The Language of Liqueur

Liqueur and liquor may both stem from the same Latin verb liquere meaning “to be fluid” and the Old French noun licour meaning “liquid.” Nevertheless, liqueurs are entirely different liquids from their counterpart spirits.

According to Stuart Walton, the author of The Bartender’s Guide to Cocktails and Mixed Drinks, liqueurs differ from liquors in the way they are produced. While straight liquors are mostly unsweetened distillates, liqueurs obtain their distinct characters from the addition of elements such as sweeteners, herbs, nuts, fruit extracts, or roots to a basic spirit. All liqueurs are flavored in some way.

Liqueurs have varying names and flavor profiles depending on their regions of origin. The following is a sample of liqueurs from every continent excluding Antarctica, where the business of producing these liquids is still a bit frozen.

A South African cream liqueur, Amarula is made from the sweet yellow fruit of the African marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea). The marula tree’s scientific name comes from the Greek skleros meaning “hard” and karya meaning “walnut.” Alluding to a myth which suggests that elephants become intoxicated after ingesting marula fruit, Amarula’s bottle prominently features an elephant.

Invented by the Dutch shortly after their arrival on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, this liqueur is rum-based and flavored the peels of bitter green oranges. The origins of both the island and the liqueur’s name remain debatable. Some people claim that settlers named the island, due to the healing nature of its plant life, after the Portuguese word curação meaning “medical cure.” Still, others argue that the island and liqueur share a pre-Dutch settlement indigenous name stemming from a regional bird called The Great Curassow (Crax rubra).

Liqueurs, in their infancy, mostly functioned as medicinal drinks because of the alleged health benefits of their infused ingredients and their alleged beneficial effects on drinkers. As legend has it, the first manifestation of Goldwasser, which means “gold water” in German, was used to cure the Pope of a deadly illness in the 13th century. Arnaldo de Vilanova, the Catalan physician who invented the liqueur, was supposedly spared from death during the Spanish Inquisition by concocting this gold speckled liqueur.

This coffee flavored Mexican liqueur remains one of the most popular liqueurs in North America. Kahlúa means “House of the Acolhua people” in the indigenous Nahuatl language spoken in Veracruz, Mexico, at the time of Spanish conquest. To create the liqueur, Spanish settlers used a spirit base of white rum and infused it with coffee beans.

Originally created and bottled in Japan, Midori is a muskmelon-flavored liqueur. Midori, which means “green” in Japanese, is a deep and vivid green color. The liqueur’s appearance comes from a dye, however, and not from naturally infused ingredients. Currently, production of the liqueur has moved to Mexico, but the liqueur’s Japanese name and original recipe remain.

Although difficult to find outside of Australia, Quandong liqueur is made from quandong fruit. Known as Australian bushfood, the fruit from the quandong plant (Santalum acuminatum) is both sweet and tangy, and Australians refer to it as the “desert peach.” The Wiradjuri people of New South Wales first used the name “guwandhang” for the plant, from which it is believed the word “quandong” originates.

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Photo by Blue Lotus

  • Nic loves languages
    Posted at 03:59h, 07 April Reply

    I by no means claim to be an etymologist but could ‘guandong’ be related to the Chinese city Guangdong, otherwise known as Canton in the west? When I read it, I thought it must be named after the city.
    Just a thought
    Nic Scott

  • Gengis Faivre
    Posted at 16:56h, 05 November Reply

    Congratulations, it is a great article. Very interesting to find out about the language of liqueur.
    Being from Mexico I noticed you mentioned Kahlua and its properties. It’s interesting how many cultures have their own traditions for preparing liqueur. For instance, with Tequila which comes from the fruit called “Agave”, it’s incredible how some people enjoy drinking it until flavoring the worm that comes inside the bottle.

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