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Liqueurs challenge the old order

Not all liqueurs are over sweet and unpalatable. And some should even justify a place in your drinking repertoire. Ian Buxton reports
By Ian Buxton
Liqueurs – love them or hate them, no genuine whisky lover would let them pass their lips. Right? Well, wrong actually. In the course of researching this article I’ve had to think again and, if not exactly converted, I’ve been partly won over by their honeyed charms.Historically, whisky liqueurs have been seen as purely seasonal, with around half of all sales made pre-Christmas. However, there’s a new generation of whisky based liqueurs out there that are challenging the old order and demand your attention. But for all their innovation, these drinks have an honourable heritage, for adding herbs, fruit flavours and sugar to whisky is a longestablished tradition in Scotland. I’ve been known to drink toddies to combat colds (or even prevent their onset, which is much more fun).Look back to the 18th century and the practice of taking a toddy (whisky with hot water and sugar) or punch (whisky with sugar, lemons and hot water, then cooled) was commonplace.Of course, back then the dubious quality of much of the whisky accounted for this practice and, as standards improved, so these proto-liqueurs died out. However, for ‘punch’ read ‘cocktail’ and some at least of the resurgence in interest can be explained.Loch Fyne Liqueur is the new kid on the block. Created by whisky enthusiast Richard Joynson he explains that it was developed as a direct result of customer interest at his Inveraray shop (a place of pilgrimage for serious enthusiasts, by the way).“We had customers asking why we didn’t produce a premium, luxury product,” explains Joynson, “and Loch Fyne Liqueur was our response.”This is a lighter style of liqueur, with more whisky and a little less sugar.Retailing at around £29 from independent specialists and the Loch Fyne website (www.lochfyneliqueur.com) it comes in a handsome decanter style bottle. Inside, you’ll find hints of orange, wood smoke and chocolate which rolls into the long, mouth-coating finish. Fans of Johnnie Walker Liqueur (now discontinued) might find this very much to their taste.Richard Joynson suggests sipping Loch Fyne Liqueur (at £29 a bottle you’ve probably worked that out yourself) or using it as a cocktail base. It’s particularly effective in a Busty Nail (see side panel) and goes surprisingly well with a splash of tonic and some ice. If you haven’t guessed by now, this isn’t a market for whisky purists.Also making the cocktail connection is whisky iconoclast John Glaser of Compass Box. Strictly speaking, his Orangerie is not a liqueur because there’s no added sugar, simply an infusion of oranges and spices.At around £20 for a 35cl bottle it’s definitely a premium product, but then John and his team personally select the waxless organic oranges, zest them by hand and watch over the bottling like particularly crazed hawks. We know from his web site (www.compassboxwhisky.com) that the oranges for this year’s release of Orangerie were zested on July 25th in John’s back garden: how personalised is that?Orangerie is being used in the trendiest bars in London and New York for stunning Old Fashioned and Whisky Sour cocktails.Personally, I’d reserve it for family and special friends after dinner, serving it chilled in tiny glasses with coffee and dark chocolate. The whisky base in Orangerie is, like many Compass Box creations, heavily influenced by its grain whisky content – here drawn from first fill bourbon and contributing a rich vanilla flavour that flows delightfully into the vibrant oranges.Orangerie isn’t a liqueur but it is convincing non-Scotch whisky drinkers to try products they would otherwise never consider.