Keeping it Cordial

A spirited look at liqueurs

Kathryn Gaiennie

Life in the holiday fast lane picks up speed every October. Christmas decorations have been prominently displayed by retailers since August, cute wooden turkeys are everywhere, and Wonder Woman costumes are completely sold out. But perhaps the liveliest holiday gathering is the most unexpected, commemorating one of our nation’s newest and most intoxicating festivities, National Liqueur Day, on Oct. 16.

This celebration could have been named National Cordial Day because, in the United States, the terms liqueur and cordial are interchangeable. Possibly, the honors did not go cordial’s way because it would too easily be confused with a full day of polite behavior rather than a celebration of flavor-infused liquor. In the United Kingdom, however, cordials and liqueurs are not synonymous. There, cordials are commonly considered to be syrupy, non-alcoholic beverages, sometimes referred to as squash, made from obscure ingredients such as chokeberries and elderflowers.

The word “liqueur” comes from the Latin word “liquifacere,” which means to dissolve. Evidence indicates that the ancient Greeks may have been concocting their own forms of cordials, originally used for medicinal purposes. It is the 13th century Italian monks, however, who are most frequently credited with creating liqueurs infused with local herbs and then using the resulting mixtures to treat any number of ailments. By the 15th century, apothecaries were creating liqueurs to cure stomach pains, promote health, and even help the occasional customer in need of an aphrodisiac. Certainly most adults would admit that a drink or two might make them feel more amorous or, at the very least, less choosy. But the drinks of ancient times were not brewed with taste in mind, and those who have sought to recreate these potions have generally reported flavors and consistencies that are bitter, difficult to stomach, and unlikely to become staples at any singles’ scene.

In the 1700s, liqueur remedies were still flourishing, but palatability was still not a primary concern. Combinations such as wormwood and mugwart, thought to help with convulsions and fainting spells, were common, as were pimento water and castor, which was supposedly good for fits of hysteria. Fortunately, by the 19th century, when liqueurs became popular with the aristocracy who cared more for their heady effects than their medicinal uses, taste became a priority. As the years went by, some ingredients fell out of favor and others gained momentum, which is fortunate because not even the addition of heavy cream and sweetened condensed milk could make a castor oil and pimento water cocktail enticing.

Today the words liquor and liqueur are often confused, but the difference is like the answer to a grownup ACT problem. All liqueurs are liquors, but not all liquors are liqueurs.

Liquors, also referred to as spirits, are alcoholic beverages that have been fermented and then distilled. Liqueurs, on the other hand, start with a liquor base and then are sweetened with added ingredients. Sometimes this process is as easy as pouring several components into a blender. Other times, a little chemistry in the kitchen is involved. Occasionally, it is necessary to create a liqueur mixture, place it in a tightly sealed container, and intentionally forget about it for several weeks while the flavors seep and strengthen. Whatever the procedure, the resulting blend is typically lower in alcohol content than liquors and generally much sweeter.

The classic debate over what it takes to promote a liquor to liqueur status always comes down to sugar content. Some claim that infusing a liquor with any flavor makes it a liqueur, while purists contend that it requires at least 2.5 percent sugar or other sweetener by weight to make that distinction. Vodka, whisky, and rum are examples of popular spirits that have aisle after aisle devoted to them at most liquor stores.

Liqueurs, on the other hand, are frequently clumped in with mango flavored schnapps or cinnamon infused whiskey, like random wedding guests stuck together at a table in the back of the hall because no one knows where else to seat them. Some liqueurs are, of course, extremely tasty and very well-known, such as Kahlua and Amaretto, but even they have to reside among lesser known fruit and spice-infused friends. It is worth noting that orange-flavored vodkas routinely get to sit in the front of the store with their brutish, unflavored brethren and are not shelved at the Table 19 equivalent of liquor store displays.

Cordials and liqueurs add a touch of elegance and refinement to any gathering. Creating homemade cordials is like conducting a really fun grownup chemistry experiment in the kitchen, and, unlike the science projects of high school years that often involved stinky chemicals, hastily assembled backboards, and disappointing grades, these are almost impossible to ruin because the base element is always alcohol. Even if the end result isn’t great, it’s still going to be pretty good.

It is often the appearance and not the taste that goes awry when experimenting with homemade liqueurs. While most completed cordials are pretty, some even beautiful, once in a while the hard work of creation yields a liquid that resembles something that should probably be hidden behind the red wine vinegar in the pantry. These color-fail cordials might best be enjoyed as additives to cocktails rather than as stand-alone liqueurs.

When creating cordials at home, it is best to start with one base spirit at a time. Wild experimentation may be amusing, but it can quickly wreak havoc in the kitchen and could cause concern at the store when all the trial liquors are individually scanned at the checkout line.

Whether they are home brewed or store bought, some time-honored customs are traditionally observed when serving liqueurs. Most are not offered before dinner as aperitifs tend to be on the dry side and cordials are generally quite sweet. They are best presented after the meal, either by themselves as a digestive or paired with a dessert. And a liqueur served in a tall tumbler is going to raise eyebrows amongst the most stringent cordial drinking population.

Pairing proper stemware with liqueurs is like selecting the right shoes for a party dress. The overall outfit might be gorgeous, but coupled with old sneakers, the desired effect will be destroyed. Cordial glasses, which tend to be thinner than wine glasses and a good deal smaller, are the perfect solution.

Sometimes called ponies, these special glasses add to the ambience of liqueur sipping. Even the most color-impaired homemade liqueur can look tasteful and elegant in a cordial glass. These usually have a 1 to 3 ounce capacity, a very short base, and tend to be clear. For larger cordial glasses, drinks should be poured only halfway up. Many cordial glasses have a wider bowl to provide for the aesthetically pleasing activity of liqueur swishing, and rims can be garnished with sugar, cookies, or even crushed candies to add to the appeal.

