Liqueurs are a branch of the ancient and sprawling tree that is the drinks industry. Wines, spirits and beers all form different branches from which brands come and go like leaves – putting a new spin on things each and every season.
Liqueurs are the single biggest alcohol category and cover many brands, all of which stem from the one proud and rich history. This article hopes to showcase the rich history of liqueurs, in particular Irish Cream Liqueurs and how they enrichen our lives and tantalize our taste buds.
What is a Liqueur?
Rome was not built in a day and liqueurs were not invented overnight – they are in fact historical descendants of Herbal Medicines. The word liqueur is derived from the Latin liquifacere, which means “to dissolve”. To be classified a liqueur there are some key criteria that must be met, for example, the alcohol content of the base spirit must range from 14% to 50% by volume (28%–50% U.S. proof). A liqueur must also combine this base spirit with fruits or herb.
Liqueurs – where it all began
According to the WSTA (the Wine and Spirit Trade Association) we are all liqueur drinkers; But how much do we really know about this proud spirit tradition? Tradition is a good word to use because Liqueurs can be traced back to the 13th century. Records show that Monks in Europe were well practised in the art of infusing distilled spirits with fruit and herbs. There are records of travellers who remarked on the alcohol that tasted of ‘’sweet fruit’’ that they received when seeking shelter in the Monasteries. Liqueurs have been called elixirs, crèmes, balms, and oils and have been utilized over the centuries as not only medicines but tonics, love potions, and anaphrodisiacs.
Liqueurs – highly valued
In 1525, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s pupils, named Bernardino Luini, was commissioned to paint a fresco of the Madonna by the Abbot of a church in Saronno, Italy. To properly reflect the Madona in her female form, we are told Luini, took a ‘’muse’’ choosing a young woman as his model. The partnership was successful both inside and outside work hours! The woman, whose name went untold, wished to express her appreciation to Bernardino. She soaked apricot kernels in brandy, creating a liqueur. Presenting the resulting gift, we are told, to a very grateful Luini.
Liqueurs through the ages
Liqueurs are exquisite creations that – when done correctly – stand the test of time.
Chartreuse – is an herb-based liqueur. A blend of over 130 herbs, plants and flowers aged in distilled alcohol was first commercially produced by French Carthusian monks in 1740s based on a recipe given to them in 1605 named after the monastery in Grenoble in France, Chartreuse.
Limoncello – Italy’s most famous liqueur, Limoncello goes back in time to the Middle Ages where early records show that fishermen and farmers used to drink a shot of Limoncello in the early morning to warm up. Others say that this liqueur originated from inside a monastic convent for the monks delight in between prays. First commercially produced in 1945.
Grand Marnier – created in 1880, Grand Marnier is one of the most popular liqueurs ever created. Auguste Escoffier used it as an ingredient for his renowned culinary masterpiece Crepe Suzette. Swiss hotelier Cesar Ritz was also known to be so impressed with this liqueur that he was among the first to serve it at his hotels.
Baileys – created in the 1970’s Baileys is the brainchild of a gentleman called Tom Jago. Tom worked for Gilbeys Ireland a division of International Distillers and Vintners which we know today as Diageo and was looking for a ‘’distinctively’’ Irish spirit for introduction to the International Market.
The origin of Irish Liqueurs
It is thought that around 1,000 AD travelling Irish Monks learned the art of perfume distilling while in Europe. They brought the technique back to Ireland and by the 13th century adapted the methodology to create a drinkable spirit. Although this spirit was called ‘’uisce beatha” by the monks – directly translated as ‘’water of life’’ or Irish Whiskey – the original production was not aged but was flavoured with mint, thyme or anise – An original Irish Liqueur.
The first mention of how monks blended ‘’Irish Whiskey’’ and fresh Dairy Cream was dated to the 14th century. Its primary use was in the treatment of dementia, memory improvement and to reduce inflammation of the skin.
The birth of Irish Cream Liqueurs
Cream has naturally occurring properties that make it a perfect addition to food and drink. Its molecular structure means it naturally attracts and holds in ‘’taste’’ and flavours of other foods. A simple way to test this is to leave a jug of full-fat milk open in the fridge beside for example, garlic. Within a couple of hours, your milk will taste and smell of garlic.
Many people have made used this technique very effectively. Michael Eavis, the brains behind the Glastonbury Festival, is a dairy farmer. Based in Somerset, he was surrounded by Cider producers. He would take the apple pomace (remnants of the apples used to make the cider) and feed it to his cows. For many years Eavis produced a natural ‘’apple flavored milk’’.
Irish Cream Liqueurs a new era
It took many more centuries before Irish Liqueurs were produced commercially. In 1963 ‘’Irish Mist’’ a whiskey liqueur was launched and in 1971 the first commercially produced Irish Cream Liqueur was brought to the market – what we know today as Baileys.
The mark of a great cream liqueur
As in every category, Irish Cream Liqueurs come in many shapes, sizes and qualities. Wine has its regions and grape varieties, whiskey has its age and cask, Irish Creams have their own indicator of quality.
One such indicator is known as the European Geographical Indicator. In 2017 Irish Cream Liqueurs were granted a European Geographical Indication or EGI for short. EGI identifies a spirit drink as originating from a country or region where a given quality reputation, or another characteristic of that spirit drink is attributable to its geographical origin.
To be an Irish Cream Liqueur a key component is the definition of cream – you must use Irish Dairy Cream. No substitutes need apply. A true Irish cream is also made on whiskey. Wine or white spirits make a liqueur but not the original and best Irish Cream Liqueur.
Everyone loves Irish Cream Liqueurs
That is what the numbers say. Irish Cream Liqueurs are one of the most widely drunk Liqueurs in the world. Irish Cream Liqueurs are also the most widely distributed. It is said that there is one bottle of Irish cream in every bar in the world.
Innovation in the Irish Cream liqueur category
Until recently the category survived off one look and feel. The new generation of Irish creams are pushing the boundaries and extending the story.
For example, Coole Swan – the first premium player in the category. Coole Swan is an independently owned and family-run premium Irish cream liqueur which relies on the special properties of its three core ingredients with “nothing added but heart” – Single Malt Irish Whiskey, Belgian White Chocolate and Fresh Dairy Cream. One to try, we think.
Liqueurs have the last word
Liqueurs have the ultimate power of the last word. There is a liqueur for every occasion. Where would your classic Espresso Martini, Baby Guinness or Brandy Alexander be without a Liqueur? Or as a compelling addition to coffee, cakes and celebrations. Liqueurs are the most versatile and the most open to innovation.
The complex and deep history of the liqueur is far from over. There is no end to the possibilities, no limit to the horizons, no new idea that is out of reach. When you think about it, liqueurs have never been out of date or in trend – instead, they’re a timeless classic.
Stand up and raise a glass of your favourite liqueur for the time-honoured category – for where would we be without them? I will leave it to you to think on that.
Author: Ruth Brady. 2nd Year Law Student Trinity College Dublin. An enthusiast for all thing’s liqueur and Irish Cream Liqueur.