Liqueurs are not popular among Indians simply because we like to eat and run. We don’t linger after a dinner party since our hosts bring out the food late. We gulp down our gulabjamuns as fast as we can and head straight for home and the bed.
It’s a pity. Liqueurs are great after dinner drinks; their sweetness and aroma make a nice contrast to our spicy main course. Most people drink them neat, sometimes chilled, but try pouring them on scoops of ice cream. We will get to that later.
What’s a liqueur? How is it different from spirits like whisky, gin or rum? They are made differently. Let’s take kirsch and cherry brandy. Both are produced from the same fruit, cherries. While kirsch is distilled from cherries, making it a spirit, cherry brandy begins life as a tasteless neutral spirit to which the flavour of cherries is added afterwards. That makes cherry brandy a liqueur where the added-ingredients take centrestage, not the spirit itself.
In short, a liqueur has to have a base spirit and it must be flavoured after distillation. Cognac and port, for instance, are also after-dinner drinks but they are not considered liqueurs. Almost all liqueurs are sweet since they are laced with sugar or honey or get their sweetness from the fruit itself. The name comes from the Latin liquefacere, “to dissolve;” something has been dissolved in the alcohol. As you would expect, there are hundreds of combinations with all sorts of exotic herbs, spices, roots, seeds, flowers and fruit extracts. Our thakurs may not have heard of the word but they have been making a liqueur from saffron for centuries.
You will find the more popular ones in any good duty-free shop. Drambuie has a Scotch whisky base and is flavoured with heather honey and various spices and herbs including cloves and nutmeg. Chartreuse, made by Cartusian monks, is probably the most famous of the herbal liqueurs. The original recipe not only specified what ingredients to use but also stipulated by what phase of moon they should be harvested. Benedictine is also strongly herbal and another product of a monastery.
The fruit-based liqueurs include Cointreau and Curaçao; both in their own way obtain their flavours from different varieties of orange peels. The liqueurs that have “crème” in their names are more syrupy and heavier. They have about twice as much sugar. The word "crème" also implies that the flavour comes from a single source.
Crème de menthe is a mint liqueur, crème d’ananas is pineapple-based and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what crème de banana has in it.
One of the most popular is crème de cassis with a rich red colour. It is made by the French from black currants. You may want to pour that over scoops of vanilla ice cream and serve it in wine glasses with tea spoons. It makes a nice change as a dessert. Why vanilla? Because it is the most neutral of our ice creams and will bring out the flavour of the liqueur. You can do this with just any liqueur but avoid the colourless ones since they don’t create the same effect on the table. Add two teaspoons or so of liqueur for each scoop of ice cream.
‘Creams,’ on the other hand, are liqueurs that have dairy product. They are thick, almost like milk shake. They are dangerously easy to get used to. The most famous is Baileys Irish Cream which has a whisky base. These are best kept in the fridge once the bottle is opened and not for too long. Some of my guests, mainly women, like to have it on the rocks be fore dinner instead of wine or a spirit.
Then there are two coffee-based liqueurs that are quite popular. Kahlua comes from Mexico in a distinctive high neck bottle with a yellow label. It dominates the American market. Tia Maria from Jamaica is less sweet and lighter. Both of them are also used in making cocktails. You can make yourself a Black Russian by adding either to vodka and shaking the mix with ice.
Europeans prefer to drink their liqueurs neat after dinner while the Americans tend to use it more in cocktails. Who can blame them? Liqueurs form the base of some of our most famous cocktails. Benedictine and cherry brandy are indispensable for making Singapore Sling. The Grasshopper requires the green crème de menthe while Rusty Nail has Drambuie and Pink Squirrel crème de cacao. Cointreau is the most versatile and can be mixed with just about any white spirit and lemon juice and shaken with ice. It is integral to Sidecar and Between the Sheets. Don’t you dare write to me for recipes. Just do a Google or a Yahoo search.
Footnote: A few months ago I wrote about the pathetic state of the bar at Delhi’s Gymkhana Club. Instead of taking it as a wake-up call the managing committee has prohibited me from entering the club’s premises. That’s fine with me but I find it rather sad that a club with such an illustrious past has now been reduced to this.