Liqueurs Masterclass - How to Design & Create a Delicious Liqueur

Liqueurs Masterclass - How to Design & Create a Delicious Liqueur

The Illuminated Distillers Blog


Let’s start with the definition of a liqueur: The word liqueur is derived from the Latin liquefacere, meaning “to make liquid, but they have also been known as tonics, elixirs and balms. Nowadays, liqueurs (and also cordials) are defined as products created by mixing or redistilling distilled spirits with fruit, plant products, natural flavours, extracts, or sweeteners. Used predominantly as cocktail modifiers and, very occasionally, enjoyed neat. Liqueur regulations differ depending on the country and the type but everyone can agree that it needs to be sweet.


What do we look for in a liqueur?

First and foremost, a vibrant, complex flavour is something we will always look for in a liqueur. Whether you are creating an almond, orange, coffee, banana or cherry liqueur, you want the natural flavours to be the star of the show. And if you are training with the WSET, you are taught to grade a liquid by comparison to the origins of the flavour. We work on balancing and enhancing the naturally occurring flavour compounds with the sweet, sour and bitter elements (in varying amounts) in order to achieve a juicy, moreish sip. Because of the large quantities of sugar involved, liqueurs are at serious risk of being cloying and oversweet.

With that in mind, the most important consideration for a liqueur is balance - the sweet, sour and bitter elements all working in harmony with the alcohol and fruit / herb / flower flavours to create a complex, flavoursome liquid. 



The main way we extract flavour from raw materials in the creation of a liqueur is through maceration, or steeping in alcohol and water. Every distiller has their own preferred strength of alcohol which they use to extract flavours from different materials, and this comes through lots of experimentation. With maceration, extracting the oil- and water-soluble compounds that contain high levels of esters and other flavour contributing components is the aim of the game. Similarly to a cup of tea, this extraction occurs by steeping the flavours out of the solid into your liquid. The content and composition of the raw material’s flavour compounds influence the success of flavour extraction in different percentages of alcohol. You can also layer complexity and acidity by fermenting the fruit/botanicals as they do in Port production.

Depending on the volatility and solubility of the oils and compounds that you want to extract, you would either choose lower or higher ABV, or low or high temperature for extraction. This changes from botanical to botanical, and from fruit to fruit. Typically you should not extract in very high alcohol, because you want a balance of water and alcohol, which encourages a broad and complex extraction of different flavour compounds - we call this broad spectrum extraction. 



Sweetness naturally occurs in fruits that you would use for a liqueur, but usually not in the volume needed to legally qualify it as a liqueur. Therefore, you would always expect to add sugar in one form or another. Alongside balancing your flavour profile, sugar also adds great texture to a liqueur. 
You might think it’s as simple as adding some white sugar, but this aspect of the process actually offers a lot of choice. There are a variety of sugars to choose from, which all offer different elements:

    • Raw sugar such as panela or demerara will add a flavoursome sugarcane or molasses element.
    • Invert sugar offers a neutral but syrupy texture
    • Fructose is relatively neutral but light in texture 
    • Hexose or maltose can be added for unctuous, thickness.

Each of these sweetening options needs to be carefully considered in relation to what your final products is used for, which features are valued in the liqueur you are creating, and whether more or less sugar flavour is complimentary. 



Naturally occurring in fruit, acidity is an essential element for creating a balanced liqueur. A variety of acids naturally occur in fruit: citric, malic, lactic, tartaric and ascorbic acid are the main acids you can add, but there are a whole host of others too. If these acids are not present in the right quantities in the natural ingredients you are using, you would add these to enhance their natural flavours and provide balance.
    • Citric acid: predictably, this is found in citrus fruits such as lemon, lime etc, and adds a very sharp and tangy note. 
    • Malic acid: from apples, and offer a smooth, tart taste like sour green apples. 
    • Lactic acid: produced naturally by Lactobacillus bacteria, and offers a yoghurty mild sour flavour. 
    • Tartaric acid: found in grapes and bananas, with a very strong tart taste. 



Naturally occuring in fruits, flowers and herbs, tannins and phenols are present in the skin of the fruit, and bittering elements in the seeds and kernels, and green woody tannins from the stems and leaves. Often a more acquired taste, we do not naturally possess the same sensitivity to nuances of bitterness as we do to sweet or sour flavours. When used sensitively, it can provide a great underlying flavour note for other elements to bounce off, and especially in cocktails can provide an essential balance of flavours on the palate. 

