Do Great Drinks Need Great Liqueurs?

I’ve been carping for years to anyone in the business who would listen that the cordial and liqueur market has lagged embarrassingly far behind as the cocktail renaissance bloomed. I’ve annoyingly encouraged numerous producers of major liqueur lines to return to the days when the quality of their products made in the United States was the same level as those made for the rest of the world. All to little effect.

Where, I kept asking, were the big companies that, with their economies of scale, could easily create a line of cordials intended for today’s bartender, at a price that would be attractive enough to compete? There are perhaps five companies with cordial and liqueur lines large enough to support development, production and distribution of such a brand extension as well as a couple more French companies that might have been tempted to use their quality products as a launching pad for a foray into the still-growing U.S. booze market. Marie Brizard made a gesture in this direction with its “Essence” line last summer, but I have heard nothing of the company since. I’m beginning to believe that no one really is interested in taking that chance and stepping up.

Don’t know that I really thought I’d have an impact, but the silent response has been deafening. Instead, the parade of sours, bombs, schnapps and such continued unabated as producers seemed to decide that flooding the off-premise market with so-called flavor innovation was the correct 21st-century strategy.

Meanwhile, folks like Eric Seed have brought in rare and obscure products, bitters advocates like Stephen Berg of Bitter Truth developed modern versions of old bar and cocktail book necessities, bartenders developed their own liqueur brands, like Adam Seger’s Hum, and others innovated with ginger and elderflower liqueurs based on feedback they received from bartenders. Even some small companies like Merlet have tried their hands at developing cordials crafted for today’s drinkmaker to various degrees of success, but clearly aware of the modern bartender’s requirement in a flavored product: less sweet, higher proof and as natural as possible.

The numbers behind the cordial and liqueur story tell a tale that might explain the lack of attention. The category had declined for a few years (to me a result of that lack of attention to contemporary bar needs) but that turned around a bit last year, according to numbers from the Distilled Spirits Council of America. It turns out the inexpensive and overly sweet liqueurs and cordials most promoted by Big Booze are extremely profitable by the case, and those companies doing business in this category apparently would rather spend their money trying to invent new sub-categories that catch the zeitgeist, revive coffee liqueurs, support high-end creams and develop more chocolatey at-home potables than serve the bar industry with liqueurs and styles it seems to want.

So, that leaves room for such things as the recently released Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, made in association with writer David Wondrich. It’s on the dry side, as advertised, and lip smackingly tasty, just what many bartenders are looking for. But as there is already a range of high-quality orange liqueurs available, it fills a rather tiny hole in the spectrum. The need for better and inexpensive cordials isn’t where orange resides — argue about their base spirit, sweetness, even dryness all you like, but Cointreau, Mandarin Napoleon, Combier and Grand Marnier have much of the spectrum covered. Having a quality, old-style orange curaçao is a start, but only that.

The real problem is the other areas of flavors and classic ingredients (Cherry Marnier, anyone?) that the companies have mostly abandoned, single-handedly spurring the growth of housemade syrups and bartender-crafted cordials with their neglect. So I suppose that, in fact, after all those years of complaining, I’m not actually unhappy about the absence of well-priced, widely distributed, moderately sweet and higher alcohol liqueurs. I suppose instead I’m in the mood to thank the big companies for their inability to seize an obvious market opportunity, instead forcing bartenders to create the particular products their own markets and customers really wanted.

Housemade still has great vibrancy, especially when bartenders extend the season with their own fresh-ingredient syrups, cordials and liqueurs, moving forward the cocktail renaissance. They may have got there anyway, but to me, the lack of great and well-priced liqueurs was instrumental in forcing bartenders to look elsewhere.

So, thank you, Big Booze, for letting the bartenders figure it out themselves. If I trust the bartender, I’ll try his drink using a housemade pumpkin syrup, but won’t likely ever want to try anything made with a mass-produced pumpkin liqueur now on the market because the producers have made it clear that when it comes to craft cocktails, they are only a little bit interested.


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