Definition and production
Timeless and resistant in the face of passing trends, many liqueurs have been around for centuries and remain at the forefront of the scene, having become classics. Their secret? An ability to change with the times while retaining their identity. A number of French producers and brands feature among this group of ‘cult’ alcohols such as Rocher (1705), Marie-Brizard (1762), Get (1796), Grand Marnier (1827), Combier (1834), Cointreau (1849) and Bénédictine (1863).
Liqueur: a sweet alcoholic beverage made using various processes: maceration, infusion and distillation of fruit and plants. Its strength varies from 15% to 55% with sugar content of at least 100 grams per litre, without exception.
Crème: a fruit liqueur with higher sugar content. Crèmes must be at least 15% ABV and contain a minimum of 250 grams of sugar per litre. Their fruit content determines their quality.
Step 1 – The base
- Alcohol selection: different base alcohols can be used to produce liqueurs. A neutral alcohol can be used, as can gin, vodka, cognac, whisky or brandy.
- Raw materials: premium liqueurs are based on raw materials selected according to their country of origin as well as the methods used in farming and harvesting. Flavouring agents are contained within the seeds, peel, petals, leaves, roots or pulp of the chosen products. How powerful or dominant these extracts are will depend on the chosen extraction method. Some liqueurs contain extracts, flavouring concentrates or fruit juices. Liqueurs of a lesser quality use essences or artificial extracts and must display this information on their labels.
Step 2 – Extraction methods
Three main methods of extracting flavourings exist: infusion/maceration, percolation and distillation. The method is chosen based on the nature of the raw materials and the type of flavouring required: Broadly speaking, fruit flavourings are generally processed by cold extraction, while flavourings from beans, zest, flowers and seeds are best extracted at high temperatures.
- Extraction by infusion and maceration (cold)
In both of these methods, the raw materials are steeped for several weeks in water (infusion) or alcohol (maceration). The goal is to delicately extract flavourings as well as natural colouring. Each plant family is commonly macerated separately in order to respect the properties inherent to each ingredient. The extraction process results in a filtered liquid called a ‘maceration’ or ‘infusion’. In the case of maceration, fruit packed full of alcohol is distilled in order to extract the maximum amount of aromatic components before being mixed with the macerations. Infusion and maceration can lead to a final distillation step that enhances the fusion of the flavourings and the alcohol. Each plant family is distilled separately and results in a ‘alcoholate’. The alcoholates are combined during the blending stage.
- Extraction by percolation (cold)
The herbs and plants are placed in a receptacle and brought into contact with the alcohol under pressure. The alcohol gradually soaks up the flavourings and colour of the raw materials.
- Extraction by distillation (hot)
The alcohol is combined with the fruit, spices and plants in a copper pot still. The mixture is brought to the boil. Vapour from the flavourings rises and moves through a cooling chamber to be converted into liquid. As with all pot still distillation, the distillation heads and tails are put to one side. Only the middle cut is retained.
Step 3 – Blending, ageing, filtering and bottling
Once prepared, these alcoholates are mixed together in the order and proportions set out in the recipe. Sugar is generally the last ingredient to be incorporated. This blend can then be ‘aged’ for anywhere between a few months to several years in vats, oak casks or barrels. Before bottling, the liquid is adjusted via the addition of sugar, water or alcohol as necessary. Colouring agents are incorporated during the penultimate filtering stage.