apricot kernel infused brandy from his would-be Madonna, which is ultimately what Disaronno is today. Whether this is true or not (most likely it’s not) Disaronno is sticking to its story, most likely due to the lovely sentimental elements.
Dubious history aside, this almond based beauty is the foundation of many delectable drinks and is itself a favourite, go-to spirit for one of my colleagues (who assures me he’ll never forgive me if Disaronno isn’t elected the winner of this article). The strongest candidate on the list, containing a modest 28%, Disaronno deserves a drink made with it being the only intoxicant within. Step up, Disaronno Sour, made with 4:7 Disaronno and 3:7 fresh lemon juice, a heaped teaspoon of sugar and a rich lime garnish. Mixed together it’s quite the drink, strong in taste and content (especially as, judging from my aforementioned colleague’s comments, it goes down incredibly easily and incredibly quickly). Due to the extreme zest factor and its unexpected strength something creamy and substantial will work wonders with a Disaronno Sour, such as a big batch of mussels cooked in a white wine sauce, partnered with plenty of rustic bread to soak up the sauce for those extra strong sips.
Swaying back to the thicker side of this contest is one of the parts of a drink that’s close to my heart; Kahlua. Despite my initial protests that these spirits are more than just used as the last puzzle piece of a particular drink, I’d wholeheartedly endorse the coffee orientated liqueur Kahlua being used for a White Russian, but I’ve rambled on about those in the past so let’s focus on just the spirit. Proofed at 20%, Kahlua (roughly translated as ‘House of the Acolhua People’ in the Veracruz Nahuatl language) is a delightful combination of coffee beans, rum and vanilla beans and used to be a stronger beast at 26.5% from its creation in 1936 to its cap in 2004. Perhaps it was to put the focus on taste, but those enraged by this reduction were granted a prestigious alternative in the form of the 36% ‘Kahlua Especial’, which was previously sold exclusively via duty-free and unfortunately (for me) isn’t sold in the UK.
Despite not being able to get my hands on this incredible sounding spirit, its classic sister Kahlua is still an excellent liqueur. Best enjoyed (other than in a White Russian, of course) in a Dirty Mother, this precariously named cocktail is made simply yet results in a shockingly strong drink. One part Kahlua, one part brandy and mixed with ice. Done; and very strong. So strong, in fact, that my suggestion would be to go to the artisan bakery again for some thick, crusty rustic breads with some salted butter, perhaps some oils, such as garlic infused oil, and spread it all out with a whole baked Camembert. Add a few sprinkles of thyme and rosemary on top of the cheese when it has reached the perfect point between solid and liquid, then savour the stellar combination, making sure to pace yourself with the Dirty Mother.
Last but not least is the fighter for the fruity liqueurs; Chambord, a timeless classic and the accent found in a wealth of gourmet cocktails. Chambord itself was first introduced to international markets in 1982 yet it is based on a raspberry liqueur produced in the Loire Valley, and presented to Louis XIV during one of his visits to the Chateau de Chambord, in the 17th century. Considered the drink to consume during regal and elegant affairs, the ideal time to enjoy this liqueur has scantly changed since those times, as it is often found granting a splash of colour to martinis and champagnes alike.
Though I’d love to keep things simple with nothing more than a purple sunrise in a glass of something sparkling, I believe the best use of Chambord is within a French Martini. 1:6 Chambord, 1:6 raspberry vodka (Absolut Raspberry, at that) and 1:6 straight vodka with 3:6 pineapple juice, all poured into an ice filled shaker and vigorously mixed, making this a behemoth of a drink. A classy concoction that’s the height of sophistication, those drinking it will some succumb to an undignified demeanor should they sample too many French Martinis, so it’s best to take your time with one and an equally luscious, albeit fairly light, meal. My best suggestion here would be to toss a crisp, mixed and rocket leaf based salad with truffles and truffle oil, sprinkled with Parmesan shavings. It’ll be an utterly refreshing lunch that pairs wonderfully with the drink, though it’s probably best to only pair it with just one of these martinis.
Now that a case has been made for each kind of liqueur it’s time to deem one as a clear winner. It’s a tough call, as personally I have a fondness for virtually every single entry and with the scope set so wide it wouldn’t be outlandish to suggest different tastes will herald each particular liqueur as the greatest of all time, though I must keep my criteria firmly in mind. Variety, effective in cocktails and being thoroughly enjoyable straight, to me, automatically rules out Disaronno. Though neat or on the rocks it can be quite enjoyable there’s little variation with this almond based drink. Its overwhelming flavour also means it isn’t very adaptable to cocktails, so an apology goes out to my colleague but Disaronno is not the one for me. Sadly the same arguments can be made for Kahlua, though like Disaronno it can be utilised well in desserts, it also doesn’t lend itself much in the form of diversity. It may make a mean White Russian, as well as a host of other cocktails, but I can’t picture drinking it on its own. The silver medal goes to Baileys, which boasts a lot of different incarnations, works exquisitely in a lot of drinks and tastes beautiful on its own, though sadly there’s not much that can be done with food pairings and you’d have to be a little bit insane to call anything with it in ‘refreshing’ on a hot day.
So that leaves Chambord on top of the pile, along with the category of fruit based liqueurs. There’s more fruit orientated spirits than shades in the rainbow, with even more beverages that can be blended to be perfect for virtually any meal or occasion. Chambord itself may not be the most enjoyable drink on its own, but there’s plenty of different liqueurs out there that, surprisingly, are. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and make a few French Martinis and await the inevitable scorn I’m sure to receive by my Disaronno addicted colleague.
Think I judged poorly? Or do you have any exquisite cocktail recipes or food pairings for either of these spirits? Why not tell us about them in the comments section below, or via Facebook or twitter! And be sure to check out the rest of the gourmet goodness on the Gourmet Society blog!
By Tom Simpkins