Cordials and Liqueurs to Fill Your Glass with Something Sweet

Liqueurs and Cordials

Both cordials and liqueurs are known for their sweetness, however, only liqueurs have alcohol by definition. Cordials are sometimes alcohol-free and may enjoyed alone or used as a mixer. Photo by Quinn.Anya (flickr)

Like many drinks containing alcohol, cordials and liqueurs were initially considered medicine. The spirits conveyed herbal concoctions muddled by humble, yet highly educated monks for a range of healing purposes. Although recipes for proto-liqueurs have been discovered on walls in Egyptian tombs and written on ancient Greek manuscripts, the liqueurs and cordials currently most popular in Europe and North America more closely resemble the elixirs distilled and steeped in Italian and French monasteries during the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance.

Once distinctly different drinks, today, the separation between a cordial and a liqueur is little more than semantic and the terms are bandied interchangeably. Still, there are subtle differences and understanding the history will help you bring out the best in each beverage. 

Cordials: A Sweet Drink to Heal the Spirit

Cordials perhaps best wear their medicinal heart on their sleeve: heart, in Latin, is cordialis. Cordial waters were intended to stimulate healing, revitalize the will and heart, soothe body and soul, and aid digestion. Skip forward a few centuries, and we find cordials touted as aphrodisiacs, and that many Continental and English homemakers made their own cordials, per published recipes, although they were also sold in apothecary bottles by the chemist. During the eighteenth century, drinking cordials became increasingly secularized and recreational. Much as today, they were enjoyed as intoxicants as well as for their interesting flavors.

As cordials became less medicinal and more apt to be enjoyed as a tasty beverage with benefits, they began to assume the characteristics we now associate with liqueurs. At the risk of over generalization, historical cordials were flavored by herbs and spices and sometimes contained matter held holy by alchemists, such as gold. Over time, the elixirs gradually became sweeter and much more akin to today’s liqueurs.

Liqueurs: Drinks with a Sweeter Distillation

Cordials and liqueurs developed along roughly parallel timelines and both drinks are sweet. If you are British, however, your cordial may be a thick, sweet drink that contains no alcohol, but is often used as a mixer, such as Rose’s Cordial Mixer Grenadine. With liqueurs, alcohol is a prerequisite.

Liqueurs contain an amazing variety of flavoring agents, but the beverage is by definition sweet. Cane sugar, honey, molasses, table sugar, sweet herbs and seeds, fruit—think of something naturally sweet, and you can probably find it in one liqueur or another. All liqueurs are at least 2.5% sugar by weight and many are rather higher. Most liqueurs are between 15 and 30% alcohol, but some bump as high as 50%.

Making a liqueur involves infusion, re-distillation, percolation or a combination of these processes. Various barks, flowers, nuts, pits, coffee, vanilla, root, chocolate, fruit—even candy or meat—are commonly infused into alcohol to add flavor and, of course, the mix is sweetened. Certain classes of liqueur feature eggs, milk or cream, too.

Make Your Own Liqueurs at Home

You can make your own simple liqueur by soaking cherries, apricots, blueberries, or raspberries—most any berry is suitable—in a sealed container of vodka, gin, grain alcohol, rum, brandy, whiskey, tequila—choose your favorite liquor—for a month. Then, follow a few more easy steps to filter, sweeten and age. Presto! You have liqueur. To smooth out the texture, add glycerin, as do the commercial producers.

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