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Liqueurs: A History

In the great strawberry liqueur adventure, I realized that I had no idea what actually comprised a liqueur, even though they’re something I’ve enjoyed for years. Being a food nerd, naturally this Will Not Do.

I find alcohol fascinating. Perhaps this is natural, given that I’m the daughter of a (recovered) alcoholic. I can’t remember a time in my life where it didn’t have a special significance. But family history aside, it’s tied in so closely with so much human history; our rituals, our societal progression and regression, our bonding, our celebrations, our mourning. Entire countries have prohibited it, religions have alternately celebrated and shunned it and it’s even provided a significant nutritional benefit when food has been scarce.

In other words, it’s a whammy, which we sometimes deal with better than other times.

Back to liqueurs. A little research. Liqueurs, like soda, began as a medicinal. We can blame the monks, who were trying to make better medicines. A liqueur begins life as an infusion of alcohol and some flavor producing item; sometimes bark, sometimes fruit, sometimes flowers or nuts. Let’s look at the life of my forty-dollar bottle of strawberry liqueur. Somewhere, in Italy, someone picked a whole bunch of strawberries, then added some alcohol and sugar. Then it was reduced. And reduced. And reduced. Eventually, it got down to a point where it could fit in a bottle and was worth shipping across half the world, because someone desperate for strawberry flavor in her cocktail was going to buy it.

The first known liqueurs were being produced in the thirteenth century, strictly as medicinals, but like soda, a good thing caught on and now we drink far too much of it. Says you. I drink precisely enough.

Liqueurs are not liquor, even when they’re flavored. They are, however, cordials, which finally answers my confusion that I’ve been carrying around for years about Anne of Green Gables and her escapade with the elderberry cordial. At last, I understand what all the fuss was about (if not what an elderberry is, other than a reference from Monty Python)…and wonder where to get mine. They’re the food dye in the easter egg – they give the flavor that straight liquor often lacks.

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