Layered cordial cocktails are currently very popular but difficult to master. Different shades of liqueurs are dripped onto a spoon perched over the glass in the hopes of keeping the cordial colors from bleeding into each other. It takes practice, and failure often results in a drink resembling a wad of play dough in which too many colors have been squashed together. It might taste great, but the coaxing involved in getting a guest to take a sip may not be worth the effort.

Those who wish to pour themselves into the world of homemade liqueurs can get the party started with the following recipes. No matter how they are served — layered, on ice, neat, or in cocktails — these sweet, spirited beverages will add polish and grace to every gathering. They should be enjoyed at cocktail parties, intimate dinners, with friends or family, and always with a generous splash of cordiality.

Congaree Cream Liqueur

This is the simplest of the liqueur recipes, but is absolutely delicious. To avoid curdling the cream, whisk it in gently at the end. It can be enjoyed immediately.

1 2/3 cups Jameson Irish whiskey

1 can (14-ounce) sweetened condensed milk

2 2/3 tablespoons chocolate syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon instant coffee granules

1 1/4 cup heavy cream

Put the first six ingredients in a blender and blend on high until fully combined. Place mixture into bowl and whisk in cream until combined. Pour into bottles and cover with lid or plastic wrap. Store in refrigerator for up to two weeks.


Cola Town Coffee Liqueur

This liqueur is drinkable immediately but vastly improves after three or four weeks. It can be sipped by itself, put in coffee, or used in other cocktails, such as Red Dot Hot Chocolate (see recipe below). Cola Town Coffee Liqueur will keep for many months at room temperature.

1/2 cups instant coffee granules

2 cups of water

1 cup white sugar

1 cup brown sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract

3 cups vodka

2 shots of chocolate liqueur (optional)

Combine coffee, water, white and brown sugar, and vanilla in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Lower heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Skim off any film that may have formed on the top of the coffee mixture and discard. Whisk in vodka (and chocolate liqueur if desired). Store in bottles; no refrigeration necessary.


Red Dot Hot Chocolate

After prohibition was repealed, South Carolina liquor stores were legally limited in their ability to advertise the sale of alcohol and relied on big red dots painted outside their establishments to let customers know that spirits were available inside. Since this recipe contains ample amounts of the homemade Cola Town coffee liqueur and store bought Peppermint Schnapps, it more than qualifies for a big red dot!

2 cups milk

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup hot water

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups Cola Town coffee liqueur (see recipe above) or other coffee liqueur

1 cup peppermint schnapps

Whipped cream for topping

Red decorating sugar

Maraschino cherry

Mix the cocoa, sugar, and dash of salt in a medium saucepan. Stir in water. Heat contents over medium high heat until it boils; stir and boil 1 more minute. Reduce heat to low. Stir in milk. Cook until hot but not boiling. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla, Cola Town coffee liqueur, and peppermint schnapps. Ladle into coffee mugs, top with whipped cream, sprinklings of red decorating sugar, and the red dot — one maraschino cherry.


Gervais Gingerbread Cream Liqueur

This cordial makes the kitchen smell divine. It can be enjoyed immediately.

1/2 cup fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

3 cinnamon sticks

1 whole clove

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

2/3 cup molasses (note: 1/3 cup to be used for syrup; 1/3 cup to be added to rum)

1/2 cup water

2 cups aged rum

1 can (14-ounce) sweetened condensed milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Combine ginger, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, nutmeg, 1/3 cup of the molasses, and water in a small saucepan. Place over low heat and bring to a simmer. Continue to simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Drain ginger mixture through mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth into bowl. Discard contents of the strainer. Stir in rum. Cool to room temperature. In a blender, add rum/ginger mixture, condensed milk, vanilla, almond extract, and 1/3 cup of molasses. Blend until smooth. Pour into container and whisk in heavy cream. Cover and store in refrigerator for up to two weeks.


Pendleton Pumpkin Cream Liqueur

When purchasing the ingredients for this cordial, be sure to buy pumpkin puree and not pumpkin pie filling. Also, to avoid curdling the cream, whisk it in gently at the end. Pendleton Pumpkin Cream Liqueur can be enjoyed immediately.

1 2/3 cups Irish whisky

1 cup (14-ounce) sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree

2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice

1 teaspoon instant coffee granule

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon almond extract

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

In a blender, combine first nine ingredients and blend on high until fully combined. Place mixture into a bowl and whisk in cream until combined. Pour into bottles and cover with lid or plastic wrap. Store in refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Palmetto Pumpkin Liqueur

This might be considered a color-fail cordial because the end result resembles pond water. However, it is absolutely delicious, and if the color is bothersome, serve in tinted or opaque glasses. Be sure to use pumpkin puree and not pumpkin pie filling. Palmetto Pumpkin Liqueur can be enjoyed immediately but is vastly improved after three or four weeks. It will keep for many months at room temperature.

2 cups water

1 1/2 cups light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 can (14-ounce) pumpkin puree

6 cinnamon sticks

6 whole cloves

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups aged rum

Whisk the water and the sugars in a medium saucepan, then bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to low and add pumpkin, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and vanilla; simmer, stirring occasionally, for 25 minutes. Drain pumpkin mixture through a mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth into a bowl, pressing with the back of a spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the contents of the strainer. Add the rum and stir to combine. Transfer to a 1-quart glass sealable container and set aside uncovered to cool. When room temperature, seal the container tightly. No refrigeration necessary.

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