Liquor vs. Liqueur: What's the Difference?

Besides the spelling, here’s what distinguishes these two similar alcohols.

two old fashioned cocktails on a dark surface

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Liquor and Liqueur — two words referencing cocktail ingredients that are frustratingly similar in spelling and pronunciation, yet mean very different things. Yes, they are both distilled products, meaning they contain alcohol, but they are far from interchangeable.

Perhaps even more confusing, liqueurs are a type of liquor, but liquor is not a liqueur. The biggest differentials between the two are ABV (alcohol by volume), flavor, and sugar, though the fermentation process can also play a role in distinguishing between these two very different classes of spirits.

What Is Liquor?

Liquor is the base of any cocktail. It's the name for hard alcohol as a whole. It's the gin in your martini; the bourbon in your old fashioned. Also referred to as spirits, liquors are made by fermenting grains or other plants into a potent, alcoholic drink. They are much higher in ABV compared to liqueurs, typically weighing in between 40 percent (80 proof) and 55 percent (110 proof) — though there are some (especially “cask-strength” products) that prove even higher. That said, in truth, anything with a higher ABV than wine or beer can be called liquor.

Liquor is not flavored and has zero (to next-to-zero added sugar). Even if flavored vodka is all the rage, it won't taste sweet, as the flavor is added through steeping after the distilling process has completed.

Broadly, liquor falls in one of six categories: vodka, gin, tequila, rum, brandy, and whiskey. These spirits can be used as the main ingredient in a cocktail or enjoyed on their own — slowly or downed quickly, as in a shot.

What is Liqueur?

As previously mentioned, liqueurs are a type of liquor because they are also distilled spirits. But unlike liquor, liqueurs are sweetened and boast the additions of flavors, extracts, etc. They are good to enjoy on their own (neat, chilled, or on the rocks), but are especially useful in the creation of cocktails. Their various flavor components enhance drinks and make them unique.

While liquor provides the base of a cocktail, liqueurs provide layers, balance, nuance, and distinction. For example, a Last Word (gin, maraschino, Green Chartreuse, and lime juice) without liqueur is just gin and lime juice.

Liqueurs tend to be a lower ABV than liquor, most typically falling in the 15–35 percent range (30-70 proof) and are sometimes referred to as "cordials." Like liquor, Liqueurs are often categorized. The most typical ones are fruit, herbal, cream, crème, coffee, nut, amaro, and schnapps.

Some of the most recognizable bottles in each category are:

  • Fruit: Maraschino, Chambord, Cointreau
  • Herbal: Chartreuse, Herbsaint, Bénédictine, Jägermeister, Galliano
  • Cream: Baileys, RumChata
  • Crème: Crème de Violette, Crème Yvette, Crème de Cassis, Crème de Menthe, Crème de Cacao
  • Coffee: Kahlúa, Mr. Black, St. George Spirits NOLA
  • Nut: Amaretto, Frangelico
  • Amaro: Campari, Cynar
  • Schnapps: Peppermint, Peach

The Take Away

Liquor and liqueurs work together to make delicious drinks and balance out your home bar. Either one can be enjoyed on its own, depending on the potency you'd prefer, and the combinations for cocktails are endless. Knowing the differences and what each type brings to the glass is important (and intriguing), but having both is essential.

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