How to categorise liqueurs – my 5 part classification

It is taken as read that spirits are subdivided by type. All of us mixologists appreciate that you have to understand the differences between whisky, brandy, rum, tequila, gin and vodka as you start to construct your own cocktails. But why not the same for liqueurs? There is no standard industry classification for liqueurs. And yet they are as important, I’d argue more important to understand than spirits. More important because these are the ingredients likely to add most flavour.

I’ve always divided the liqueurs within my collection into 5 categories. This is my 5 part classification

  • Spirit based
  • Creamy
  • Fruit
  • Herbal
  • Cocktail liqueurs

Spirit based are those based on the dark spirits. Drambuie, Glayva and Irish Mist are all clearly whisky based. Kahlua, Tia Maria and Malibu are rum based. You get the picture.

Creamy I hardly need to explain. Baileys Irish Cream started it all, but I’d also add Advocaat to this list. They all make great cocktails but are more suited to Christmas and winter nights than the heat of mid-Summer.

Fruit liqueurs are the most numerous in my collection. There is a vast range of liqueurs based on a diverse selection of fruits. From the classic old-timers such as Cointreau, Grand Marnier through to Mandarine Napoleon, Midori and Archers, plus more recently limoncillo, lychee liqueurs and Passoa passionfruit.

Herbal are arguably the most interesting range of liqueurs. Certainly the most complex flavours. Chartreuse for instance is said to contain a mix of 128 herbs and spices. An old favourite (now sadly extinct) Vieille Cure 58 ingredients. I love this category of liqueurs which also includes the classy Benedictine. But you won’t find them detailed much here on a cocktail blog site. As cocktail ingredients they don’t play well with others.

A selection of liqueurs associated with cocktail making
A selection of liqueurs associated with cocktail making

Cocktail liqueurs are all those you associate specifically with the making of cocktails. Mostly made by French and Dutch companies : Bols, De Kuyper, Marie Brizard, Briottet they largely cover the same products, many fruit brandies and creme de whatever. So that includes apricot brandy, cherry brandy, peach brandy, creme de bananes, creme de menthe, creme de cacao, creme de cassis plus the others curacaos etc.

Giving thought to what you’re trying to produce, what you think it will taste like and what it will look like is all an important part of putting together your own cocktail creation. Happy mixing!


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