From the minute humans discovered the effects of fermented beverages, alcohol has been at the forefront of culinary and social culture. Despite its demonization and prohibition during numerous periods in ancient and modern history, the adult beverage industry persists.
One of the most beloved pastimes in modern culture is to unwind with a delicious cocktail, party with a round of shots, or share a pitcher of sangria at a summertime dinner gathering.
If you’re a spirit lover or amateur bartender, the most basic knowledge to ascertain is the difference between liquor vs. liqueur.
Despite the near identical sound and confusing spelling of both liquor and liqueur, there are many differences between the two. We will go over the differences, uses, and types of liquors vs. liqueur in the following article.
What Is Liquor?
Liquor refers to alcohol that undergoes a distillation process. It is a broad term that encompasses all spirits. Alcoholic beverages produced using distillation contain a wide range of fermented ingredients, from grains to fruits, vegetables, and even sugars.
Liquors have a much higher alcohol content by volume than fermented beverages like beer or wine, which is why you might see liquor referred to as “hard liquor.” The primary types of liquor are known for their harsh, bitter, alcohol-forward flavor.
How Do You Make Liquor?
Since the definition of liquor is a distilled alcoholic beverage, the key action in making any liquor is distillation.
As liquors ferment, they release ethanol. The distillation process effectively separates the components of fermented ingredients through boiling and condensation in a copper or metal container called a still.
The distillation process concentrates and augments alcohol levels and flavors from the fermentation mash into a reduction we know as liquor. Many liquors undergo a subsequent aging process to bring out more flavors and reduce the harsh alcoholic bite characteristic of unaged spirits.
According to the EU regulation of spirits, the minimum alcohol content of any type of liquor is 15% ABV. However, hard liquors usually have at least twice the minimum. Every type of liquor has a different ABV range.
For example, fruit liqueurs like limoncello have between 28% and 32% ABV. Gin typically ranges between 34% and 40%. Vodka is a bit higher, ranging from 35% to 46%. The types of liquor with the highest ABV are whiskey, tequila, and rum, ranging from 40% all the way to 60% ABV.
There are rare liquors that can reach up to 95% ABV, but they probably aren’t suitable for consumption.
Many liquor lovers are purists, with a developed taste for the harsh, bitter, and burning flavors and aftertaste inherent in alcohol. However, many liquor enthusiasts enjoy a cocktail with flavored mixers to complement or neutralize hard liquor’s bitterness with sweet, tangy, or botanical flavors.
Distillers have taken this concept a step further by creating a long list of flavored liquors by infusing hard liquor with fruit juices, rind oils, herbs, aromatics, and more.
Some of the most popular flavors for flavored liquors include:
Types of Liquor
Cultures worldwide have long histories of distilled spirits using their local bounty. Below is a list of the most widespread and well-known types of liquors.
Whiskey is a distillate of various different grain mashes that include corn, rye, barley, and wheat. This “mash” is known as malt. Whiskey encompasses numerous subcategories, including Scotch, rye, bourbon, Irish whiskey, and Japanese whiskey.
Whiskey can be single malt or a blend of various grains. The main similarity between all the different whiskies is that they all spend time in oak barrels aging. Whiskey distilling happens around the globe.
Rum is a distillate of fermented sugarcane juice or molasses. It originated in the Caribbean islands around the 17th century.
Rum distillation is limited to the Caribbean island nations or nations that produce sugar cane. Rum can be unaged or aged, with various designations, encompassing alcohol-forward to slightly sweet and spicy palates.
Named for the small town in the Mexican state of Jalisco where it originated, tequila is a distillate of blue weber agave mash. It is a type of mezcal or distilled agave spirit with strict regulations by the Mexican government.
Tequila can only come from the specific region in Mexico where blue agave grows. It comes unaged and aged to varying degrees. Its flavor palate is characteristically smoky.
Brandy is a French-born distillate of wine and one of the first distillation practices in history. Brandy has become a cherished tradition in most wine-making countries.
It can be aged or colored with caramel. Brandy has a sweet yet highly alcoholic flavor that softens through barrel aging. The most popular types of brandy are Cognac and pisco.
Gin is a distillate of juniper berries and other botanical and floral ingredients. Gin originated in the 11th century as a remedy used for medicinal purposes.
It now encompasses many brands using exclusive spirit recipes with countless herbs. Gin still has a distinct botanical, almost medicinal flavor.
Another fermented cereal grain distillate, vodka, originated in Poland and has spread around the globe. American vodka tends to use corn, while European vodkas use a mixture of wheat and rye.
