So they’re often overlooked, and frequently mistaken too. In the U.S. the word ‘liquor’ means any kind of alcohol, including beer and wine as well as any kind of spirit. A liqueur, on the other hand, is a spirit that’s sweetened and flavoured with fruits, herbs and spices – or indeed cream, coffee and chocolate. So get that one right or you could be in for an unusual-tasting drink!
However, like most classic forms of alcohol they also go back a long way. Some believe the liqueur is the direct descendant of herbal medicine. That could be true, although at the same time that spirits were invented, people may well have been quickly adding herbs, fruits and spices to the resulting liquid too. Some artisans would surely have had to disguise their not-yet-perfect distilling techniques with a few strong flavours.
It took a group of monks, however, with the time, inclination and space to grow and distil, to produce liqueurs on something resembling scale – that is a few 100 or so bottles. All those extensive walled herb gardens couldn’t go to waste! This was some time around the 13th century when just the monks and their visitors could enjoy the products of their distilling and cultivation. Moving into the 17th, we find liqueurs cropping up in recipe books, being valued for their culinary qualities as well as their sipping suitability.
Then 100 years later, the penny drops. The monks realise there is money and reputations to be made from liqueurs. They release their products beyond the monastery walls and people begin to snap them up. The secret is out: liqueur companies appear, flavoured with fruits, nuts and herbs. By the late 19th century the market for liqueurs is worldwide. The ‘crème de...’ (cream of...) description was commonly used in French name for fruit liqueurs, despite the fact none of them contain cream. There’s crème de menthe and crème de cassis, which are both delicious and popular.
Liqueurs aren’t only about taste however. They are also prized for their texture. Thanks to what is often a thicker consistency, liqueurs are used in layered drinks – Baileys, orange liqueur and coffee liqueur in a B52 for example. These drinks are about serving thick stripes of different colour liquids in a glass. It looks mighty impressive – and this heavier texture could be where the ‘crème de’ prefix comes from.
However ‘crème de’ was given a twist towards the end of the last century. A new kind of cream liqueur appeared, with a thick creamy texture, driven by the ‘Irish Cream Liqueur’ known as Baileys. It has since spawned new flavours, and a whole host of exciting drinks.