Sweet on Liqueurs: Why your distillery needs one in its portfolio

Though many distillers get into the business out of a passion to make great whisky, or to explore the nuances of gin, we believe every distillery should make something on the sweeter side. Why?

A liqueur can be the sleeper hit of your portfolio. If your province allows you to pour or sell at farmers markets, local fairs or food festivals, you might find that many of those prospective customers aren’t prepared to sample straight plus-40% ABV spirits in those settings. But a liqueur, with an accessible flavour profile, a lower ABV and some sweetness, can be an acceptable sample to introduce them to both craft spirits and to your brand.

A selection of Canadian Artisan Spirit Competition winners

Liqueurs are also cocktail friendly, and not only give local bartenders a reason to experiment with your products, but help fill out the back bar at your own tasting room. A bespoke craft cocktail, featuring your liqueur—even a “single craft” cocktail using only ingredients from your distillery—is a unique point of difference for your spirits.  

Here’s what a few of your colleagues are doing: 

Bruinwood Estate Distillery in Roberts Creek, B.C., created a craft Advocaat from a family recipe for the rich Dutch liqueur made of cream, egg, sugar and Bruinwood Aquasen vodka. Not only was it the winner of the audience choice award for Best Liqueur at the 2019 BC Distilled festival, it has already replaced the top international brand at some local Vancouver bars—and has bartenders taking a fresh look at a liqueur that previously peaked decades ago.

Fernie Distillers says Fernie Fog, an Earl Grey tea liqueur enhanced with vanilla and Demerara sugar, is the “runaway best seller” at the new distillery, says co-founder Jillian Rutherford. “I started joking that it is the gateway spirit for people who claim they usually don’t drink.” A cocktail the mountain-town distillery names the Rusty Rail combines the liqueur with blended Scotch and fragrant orange garnish; a spicy seasonal spicy edition of the liqueur will be called Winter Fog. 

Hansen Distillery in Edmonton plays on its founding clan’s moonshining history to produce vanilla fig, mulled cranberry and apple pie ’shine. But it’s liqueurs, including cinnamon and chilli-hot Ring of Fire, plus cream liqueurs—including Saskatoon berry-flavoured fan favourite Purple Cow and a seasonal Pumpkin Spice—also have a devoted following. Recipes, including a fudge made with Morning Glory chocolate hazelnut liqueur, encourage customers to experiment.

Saskatoon’s Lucky Bastard Distillers always has seasonal and local fruit liqueurs made with no preservatives or additives, boasting that up to three pounds of produce go into a 375-millilitre bottle of Saskatoon, Haskap or Carmine Jewel (a variety of sour cherry) liqueur. It also turned the extremely tart “superfood” Seabuckthorn berries into a liqueur hit: “Because of the high amounts of Vitamin C, the berries are extremely tart, so we round it out with some with the Saskatchewan wildflower honey.”

In Ontario, both Kinsip House of Fine Spirits in Bloomfield (in Prince Edward County) and Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers in Beamsville (in Niagara) and located in wine and agricultural regions, ripe with possibilities for liqueurs. Kinsip recommends using its County Cassis, made with local black currants on a base of its own brandy, in Kir Royale-style cocktails or with dessert. Dillon’s Crabapple Liqueur and Peach Brandy and Schnapps, made with Niagara fruit, star in many of the distillery’s own cocktails: one of its early strategies was the Dillon’s Cocktail Cup competition, encouraging bartenders to play with local spirits. 

A cool collaboration between Quebec’s Distillerie Mariana and Les Spiritueux Iberville resulted in Avril Amaretto, a craft liqueur that uses maple syrup, Quebec balsam fir and chestnut in a warming sipper. Inspired by the Italian heritage of Spiriteux Iberville’s Mario D’Amico and Quebec regional flavours, it has already found a place on the shelves of provincial SAQ liquor stores.  

Winegarden Estate Winery & Distillery in Baie Verte, New Brunswick, draws on the Rosswog family’s German heritage to make eaux-de-vie, schnapps and brandy plus a range of liqueurs. Brother Herbie (herbal, licorice) and Emma (digestif) complement seasonals products that can incorporate anything from elderberry to apple.