Vodka is known for its smooth, nearly tasteless, and odorless palate.
Many of the aged liquors are smooth and complex enough to sip neat, but most liquors are the base spirits in countless cocktails. Each type of liquor corresponds to a list of classic cocktails created to enhance and complement its flavors.
Vodka cocktails include martinis, Moscow Mules, and Bloody Marys. Tequila cocktails include the margarita, Paloma, and tequila sunrise. Whiskey cocktails include Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Whiskey Sours. Rum cocktails include mojitos, Cuba Libres, and Pina Coladas.
What Is Liqueur?
Liqueurs are a less alcoholic form of liquor that combines a base spirit with other non-alcoholic ingredients as flavor agents. Liqueurs have much more palatable flavors than hard liquor and lower alcohol content.
Liqueurs normally blend with liquors in a cocktail, although they’re sweet and flavorful enough to sip as an aperitif or digestif.
How Do You Make Liqueur?
Liqueurs encompass various production methods. The simplest is infusing a base spirit with sugar, fruits, flowers, or other plants. Another way to make liqueur is by distilling aromatic flavor agents.
Another key difference between liquor and liqueur is that liqueurs don’t undergo aging processes after distillation.
A big difference between liquor and liqueur is the alcohol content. Liquor has a higher alcohol content that ranges between 30% and 60%. Liqueurs tend to range between 15% and 30%, with a median of around 20%.
Liqueurs are alcoholic beverages that span the flavor gamut. Depending on the ingredients used to infuse the base spirit, liqueurs can be bitter, sweet, tangy, savory, and creamy.
Types of Liqueur
There are numerous types of liqueur to sip or elaborate classic and creative alcoholic beverages. Below are some of the most common types of liqueur.
Amaro is an Italian-born liqueur made from a blend of bitter herbs. It lies under a subcategory of liqueurs known as bitters, describing its inherently bitter and dry flavors. You’ll see Amaro as a key ingredient in a Negroni.
Citrus liqueurs combine citrus peels or pulp into alcoholic infusions. Some of the most popular citrus liqueurs are limoncello, a lemon peel-infused spirit, and triple sec/Cointreau/curacao, an orange juice and orange peel liqueur.
Coffee liqueurs infuse a base spirit like rum with coffee beans and an aromatic sweetener like vanilla.
One of the most famous coffee liqueurs is Kahlua, a key ingredient in the vodka-based White Russian cocktail.
Cream liqueurs blend either milk or coconut cream with other flavors like chocolate, mint, or coconut and a base spirit to deliver the most decadent type of liqueur.
The most popular cream liqueurs are Bailey’s Irish Cream, a blend of chocolate liqueur and cream, and Creme de menthe.
Similar to citrus liqueurs, fruit liqueurs combine macerated fruit pulp with a base spirit like brandy. A popular fruit liqueur made with macerated peach pulp is ultra-sweet Peach schnapps.
Herbal liqueurs offer a blend of herbs and aromatics. Some famous herbal liqueurs are aromatic distillates like anise, supplying a pungent licorice taste to numerous liquors, from Greek ouzo to the psychedelic absinthe.
Liqueurs have two primary uses. Many drinking traditions use liqueurs in small quantities to sip as an after-dinner digestif. Herbal, bitter, and fruit liqueurs have long been touted for their medicinal qualities, aiding digestion.
The most common modern use of liqueurs is as a mixed drink ingredient and flavor agent. Liqueurs combine with liquors and other non-alcoholic mixers to create a long and ever-growing list of cocktails.
Liquor vs. Liqueur Differences and Similarities
Liquor and liqueur may sound the same, but key differences exist to distinguish them. Liquor is a blanket term that describes a distilled fermented beverage. A liqueur is either a distilled aromatic beverage or an infusion of flavors into a base spirit.
Liquors have a much higher alcohol content than liqueurs and a much harsher alcohol-forward flavor. Liqueurs have around half the alcohol content as hard liquors or spirits and encompass a broad range of intense flavors, from ultra-sweet to bitter.
While liqueurs are a type of liquor, they are usually a flavoring agent used alongside a more alcoholic liquor. If you’ve ever enjoyed a classic cocktail, you’ve surely delighted in the marriage of liquor and liqueur.
Liquor and Liqueur are easily confused. Now you know that liquor is a blanket term, and that liqueur is infused. Impress your friends with your brand new knowledge!
Leave a comment below and let us know what cocktail you plan on making!
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