Spirits: Liqueur gems, sky-high and affordable
By Jason Wilson,
Liqueurs often seem like the bearded ladies of the spirits circus.
As you approach that shelf in the store, you feel as though you’ve left the big tent and can almost hear the carnival barker’s cry: Come one, come all!
Taste a hazelnut liqueur from a bottle shaped like a medieval friar!
Try a ginger liqueur poured from a Chinese lantern!
Unscrew the beehive cap and sample the nectar of this honey liqueur!
See the glittery flecks of gold floating inside this cinnamon schnapps!
Even the definition of liqueur as a category is vague and promiscuous, encompassing spirits infused or macerated with all manner of nuts, fruits, botanicals, herbs and dairy products. For every gem — Luxardo maraschino, Benedictine, creme de violette, St-Germain elderflower liqueur — there are dozens of weird and less pleasant offerings. Spend time tasting cordials made of peppermint or butterscotch or odd berries or coffee, or perhaps the whole cornucopia of cream liqueurs (mint chocolate chip! Creme caramel! Marula fruit from Africa!), and you start to feel trapped in the funhouse.
That’s not to say that liqueurs aren’t essential. Most classic cocktails call for a small amount of one as the secondary or tertiary ingredient. Yet it’s exceedingly rare that a liqueur is held in the same high regard as a fine whiskey or brandy, or even a great tequila or rum. Though the average liqueur worth buying is usually pushing $40 or more, the cost rarely rivals the fantasy price tags associated with, say, aged Scotch or cognac.
There are, of course, exceptions. The extra-aged VEP (vieillissement exceptionnellement prolonge) versions of Chartreuse, both green and yellow, are among the finest spirits in the world, with prices nearing $200 a bottle. Even more coveted by collectors are Chartreuse’s rare Tarragona bottlings, which can top $1,000 at auction. Chartreuse is famously produced by Carthusian monks in the French Alps, and the secret 130-ingredient herbal recipe supposedly is known by only two monks, both of whom have taken a vow of silence. In 1903, the French government nationalized the monks’ distillery, so they moved to Tarragona, Spain; they continued to produce liqueur there until the 1980s, even after their eventual return to France. Chartreuse made in Tarragona has taken on mythic quality among spirits geeks. I recently saw a half-empty bottle offered for sale at $500.
While I was researching my book a few years ago, I found three of the bottles in Paris, in the dusty cellar of a rare bottle shop called Au Verger de la Madeleine, but I couldn’t quite scrounge up the 800 euros to acquire one, so I’ve personally tasted just a tiny nip of the stuff once in my life. (Note: To any reader out there who happens to have a bottle tucked away, I will make a shameless plea. Please invite me over? Please?)
Last week, I did have the pleasure of sampling a few ounces of another astronomically priced liqueur. This was Grand Marnier Quintessence, of which only 1,000 bottles have been released in the United States. Retail price: $799.99.
I always have the regular Grand Marnier (made from a blend of cognacs and distilled bitter oranges) in my liquor cabinet, along with Cointreau or Combier. Quintessence uses much older, higher-quality cognacs, including some 60-year-old special reserves. It’s also made with a special “double parfum” process, in which the orange peels are distilled a second time in the perfume of the first distillation.
The result is absolutely delicious: The best elements of the cognac and the fresh, true citrus aroma combine for an intense, yet delicate, drink. If you haven’t been completely wiped out by Wall Street, and if you see it by the glass in a fancy restaurant, by all means, spend a few hundred dollars on a sip. Quintessence is, of course, meant to be taken neat, but I couldn’t help using a half-ounce during the testing of this week’s cocktail, the Yellow Daisy. Heretical, perhaps, but also unforgettable.
Back to reality. The idea of an $800 orange liqueur still sort of blows my mind. Orange liqueurs, after all, are one of the most indispensable ingredients in the bar, second perhaps only to vermouth. They’re used in a variety of drinks, from the margarita to the sidecar to the Corpse Reviver.
So I was also heartened last week by the relaunch of another, more affordable, new liqueur. Mandarine Napoleon ($35), from De Kuyper, is made with 10-year-old cognac and mandarin oranges and also worked very well in this week’s cocktail. Mandarine Napoleon, which was popular in France in the late 19th century, can be used just about anywhere you might normally use Grand Marnier. It’s a little sweeter, slightly lighter in alcohol (38 percent to Grand Marnier’s 40 percent) and less sour on the finish.
It can rightfully join its place beside the other name-brand orange liqueurs. None of which qualifies as a sideshow freak, by the way.
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2010). Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist.