From bittersweet coffee to tart blackcurrant, the exciting flavours of Britain’s craft liqueurs are bringing these underappreciated drinks to a new audience, says Gabriel Stone
Britain’s craft liqueurs are in the midst of a makeover, says Gabriel Stone, from cold brew coffee liqueur to raspberry cassis.
HRH The Prince of Wales’s private orchard offers sanctuary to many heirloom fruit trees – which can now be enjoyed as a heritage brandy, says Kevin Pilley.
This summer punch is best enjoyed al fresco as a stylish start to a picnic, try Philippa Davis’ peach, brandy and raspberry punch.
BRITAIN’S CRAFT LIQUEURS
Do you remember the great cider revolution of 2006? Or the craft gin boom of 2009? Both saw a single brand – Magners and Sipsmith, respectively – grasp a popular but hardly fashionable drink and hurl it blinking into the limelight. A wave of other producers swiftly leapt on the bandwagon and suddenly ordering that G&T in the pub became a minefield of choice. Now, hanging tightly on the coat-tails of the craft spirits movement, it’s the turn of liqueurs to have a makeover. A cursory inspection of just about any British drinks cupboard will confirm that liqueurs hold a secure place in the nation’s refreshment repertoire. But how often do those dusty bottles really see action? A stirrup-cup essential, certainly, an obligatory festive indulgence, perhaps, but be honest: you cleared that Chartreuse out of your grandparents’ house. Except now this is all poised to change.
Unlike the cider and gin surge, there is no single producer reinventing the craft liqueurs category. Instead, it’s an exciting flurry of activity, not least in the entrepreneurial UK, where small distillers across the country seek to broaden their range, while farmers hit on creative ways to add value to their product. That craft-gin-fuelled interest in local provenance, quirky ingredients and small-batch production, often demanding in terms of both labour and time, is now being replicated in a wave of novel liqueurs. There can be few big-brand household names now that haven’t inspired an upstart imitator to concoct a higher-end pastiche. Add a coat of stylish modern packaging and the transformation from Abigail’s Party to 2020s chic is complete.
Such is the flood of innovation with craft liqueurs that it can be difficult to know where to start. Try pouring yourself a summery splash of the Cotswolds Distillery’s lighter, drier take on Limoncello, or settle back in the sunshine with Kent-based distiller Ableforth’s Summer Fruit Cup, a punchier interpretation of Pimm’s. If it’s more original flavours you crave, then sample the sweet-and-sour tang of Edinburgh Gin’s Rhubarb & Ginger liqueur, or perhaps the beautifully packaged Mango & Yuzu Rum liqueur from Riverside Spirits in Cheshire. And anyone feeling particularly disruptive should pitch their prized family recipe against professional efforts such as the dry-edged Hepple Sloe & Hawthorn Gin liqueur, triple-distilled in the Northumberland moors.
One woman whose taste buds perform a vital triage service in this crowded field, sifting alchemy from aberration, is Dawn Davies. As head buyer for specialist retailer The Whisky Exchange, she oversees a mouth-watering portfolio of treats for the discerning or adventurous drinker. Davies describes our relationship with liqueurs as “people’s secret love, like that bag of cookies you have in your desk drawer”. While all those Zoom cocktail-making sessions at home over the past year or two have sparked a boom in liqueur sales, Davies notes an even bigger leap in value as people trade up to these higher-quality versions of their old favourites. She picks out cassis, that blackcurrant-derived staple of the Kir or Kir royale, as a particularly rewarding avenue to explore. “With some cassis, the quality is now insane. You taste it and just think how much care and attention has gone into that.”
The French may claim a head start on cassis production, but they now have a serious rival in the form of Herefordshire brand White Heron. Founder Jo Hilditch is the fourth generation of her family to supply blackcurrants to Ribena, but when faced with a nightmarish 100-tonne oversupply a decade ago, she was determined not to let good-quality fruit go to waste. Her thoughts turned to teenage summers spent in France, each evening punctuated by a Kir royale.
“I thought, ‘this is something I can make, but I can make it better’,” recalls Hilditch. “Not so sugary sweet, much fresher and fruitier, with deep blackcurranty notes.” While the classic combination with white wine or fizz remains a winning formula, White Heron also plays into the hands of those with a more creative streak, whether that’s adding a blackcurrant twist to your mojito, serving up a refreshing summer spritz or even providing a certain je ne sais quoi to your cooking. Hilditch recommends “a drizzle over ice cream” and helpfully notes that “cassis used in game dishes or with lamb is equally delicious”.
In Cambridgeshire, distiller Stephen Marsh has taken inspiration from his local surroundings. All the headline ingredients for his charmingly named Hedgepig liqueur range come from East Anglia. In several cases, their rarity as a commercial crop means foraging in hedgerows, the source of his elderflower and wild bullace, while a concerted word-of-mouth campaign has yielded sufficient quince from friends’ gardens.
Of course, just about anyone could steep hedge-hunted treats in supermarket own-label gin, straining off the murky concoction to serve to unsuspecting friends. Even upgrading to a sanitised, commercial version is no guarantee of success, with all too many examples attempting to conceal cheap shortcuts under a cloying dose of sugar or synthetic flavouring. A degree of sweetness is intrinsic to liqueurs: according to UK law, sugar content must reach a minimum of 100g per litre, alongside a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 15%. In an era when drier, lighter drinks dominate the shelves, these twin attributes have made it easy to dismiss liqueurs as headache-inducing relics of a less sophisticated age. But just as with the world’s great sweet wines, also unfairly unfashionable, when that sugar content is expertly balanced with bright fruit or more savoury flavours it can deliver a complex, palate-sharpening experience that invigorates rather than saturates.
Key to achieving the desired depth and intensity of flavour for craft liqueurs, maintains Marsh, is the quality of raw material. For elderflower, he explains, “you want to pick it within 24 hours of the buds opening, so all the pollen is still on there”. Although a nearby fruit farm offered him quince juice, Marsh found he achieved a better result by laboriously dicing this famously unyielding fruit, then steeping it, skin and all, in tanks for “the best part of nine months”. The final secret weapon is a good-quality spirit, in this case the base gin for Marsh’s own Pinkster brand. “I know it’s well distilled if I can drink it neat without burning the back of my throat,” he remarks. “You end up with a much smoother liqueur.” In addition to its smoothness, Marsh’s base spirit contains a significant dose of juniper, bringing a savoury, woody character “which helps anchor it”.
Having invested so much in creating a high-quality drink, Marsh is similarly dedicated to ensuring his beloved bottles don’t simply end up as a novelty purchase at the back of the cupboard. “I describe them as ‘pudding gins’,” he says temptingly, before adding that, nonetheless, he is just as likely to deploy Hedgepig at the aperitif stage of a meal. Far from the faff of a full-blown cocktail, that might be as simple as Wild Bullace & Quince liqueur with ginger ale, while the Zesty Elderflower lends itself to an equally simple, summery long drink when paired with mineral water and a slice of lemon.
Although fruit-based liqueurs play to the obvious strengths of Britain’s home-grown ingredients cupboard, they’re certainly not the only path to pleasure. Having set up Dorset’s first gin distillery in 2014, Conker Spirit’s founder, Rupert Holloway, was keen to expand his range in an interesting direction. Scientific perusal of his trade customers’ back bars led to the realisation that nobody in this country was yet producing a small-batch, high-end alternative to the mainstream coffee liqueurs. “We felt there was a huge gap between speciality coffee culture and the liqueurs that were on the market,” says Holloway, who pitches his version as “a coffee liqueur for coffee lovers”. For the caffeine geeks out there, it means a cold brew of sustainably sourced Grade 1 Ethiopian and Brazilian beans. These are roasted in Dorset with no vanilla flavouring or additives – only combined with British wheat vodka and the minimum dose of demerara sugar required for balance and to keep the labelling authorities happy. Conker even offers a decaf version for those who don’t want their espresso martini to keep them up all night. For a more summery pick-me-up, he recommends the Café Spritz, a simple concoction of his Conker Cold Brew with tonic and a slice of orange. Above all, he is keen to emphasise the grown-up credentials of his contribution to the coffee liqueur category. “It lengthens in the mouth exactly like an espresso,” explains Holloway. “It was really important to us that it was still a bittersweet drink. We wanted to keep it adult.”
If you are more of a tea person, Holloway has conveniently lent his cold-brewing expertise to Fortnum & Mason, using this specialist emporium’s Countess Grey tea to create a potent collaboration. “It’s a big Earl Grey style with lovely sweetness but no syrupiness.” What’s more, this version is arguably more versatile than your standard cuppa. “It can make a pretty ordinary prosecco taste like champagne,” promises Holloway, who also recommends shaking his tea liqueur with lemon juice and a touch of syrup for the ultimate breakfast martini. If that approach threatens to undermine your day’s to-do list, then wait until evening and, suggests Holloway, “stir it with whisky like an Old-Fashioned”.
There’s certainly nothing old-fashioned about this modern breed of British liqueurs, expertly made with the finest ingredients for those who care about what they drink. Think of them as a liquid spice cupboard, poised to add an invigorating lift to the jaded palate.
BEST IN CLASS
White Heron British Cassis
An intense, pure hit of tart, dark blackcurrant from fruit grown on the Whittern Estate in north Herefordshire. Raspberry fans should try the framboise variant.
The Wiltshire Liqueur Company Blood Orange
The bottled essence of sun-soaked Sicilian fruit is a star of the line-up from this specialist firm based near Marlborough. Free custom labelling makes for a perfect shoot-day gift.
Tarquin’s Cornish Pastis
Anyone with a soft spot for the aniseed-flavoured symbolic drink of southern France, or simply a good pun, should seek out this Cornish twist on the classic pastis. Clifftop-foraged gorse flowers add a local twist. Just add water – and sunshine.
Hedgepig Wild Bullace & Quince Liqueur
Distinctively flavoured and distinctly East Anglian, this has exemplary smoothness and depth. Even better, 50p per bottle sold goes to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.
Conker Spirit Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur
Dorset’s rather grown-up riposte to Kahlúa. This ticks all the quality boxes demanded by the most committed espresso snob and there’s even an equally sophisticated decaf version.