We all know that custom cocktails are exploding. It’s almost impossible to find a restaurant or bar that doesn’t feature a house cocktail these days, but what really sets the best of these creations apart? Increasingly, bartenders and mixologists are turning to the subtlety and complexity of herbal elements to give their cocktails that je ne sais quoi -- that subtle element which truly sets each new drink apart from the crowd.
Apropos of very little, and simply because I can, let me just throw something out there. Do I really have to say bartenders and mixologists? This is an annoying turn of a phrase that makes a distinction where there is none! I’ve got to stop doing this.
But back to the point. Not only have bartenders increasingly turned to fresh herbs to flavor their drinks, but they are also finding new and creative uses for some old standbys: Herbal liqueurs.
I’ve seen many bartenders creating their own custom-blended herbal liqueurs, which are easy to do and worth trying at home but -- big but -- the truth is it takes experience and trial and error before you can nail down a balanced herbal liqueur. Even then you’ll probably end up with, shall we say, an ample supply.
The easiest route to creating complex drinks is always going to involve taking advantage of the herbal liqueurs in the market. As we know, these tend to be pretty intensely and distinctively flavored. I would compare them to Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce in the kitchen; each can be used on its own, and frequently is, but both have been used to add underlying complexity to dishes for years, and that’s why they are so important to any chef.
So, which herbal liqueurs are worth seasoning with? Well, the ones you like the most make a great place to start. Check and see what you have on hand, and if you’re not sure what each one tastes like, taste a small amount, and then taste it again -- though the second time around, dilute the liqueur with water. I like to use a one-to-one ratio of liqueur and water. This allows me to see what an addition of the liqueur might contribute to a final drink.
Here’s a brief rundown of some of the most popular herbal liqueurs.
Becherovka, “the original Czech liquor”, is moderately sweet and moderately alcoholic (38% abv), with balanced notes of cinnamon and anise seed. 32 additional herbs and spices gives this a balanced, subtle complexity.
Containing 27 herbs and spices, not to mention tangerine peel and honey, Bénédictine is noticeably sweet. The tangerine and honey are assertive on the palate, making this one of the less herbal of the herbal liqueurs.
If you’re looking for a truly assertively herbal component for a cocktail, then Chartreuse might be the way to go. Produced from a blend of 130 medicinal and aromatic plants, Chartreuse -- and I am talking about the Green Chartreuse (there are quite a few types made and that is a worthy topic on its own) -- is an intense liqueur that packs a wallop at 55% abv. A classic liqueur to sip and one that really can add depth to a cocktail with its assertive vegetal flavors.
A bit of an outlier in that Drambuie’s whiskey base breaks the mold of liqueurs being based with neutral spirits, this delicate honey- and herb-scented liqueur is an old standby in some rather famous cocktails and is an ideal element to complement the latest trend of subtle, sophisticated house cocktails.
Now here is a liqueur that is more condiment than staple. The complex flavor of Galliano includes some 30 or so elements, such as anise, vanilla, ginger and citrus. It’s sort of the MSG of the spirits world, though without the terrible side effects, adding extra depth wherever it’s used. Galliano has been produced in two versions: a 60-proof bottling that is being phased out, and the classic 84.6-proof version. The lower alcohol version is sweeter, though both are sweet, and the citrus and vanilla notes can make it seem even sweeter than it actually is.
Perhaps the most well known herbal liqueuer, Jägermeister has benefitted from millions of shot-filled all-nighters that all of us (I mean, uh, right?) have at least witnessed. The flavor of Jägermeister is sweet and spicy with a very complex base built on 56 herbs, fruit, roots, and spices like saffron, ginger and ginseng.
Another familiar Italian herbal liqueur, Liquore Strega has some 70-odd flavoring components, including mint and fennel, as well as saffron -- which gives Strega its distinctive color and imparts a softly floral note to the bouquet. Strega is fairly sweet up front, but it needs that sugar since the flavoring elements impart quite a bitter note that leads to a very herbal finish, with the mint and fennel being prominent.