Sounds simple, right? Everyone knows what liquor is, and everyone knows what liqueur is, don't they? OK, so it's easy enough, until you get into that gray area where you have to ask, what is it? Liquor or liqueur? Both liquor and liqueur sound alike, and both are distilled products, but the truth is the similarities end there. In general, liqueur is the sweeter of the two, having been flavored and sweetened after the fact, something that is, in most cases, a giveaway that something is a liqueur. So let's take a closer look.
Liquor, also known as spirits, are alcoholic beverages distilled from organic matter. The main spirits found in the West, along with those in localized parts of the world are liquors, and include brandy, rum, gin, tequila, vodka, gin, baijiu and many others found regionally. Whatever flavor they may have was developed during distillation and/or aging, and, in the cocktail world, are considered as base spirits.
Liqueur, on the other hand, is a spirit that's been flavored and sweetened after the distilling is done. Grand Marnier, for example, is brandy steeped with orange and herbal flavors, then sweetened to produce an orange liqueur. Like liquors, liqueurs can be enjoyed on their own, and in the cocktail world are often used as sweeteners or modifiers.
Liqueurs aren't always sweet. Yes, they are always sweetened, but amaro is a type of liqueur which, even with added sweetness, is still bitter. Other liqueurs are almost as sweet as candy, perfect for improving your drink in place of sugar or syrup, or for enjoying after supper either with dessert, or by itself.
Globally, liqueurs are often more regional than liquors. With few exceptions, you can find the popular liquors all over the world, but liqueur remains bound to environmental constraints. Creme de cassis, for example, is made from blackcurrants, a very European fruit. A base liquor is infused with the fruit, then sugar is added for an almost syrup like beverage, but blackcurrants don't grow everywhere. They do grow in Oregon, so we do have blackcurrant liqueur here, but, generally, fruit liqueurs are made where the fruit grows.
Understanding liquor and liqueur is pretty simple once you know what to look for. Liquor is a beverage unmodified after production, and a liqueur is a liquor that's been modified into a different beverage entirely, then sweetened. So how does one think of citrus vodka, or Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey? Are they liquor or liqueur? Truth is, they are neither.
In between liquor and liqueur lies flavored liquor. Where liqueur is flavored and sweetened, resulting in an entirely different product compared to the liquor it started as, as Grand Marnier is to brandy, flavored liquors are flavored after the liquor is produced, but often are spared additional sweeteners and are intended to preserve the base spirit while adding an additional layer of taste. Vodkas, such as Absolut Citron, Stoli Vanil, and almost the entire Wild Roots product range, are popular flavored liquors. Vodka is as neutral a spirit as one can find, and thus perfect for infusion, thus there are many flavored vodkas available.
Spiced rum is another example of flavored liquor, and you can find several examples of strawberry gin. Any liquor can be flavored and sold as a flavored liquor, with the exception of whiskey. By law, whiskey that has been flavored after the distilling/aging process must be labeled as "whiskey liqueur." That means Absolute Citron and Sailor Jerry are flavored liquors, and Jack Honey is a whiskey liqueur.
Got it? Good! Now, next time your shopping for a new bottle, want to try a new recipe, or are just curious, you can be confident understanding which of Portland's wonderful beverages is a liquor, which is a liqueur, which is a whiskey liqueur and which is a flavored liquor. Now go try some!