Essential Liqueurs

16 Delicious Liqueurs for Cocktails and More

  • 16 Drink
  • Updated: Mar 8, 2017

From the Margarita to the Last Word, there are countless classic cocktail recipes that simply wouldn't exist without the inclusion of some kind of liqueur. With the right bottles, it's easy to take your home bar to the next level and open up a whole slew of new drinks, whether you're mixing up a cocktail party or just sipping them in bed with a good book.

What is a Liqueur?

So what is a liqueur, anyway? Well, going by the legal definition in the United States, a liqueur (sometimes called a cordial, depending on who you ask) is any flavored spirit that contains more than 2.5% sugar by weight. They can be flavored with all sorts of things, from fruits and flowers to herbs and spices.

Some of the more popular varieties are citrus-based (Cointreau and Grand Marnier), others are bitter (Campari and Aperol), and still more are creamy (Baileys). Many, like Green Chartreuse, are centuries-old, closely-guarded secret recipes that originated as medicinal tonics, while some originated as recently as a few years ago.

What Liqueurs Do I Need?

Basically, liqueurs run the gamut of flavor profiles and can be made from just about anything—hell, up until 2006, Campari was colored red with a dye made from crushed beetles. But while we're calling this a list of "essential" liqueurs, you don't truly need each and every bottle to round out your bar.

We suggest starting with a few of the classics, perhaps Campari and Cointreau. From there, decide what kinds of drinks you want to make, be they sweet, bitter, or caffeinated, and make a list of bottles to try. Cocktails aside, a lot of them are great to drink neat or on the rocks, so even if you don't have a recipe in mind they can be great additions to your bar.

As always, the fun is in the experimentation! All of these are excellent liqueurs, so you won't go wrong with any of them in your liquor cabinet.

  • Amaro
    Campari is an iconic amaro (Italian bitter liqueur) that's probably best known for its role in the classic Negroni recipe, as well as Negroni variations like the Boulevardier and the Old Pal cocktail. It's bright red, very bitter, but quite sweet at the same time—evidenced by the way the cap starts to glue itself shut with sugar after a few pours. It's also …
  • Triple Sec Orange Liqueur
    Cointreau may just be the most famous orange liqueur in the world. Stylistically, it's considered a triple sec—a variety made with both bitter and sweet orange peels, as opposed to curaçao, which is made only with bitter orange peels. Cointreau is popular in many classic cocktails, like the Margarita, Sidecar, Corpse Reviver #2, and Cosmopolitan, but can als…
  • Maraschino Liqueur
    Luxardo Maraschino liqueur is the definitive classic when it comes to maraschino. Made from Marasca cherries, which grow on the Dalmatian coast (today part of Croatia), it has a slightly tart character that has nothing to do with the neon-red cherries we're used to getting on our ice cream sundaes. It's used in all kinds of classic cocktail recipes, from the…
  • Elderflower Liqueur
    St. Germain is an acclaimed elderflower liqueur invented by Robert Cooper in 2007, with a subtle, sweet, and beautifully floral profile. It goes well with so many different ingredients and has become so ubiquitous in recent years that it's earned the nickname "bartender's ketchup."Though it was introduced in the late 2000s, the bottle harkens back to French …
  • Herbal Liqueur
    Green Chartreuse is one of the truly classic liqueurs of the world, and has been produced by Carthusian monks in the Chartreuse mountains of France since 1737. It's made with 130 herbs, plants, and flowers, but the exact recipe has been a closely-guarded secret for generations.Green Chartreuse is used in numerous classic and modern cocktails, like the Last W…
  • Scotch Whisky Liqueur
    Drambuie is a liqueur made with scotch whisky and honey, along with several herbs and spices. It's one of the most acclaimed liqueurs in the world, and at 80 proof, it is a good deal stronger than many other liqueurs.Drambuie is best known for the Rusty Nail cocktail, a simple drink that combines scotch, Drambuie, and a lemon twist. It probably takes its nam…
  • Amaretto
    Disaronno Amaretto is a classic almond-flavored Italian liqueur that, according to the producers, dates back to 1575. It's sweet and nutty, and is made with 17 different herbs and fruits.Disaronno is one of the most popular amarettos in the world, and it's name was originally Amaretto di Saronno, simply meaning "amaretto from Saronno." It's commonly used in …
  • Amaro
    Aperol is a classic Italian amaro produced in Padua, Italy. Flavored with bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona, among other ingredients, it is quite a bit less bitter than Campari, the amaro to which it is frequently compared. The original recipe dates back to 1919.Aperol is used in numerous cocktails, sometimes as a more palatable substitute to Cam…
  • Ginger Liqueur
    Domaine de Canton is a ginger liqueur that has been produced in France since 2007. It's made with Chinese ginger, Provençal orange blossom honey, Tahitian vanilla, Tunisian ginseng, and a base of cognac and neutral spirits, and has been lauded as one of the best ginger liqueurs on the market today.Domaine de Canton was originally invented in China in 1992, b…
  • Amaro
    Fernet-Branca is an Italian amaro liqueur that's bitter, minty, and bright. It's made from a secret blend of "dozens" of herbs and spices (not the least of which is saffron, which the distillery purchases in larger quantities than any other entity on earth), and is a perennial favorite in Italy, Argentina, and of course, San Francisco.Though Fernet-Branca is…
  • Orange Curaçao Liqueur
    Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge is a classic orange curaçao liqueur made with cognac, bitter orange peel, and sugar. It is used in numerous cocktails, but it's often sipped neat or on the rocks (or even used in desserts, which is very popular in France. Unlike triple sec, curaçao is made with only bitter orange peel, rather than also using sweet orange peel.Grand…
  • Liqueur
    Pimm's No. 1 Cup is a British liqueur known as a "fruit cup," a typically gin-based style of liqueur that is meant to be mixed with soft drinks to make highball cocktails. Unlike many other liqueurs, Pimm's uses London dry gin as its base spirit (rather than a neutral grain spirit). It has a light, citrusy, subtly herbal character, and goes great in refreshi…
  • Amaro
    Amaro Averna is a classic Sicilian amaro, invented in 1868 by Salvatore Averna. It's notable for its bittersweet herbal, caramel, and coffee flavors, and has long been enjoyed in cocktail recipes or simply on its own. Averna is considered a digestivo, and is typically served after dinner, either neat or on the rocks.
  • Cream Liqueur
    Baileys Irish Cream is a popular Irish cream liqueur, made from a blend of (you guessed it) Irish whiskey and cream, as well as vegetable oil that keeps the two from separating, and a number of herbs and sugar for added flavor. According to the manufacturers, Baileys will last for two years after the day it was made, opened or unopened.Though Baileys markets…
  • Herbal Liqueur
    Bénédictine is a classic aromatic liqueur that dates back to 1863, and boasts a complex, herbal flavor profile. It's used in numerous classic cocktails, from the New Orleans original Vieux Carré to the tropical Singapore Sling.Bénédictine takes its name from the Benedictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, France, and it's a common misconception that the monks t…
  • Coffee Liqueur
    Kahlúa Coffee Liqueur is the number one selling coffee liqueur in the world. It's probably most famous for its role in the classic White Russian, as well as a number of other creamy, dessert-esque cocktails.Kahlúa was first produced in Mexico in 1936, and the modern recipe was apparently reformulated in 1962. The name roughly translates to "house of the Acol…

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