“Younger people who would never even sip a whisky find Orangerie captures their imagination,” claims Glaser. “We’ve moved away from the ‘old man’ image and created our own little sector.”It’s definitely one where whisky enthusiasts will find a welcome. Another product which will appeal across the whisky divide is Old Pulteney Liqueur. Launched in 1999 by Inver House Distillers this has recently been repackaged as they begin to appreciate its potential.Old Pulteney Liqueur, based around the single malt of that name, is bottled at 30% abv making it easy to sip and savour at full strength though it also works well served over ice.The predominant flavour note after the whisky is of peel, dried fruits such as prune, raisin and apricot and hints of sherry and Christmas cake. This is a product that, at around £15, is competitively priced and makes a strong link to its whisky heritage.It has that in common with two other ‘branded’ liqueurs – Famous Grouse and Glenfiddich.Glenfiddich are rather coy about their liqueur offering. It’s only available at the distillery, off their web site and from a few specialists, which is strange when you consider the power of the brand name and the £14.99 rrp. Moreover, Glenfiddich have invested in a dedicated bottle and cork for their eponymous liqueur so such modesty seems eccentric.But I found an enthusiast without very much difficulty. Designer and international fencer Judith Holmes told me plainly: “I don’t like whisky, so I was reluctant to try this, but a friend bought a bottle at the distillery. They gave me some without telling me what it was – and now it’s my favourite!”That’s a textbook consumer reaction that would delight the folks in marketing and shows the potential for these products, if only people can be persuaded to try them.The great-granddaddy of the sector is, of course, Drambuie. But, even here, innovation is breaking out. Drambuie is a truly classic brand with an authentic and compelling story.Dating back to 1745, it has an extraordinary blend of legend, romance and secrecy (though there are those who dispute elements of the story). Increasingly, it is enjoyed on ice, and has become the perfect base for an array of cocktails including Drambuie Sour, the Drambuie Manhattan and the classic Rusty Nail.According to legend so guarded is the preparation that the original scroll handed down by Bonnie Prince Charlie remains locked away in a secret vault in Scotland.Traditionally, only the mother or wife of the eldest male member of the MacKinnon family would personally create the secret essence of herbs and spices as originally set down in the ‘Gift of the Prince’.Today, Pamela MacKinnon makes up the unique essence in a secure laboratory in Edinburgh.Even leaving aside the James Bond stuff, Drambuie has been pretty active of late. We all know their familiar Drambuie standard, but what I’m excited about is their premium Drambuie Black Ribbon, which is made exclusively with single malts.This is a little less sweet, with an intriguing herbal finish with delicious hints of aniseed. It sounds strange, it shouldn’t work but, trust me, it does – superbly.Jonathan Brown, Drambuie’s International Brand Director says, “Few brands encapsulate Scotland’s heritage as Drambuie does.Not only do we have the best of Scotland’s whisky, but we also have an adventurous and romantic past.“The secret recipe brings both of these elements to life, so Drambuie really is the whisky with a secret.”So there you have it. No longer are liqueurs associated with the dressy dinners of the 1970s. Today, even the word liqueur is passé, instead, brands are more likely to be called for by name as customers and bartenders enjoy rediscovering the classics.And this retro trend to rediscovery of classics is all around us. Just think Bentley, Burberry, Mini, Aquascutum and you’ll understand this sweet story of success. The liqueur market is back and it’s hot. Whisky liqueurs make a great cocktail base, with the sweetness very smoothly integrated with the whisky. Try any of the liqueurs mentioned in a Whisky Sour or these cocktail ideas:Rusty Nail
The classic: equal parts Drambuie and your favourite whisky, over ice. Try it with Drambuie Black Ribbon and a single malt (just don’t tell the bank manager!)Busty Nail
Atwist on this old favourite: equal parts Loch Fyne liqueur with Laphroaig, over ice. Extraordinary – a smoky, peaty liqueurDrambuie Manhattan
2 parts Drambuie, 0.5 part Vermouth extra dry, dash of bitters – shaken, strained and served in a martini glass with a twist of lemonOrangerie Old Fashioned
50ml Compass Box “Orangerie”; 1 sugar cube; 1 dash angostura bitters; 1 teaspoon water; 4 -6 cubes (cracked) ice
Place sugar cube in small, chilled Old Fashioned glass. Dash the bitters over the cube and add the water. Mash with a spoon until the sugar has dissolved. Pour the Orangerie into the glass, add cracked ice and stir and stir and stir. Decorate with orange twist