The modern liqueur classifications are much simpler than the original ones, which were set up when liqueur production began to be organized so that standards of quality and consistency were applied.
Liqueurs that have a thick and oily consistency were referred to as crèmes, oils, or balms. Those with a lighter texture were called waters, extracts, or elixirs. Distinctions were made in terms of quality, as well, whith grades including ordinaire, demi-fine, fine, or surfine. Today, however, there are only four main types. One of them is actually ligueur but all are generally called liqueurs, with their designation helping to describe them. It is folly to really try to break down all the myriad liqueurs into certain designations, but a few general classifications are:
Liqueurs are generally made with neutral grain spirits. The term “neutral” refers to the flavor being neutral, as the spirit has not been “finished.” This means that steps have been taken to remove as many flavor characteristics as possible so as to end up with a spirit that has a clean and nonspecific taste. Vodka is an example of a neutral spirit, as well as grain spirits.
On the other hand, a finished spirits are spirits in which it is desired to carry over certain flavor characteristics and/or to bring out certain flavors through and aging process, where sometimes the vessels themselves impart flavor, such as the oak barrels used in whiskey production. Liqueurs/cordials can be made from any type of spirit, whether neutral or finished. In the U.S. the alcoholic components of liqueurs do not need to be stated on the label, but they may be. If they are, then the base spirit must fall into certain definitions.
For instance, a rum liqueur (or rum cordial) must be made with the “predominant characteristic flavor” of rum and be bottled at not less than 30% alcohol by volume (60 proof). Gin and Bourbon liqueurs/cordials have their own, similar, definitions. When not specified on the label, it is safe to assume a liqueur is made from a neutral spirit.
Since neutral spirits should not impart much flavor of their own into the cordial, the maker can be more assured of the flavor outcome. Otherwise, the spirit must be carefully selected based on how the flavors of the base spirit will match with the flavors to be added. Obviously, gin would give a much different flavor than rum, even if you added the exact same ingredients to either.
Flavored brandy liqueurs, of course, would fall into this same category, but they require some additional explanation.
Fruit Flavored Brandy Liqueurs
As stated above, this one will require some extra explanation, to eliminate confusion. Most people tend to think of fruit flavored brandies simply as fruit flavored brandies, but they, too, are liqueurs, except when they are not.
If the additional fruit flavor is infused into the brandy after it is distilled, then the product is a liqueur. Fruit flavored brandies, which are popular in the United States, cause a lot of confusion, since a Fruit Brandy is not a liqueur at all, but had it’s fruits distilled with the spirit from the beginning. These clear brandies made from fruit are much different than the liqueurs that call themselves things like peach brandy, blackberry brandy, etc. For example, the German Brandy Kirsch (also called Kirschwasser), is a wild cherry brandy, but it is NOT a liqueur. Brandy is a wine that has been distilled. Therefore Kirsch is a wine made with cherries and cherry pits that is then distilled. Despite this, you will often find it listed among liqueurs and it gives people the impression that you can replace Kirsch with a cherry liqueur. One well-known use for Kirsch, by the way, besides drinking, is as one of the principle ingredients for cheese fondue.
A brandy can be made from many different fruits and be called a “fruit brandy.” Or, fruit flavors can be added to a brandy, as a base spirit, and this is a liqueur, like any other liqueur. In the U.S. Brandy liqueurs must identify themselves as Brandy Liqueurs or Brandy Cordials and if they are flavored with other than grape the flavor must be identified, such as Cherry Brandy Liqueur or Peach Brandy Cordial. Also, in order to be called this, they MUST use brandy as the predominant spirit base and by bottled at not less than 305 alcohol by volume (60 proof).
Crèmes are generally the sweetest, having up to twice as much sugar as other liqueurs. They are also heavier and denser. A crème also tends to get its flavor from just one ingredient. One very popular and familiar crèmes is crème de menthe, flavored with mint.
Creams should not be confused with crèmes. Creams really do contain cream, which has been stabilized into an emulsion. They tend to be the thickest and mildest liqueurs, and besides the crèmes, are probably the most popular liqueurs in the United States. It is best to keep them refridgerated after opening. Bailey’s Irish Cream is a familiar example, and perhaps the most popular. Others are Godiva Cream and Bushmill’s.
The word schnapps is actually a German word. It comes from the same word as snap, the Middle Dutch snappen, which means “to snatch at something with the beak or mouth.” When we got the English word snap from snappen, we kept the original Middle Dutch meaning. However, when the Germans got the word schnappen from snappen, they meant to gulp or take a mouthful. Schnapps became a generic term for all spirits, whether they be clear, colored, bitter, or sweet; and no matter what they are made from. German Schnapps may be made from fermented fruits, grains, or herbs, that are then distilled to produce a high proof alchohol drink. They are not usually sweetened with added sugar. This has produced confusion about the “correct” use of the term schnapps.
Most Americans know Schnapps as a very heavy, sticky, and sweet flavored liqueur. We do not use this term to apply to unflavored spirits. Thus, many people assume that this means that the American usage of the term is “breaking the rules” and creating confusion. However, there is no rule that says a German Schnapp cannot be sweetened or additionally flavored, it just isn’t generally done. The answer to the puzzle is to buy what you prefer. If you like German Schnapps, then that is what you should buy, but they seem mostly something either important to a few mixed drinks, such as green apple schnapps in the apple martini, or for the younger crowd.
American Schnapps seems to be a high proof spirit which is heavily sweetened and flavored with just about anything you can imagine. Peppermint, sure. Green apple, why not? All sorts of fruit flavors? Of course. But there have also been such flavors as cinnamon, root beer, butterscotch, and even bubble gum. These became popular in the 90’s as shots for the younger crowd. Think of them as the Jolly Ranchers of the alcohol world.
Keep in mind that a liqueur, in the United States at least, will always contain added sugar. This makes the distinction between a flavored spirit and a liqueur easier to define. However, in the rest of the world, a liqueur may be any spirit into which additional flavors have been infused. These are generally also sweetened, but this does not always have to be the case. Trying to keep track of it all is a bewildering process.
Bitters are a subclass of liqueurs that are more true to a medicinal or digestive origin. They can be used alone, but are most often used in drinks. Some are so bitter they can only be used in mixed drinks a few drops at a time. Angostura bitters is the most familiar example. Others are Campari, Punt y Mes, and Fernet Branca.