Finally, a good base for any liqueur requires a high quality clean, neutral spirit. There are lots of different schools of thought on it, but generally we prefer either something very neutral, or we select a base spirit that compliments the characteristics of the final liquid. For example, we would likely opt for a grape base spirit (such as a cognac) for a Grand Marnier-style orange liqueur, as its flavour profile is highly complimentary. 


What ingredients can be used to create a liqueur?

Liqueurs are a historical product dating back centuries, their main raw materials consisting of fruits, herbs, spices, flowers, bark and wood, roots etc. Recipes for liqueurs have been found in Egyptian tombs and ancient Greek scrolls, but it is primarily the monks of Europe, particularly Italian monks during the 13th Century, who developed the liqueur as a way to infuse herbs for medicinal use. 

Here are some modern liqueur examples that we love that you can buy:

  • Tempus Fugit: their Creme De Banane is truly spectacular. Using heritage Gros Michel bananas to give that unique banana taste, they layer bitter caramelised and aromatic fresh fruit flavours with unctuous sweetness to create(in my opinion) the best example of this liqueur.
  • Gabriel Boudier’s Creme de Cassis: by law “Creme de Cassis” needs a whopping 400g of sugar per litre but with acidic, local Aligote wine and aromatic blackcurrants this liqueur knocks most out of the park. 
  • Pierre Ferrand Dry triple sec liqueur: made with cognac and curacao oranges, this triple sec is spectacular, complex and outstandingly well balanced. 


Our Liqueurs

The way we approach liqueurs is by layering flavours from the original raw material - for example if we are creating an apple liqueur, we select elements which incorporate many different aspects of the apple such as apple wood, apple blossom, apple peel, etc to create a richly complex and layered flavour. 

We value the flavour of the fruit above all else, so our balancing decisions on sweet, sour and bitterness all relate back to enhancing the natural flavour of the raw material. A delicate touch is often required when working with complex or delicate flavours, such as quince or almond. Time must be taken to assess the qualities of their natural flavours, and which flavours can be added to enhance these rather than overpower them. 

With such a rich history of liqueur creation and libation, this is a product which lends itself to experimentation and discovery. It is also a highly popular market, with the on-trade market consistently searching for inspirational new liqueurs to use in their cocktails. If you are considering launching a new liqueur brand or developing a recipe, get in touch to see how we can help you to bring your dream to market. 


As a teaser, this is a great recipe to try at home!
Stone fruit liqueur - this works on most stone fruits like damsons, peaches, cherries, apricot etc. I am setting this recipe out in proportion by weight:
    • 1 part fruit
    • 1 part sugar
    • 1 part filtered, good water
    • 2 parts spirit at 40% (vodka, brandy, rum or gin would all work)
Optional extras - follow the manufacturer's instructions
  • Pectinase (this will give you a clear liquid by breaking down the pectin)
  • Ascorbic Acid(an antioxidant which helps the sulfites be more effective)
  • Potassium Metabisulfite (preservative that will also help it hold its colour)

Take your fruit, de-stone about half of them. Add the sugar. Then, the fun part, scrunch the fruit and the sugar together by hand or in a food processor then leave it covered for a few hours until it gets really perfumed and aromatic.

If you are using pectinase, add the water and pectinase to the fruit/sugar combo and leave it to sit overnight. If not using it, just add the water and mix it all together until the sugar has dissolved. Then add your spirit (40%) of choice. If you are using sulfites and ascorbic then add it once it is all blended. Leave it in a sealed, foodsafe, container for at least 1 month. Then you can pour it through a strainer and enjoy.

Or if you want to do a pro quality one, strain it through a coffee filter, put it in the fridge leaving it to settle. Then once the sediment has dropped, rack the liquid off into your final container. Racking is where you draw the liquid out with a pipe, leaving the sediment behind. This recipe is entirely changeable and there is unlikely to be any consequence unless you significantly reduce the alcohol content rendering it unstable. 

Variations could include some fermentation of the fruit before sweetening; addition of extra acids such as lactic, citric or others; adding herbs or spices (I like sweet baking spices with stone fruits); putting it in a barrel or adding chunks of oak for extra flavour. There is no right answer, ultimately it comes down to balance and personal taste!


Happy creating from the Pleasant Land Distillery Team!

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