The Triumphant Return of the Fruit Liqueur

Considered a garishly colored relic of the 1990s, fruit liqueurs actually have a rich history that dates back centuries. Carey Jones on the return of the much-maligned fruit liqueur to contemporary cocktail bars.

Is there any cocktail ingredient more maligned than the fruit liqueur? Its reputation profoundly damaged by years of garishly colored Appletinis (and dozens of other ‘tinis besides), fruit liqueurs have gained little toehold with the last decade’s craft bartenders. In fact, the cocktail renaissance has all but defined itself in opposition to the DeKuypers of the world. And until about a year ago, the presence of, say, banana liqueur on a high-end cocktail menu might have prompted a double take. Surely it couldn’t be good.

But a new wave of high-quality liqueurs is beginning to challenge these assumptions, and as of late you’re bound to find high-quality fruit liqueurs at dozens of respected bars across the country.

Documented liqueurs date back centuries. Bols, based out of the Netherlands—the world’s oldest distilled spirits brand—was created in 1575 and claims to have been producing liqueurs continuously since that date. A 17th-century liqueur made for King Louis XIV was supposedly the inspiration for Chambord. Combier began producing orange liqueur in 1834. And crème de cassis was first created in Dijon in 1841, derived from the “Ratafia de Cassis” of Burgundy, a similar product made using wine, berries and eau-de-vie, already well-established in the region. Point is, fruit liqueurs weren’t a product of the 1990s.

Many of the smaller brands still active in France and gaining new exposure today—Lejay, Briottet, Giffard—date back to the 19th century, and continue to make small-batch liqueurs by traditional methods, as opposed to the industrially produced Technicolor liquids on every bar a decade ago. “The trend liqueurs that were so strong in the cocktail scene before, those products were driven by volume,” says Eric Fossard, founder of French bar show Cocktails Spirits and Paris Cocktail Week. “And when the scene moved to ‘vintage revival’ they were off the mark completely.”

From a pragmatic standpoint, liqueurs have clear advantages. Unlike fresh produce, they’re shelf-stable and available year round; they minimize prep, saving barback and kitchen hours; they’re consistent in a way that housemade ingredients (and fruits themselves) rarely are; and they offer a concentration of flavor that’s difficult to match.

Combier has several recent hits, including the grapefruit Crème de Pamplemousse Rosé and the five-berry Crème de Fruits Rouge, while liqueurs from Mathilde (also French) and Rothman & Winter (Austrian) have many fans. Even domestic brands are beginning to take off, including St. George Spirits (Raspberry and Spiced Pear) and Leopold Bros. (cherry, blackberry and cranberry, along with an orange liqueur).

But no brand has broken out quite like Giffard, a Loire Valley producer with nearly 70 products in its portfolio. They entered the American market in 2013, thanks to Erik Hakkinen of Seattle’s Zig Zag Café. After learning about the liqueurs from industry friends in Vancouver—and spending years carrying bottles across the border—Hakkinen founded an import company, Back Bar Project, solely to bring Giffard to the States. Visiting the distillers, he selected 17 bottles from their lineup that he thought cocktail bartenders would use and appreciate, plus a few that would surprise (including the aforementioned banana).

Though Giffard itself dates back to 1885, there hadn’t been an American market for their products. “Only now are mixologists saying, if I can get a high-quality gin, why can’t I get high-quality liqueurs?” says Jackie Brenner, director of marketing at Back Bar Project. As she sees it, there’s an evolution of understanding within a number of alcohol categories. Tequila, rum, brandy—bartenders have educated themselves about each, seeking out quality brands and coming to appreciate the nuance in each category. “So many spirits have gone through a paradigm shift. And we’re definitely having that moment with liqueurs.”