What’s Hot in Cordials and Liqueurs

Cordials and liqueurs may not always be the first image that springs to mind when thinking about the beverage alcohol business, but they’re a vital part of any bartender’s arsenal as a frequent ingredient of many popular cocktails. “Cordial” and “liqueur” are two different words for essentially the same thing — a sweetened, flavored liquor — except in the U.K., where “cordial” can also refer to a sweetened, nonalcoholic drink.

Many cocktails call for cordial or liqueurs, and “a lot of people are drinking out again, coming back out of the pandemic,” says Johnny Swet, master mixologist and founding partner of Jimmy rooftop bar in New York.

“Cordials and liqueurs definitely seem to be a necessity,” says Robb Knarr, beverage director of Sorry Charlie’s Oyster Bar in Savannah, GA. “I like to think of cocktails as categories, and there are whole categories that use cordials for their foundation.

Cocktail people are like chefs, Knarr adds: They’re always looking for new flavors. “If you wanted a Margarita, one of the key ingredients is orange liqueur. You could use orange juice but it’s just not the same. They’re just of vital importance to capture that huge range of flavors.”

The Lowdown

According to Drizly, the online alcohol ordering and delivery service, “Liqueurs start as a base spirit and then, the cream, spices, herbs or nuts are brought in with some more sugar or sweeteners to create the liqueur’s flavor profile. A few examples of a ‘base spirit’ are brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka and whiskey. The desired flavor profile of the liqueur will decide which base spirit to use and how to add flavoring.”

Flavorman, a beverage development company focusing on R&D in flavoring, works with companies that range from household names to start-ups. They are often asked to consult on creating new cordial flavors to bring to market.


Johnny Swet, master mixologist and founding partner of Jimmy rooftop bar in New YorkJohnny Swet, master mixologist and founding partner of Jimmy rooftop bar in New YorkJohnny Swet, master mixologist and founding partner of Jimmy rooftop bar in New York.

Cordial and liqueurs are typically sweeter by legal definition (must contain at least a 2.5% combination of sugars by weight); it is common that they require a heavy dose of flavor,” explains Katie Clark, director of R&D at Flavorman. “Further, these beverages normally will maximize the amount of flavoring at 2.5% to take advantage of tax savings allowed by regulation.”

Because many of the ready-to-drink cocktails are classified as cordials, there is a balancing act to flavor these drinks in accordance with their sweetener levels, she says, “as some contain lower levels of sugar and are carbonated. These attributes add to the taste perception, requiring much less flavor than their higher-sugar cousins.”

In general, Clark continues, “consumers demand more complex and layered flavors in both lower-proof, less-sweet cordials, as well as the higher-proof, very sweet liqueurs. This combination to be flavor forward and multidimensional generates a fun and challenging opportunity in the beverage lab.”
This process begets an innovative category that is as prone to experimentation and innovation as bourbon or craft beer — perhaps even more so.

The market offers a huge variety of liqueurs, and those products are constantly being updated, spun off and expanded upon. Because of this range, it’s easiest to differentiate liqueurs by their flavor profile. Chocolate, coffee and cream liqueurs are classic options that typically run sweet, such as Kahlua or Bailey’s Irish Cream.

On the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, bitters are, as the name suggests, bitter. They are liqueurs sweetened — technically — with rich herbal flavors.

The Italian bitter liqueurs, known as amari, are in a class by themselves. Campari, a key ingredient in the Negroni, increased nearly 8% in 2021, according to the Beverage Information Group’s Liquor Handbook. The bright orange bitter Aperol was up 23%.

Other popular cordials and liqueurs include Fireball, Grand Marnier, RumChata and Blue Curaçao — each unique it its flavor profile. The herbal liqueur Jägermeister reversed a slide in consumption in 2021, posting a nearly 30% increase.

Consumption creeps up

Because of cordials’ prominence in cocktails, they have historically been most used in bars and restaurants. Even though on-premise operators were largely shuttered most of 2020, with so many people making drinks at home, the category did see a lift.

For instance, consumption of cordials and liqueurs was up 3.1% in 2020. The category didn’t die down after on-premise made its return, either; rather, it increased 6.2% in 2021.

Part of that is the home bartenders continuing to stock the liquor cabinets, says Marina Velez, research director for the Beverage Information Group. It’s also a sign that bars and restaurants had to replenish their inventories of cordials and liqueurs when they reopened.

Swet is confident that the category will find a balance between on-premise and at-home mixing, allowing for continued growth.

“It’s fifty-fifty,” he says. “People are definitely returning to bars, but there’s still a sense of home parties, especially when the weather is up and down. There’s still a mentality of, ‘Oh, I used to have this all the time when I was out, now we’re having a party, let’s recreate it’.”

Experimentation Takes Center Stage

There’s a healthy mix of innovation in the liqueurs category and nostalgic brands as well. “People are going for both,” says Swet. “I see a lot of people going experimental, but some people at home, they want to show that they can do a classic cocktail. So I feel like you can definitely have both.”

All sorts of interesting products crop up all the time, Swet adds. “If you can think of a flavor, then somebody’s either already or are going to come up with a liqueur to capture that flavor. If you can imagine it, someone’s working on it.”

For instance, he points to an ancho chili liqueur he started using a few years ago. “You get all these flavors you wouldn’t be able to get from a spirit, with liqueurs, and you also get a blend of flavors.”

What’s hot right now? During the past few years cocktail culture has been driving innovation, “with botanical-forward and heavily flavored liqueurs that are intended to be used to make high-end cocktails,” says Tom Gibson, director at Flavorman.

The interior of Sorry Charlie’s <a class=Oyster Bar in Savannah, GA.” data-src=”https://cheersonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Courtesy-of-Sorry-Charlies..jpg” src=”image/gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw==” />The interior of Sorry Charlie’s Oyster Bar in Savannah, GA.Sorry Charlie’s Oyster Bar in Savannah, GA.

“Bartenders and home cocktailers are interested in offerings that can be used to create delicious and colorful cocktails by blending a variety of cordials and liqueurs with gins, whiskeys and rums,” Gison says. “Consumers continue to demand complex and unique flavor profiles, and the liqueur category can deliver like no other alcoholic beverage category.”

There’s been a heavy emphasis on the innovation that the category offers, which may lead some to question if there is too much in the way of new products and choices.

“It’s possible we’ve reached or are approaching a level of saturation,” says Knarr of Sorry Charlie’s. The cocktail revitalization of the 2000s brought plenty of new bitters, cordials and like products.
“But every time I think that it’s all been done or everything’s out there, someone comes up with something new and proves me wrong.”

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