Can liqueurs be taken seriously? Patrick Leclezio steps out of his comfort zone.
First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2013 edition)
I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of liqueurs. They’re very sweet, they’re sometimes creamy – attributes which I can appreciate in a dessert but which seem frivolous in a drink – and they’re also usually undercooked; our legislation, likely a reflection of global standards, only stipulates a minimum 24% ABV for liqueurs and an even limper 15% for cream liqueurs. I still shudder from the residual effects of the many cloying, unavoidable ‘springboks’ that those of us growing up here would inevitably have drunk. Hard tack is meant to be…well…hard, at least in my view of things. On reflection – and it can be rewarding to reflect on preconceptions – I have to concede though that mine is a rather narrow view, which deserves some reconsideration. Many liqueurs have a deep and rich tradition, rivalling and sometimes exceeding some of the other classic spirits. Others yet have remodelled the perception of spirits – and made them accessible to an otherwise resistant audience. These attributes and this effort command enough credit to warrant a little exploration so I set out on a search and found four liqueurs which gave me pause for thought (albeit when limited to small doses).
The little booklet hanging around this unusual, globular bottle (styled on the globus cruciger – a medieval Christian symbol) reads as follows: “According to legend Chambord was inspired by a luxurious raspberry liqueur produced for King Louis XIV during his visit to Chateau Chambord in the 17th Century”. This is typical of liquor brands – the creation of a heritage, or appearance thereof, or association thereto. Dubious, but no matter; the product itself stands quite securely on its own two feet. It seems to have taken the niche previously occupied by the poorly-branded, undifferentiated crème de cassis market and claimed it as its own. Note that crème de cassis is a blackcurrant flavoured grape brandy (or sometimes neutral spirit) whereas Chambord is a cognac base infused with black raspberries, blackcurrant, and vanilla – similar enough to share a broad flavour profile but different and premium enough to be set apart. Sipped neat (and chilled), partnered with a brut sparkling wine in an approximation of a Kir Royale, or indeed, if my small sampling is reliable indication, splashed into any one of their recommended cocktails (also to be found in the little booklet), it is simply a magnificent drink.
Magnum, like all other cream liqueurs, owes a debt of gratitude to Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur – which in 1974 introduced people to the idea of a mix of liquor and cream (with the implied, utterly invented suggestion that such concoctions were part of Irish rural traditions). Today Bailey’s sells six and half million nine litre cases per annum, so clearly this is a format which has since enjoyed significant traction. Magnum may be an imitator, the latest in a fairly long line, but it’s a damn good one. It’s also local – developed and bottled right here in Cape Town. From its exceptional milk-churn fashioned container, and its Scotch-malt-whisky content (distinct from Bailey’s, which is blended Irish whiskey), to its delicious, luxuriant flavour, it ticks all the boxes. This drink might even tempt me to revisit the springbok…(I said might).
There’s an ice-cream parlour in Franschhoek that sells a delicious orange-chocolate ice-cream; I never miss the opportunity to pop in and savour a few scoops when I’m in the area. My favourite pastry also happens to be the cannolo, a fried dough tube filled with an orange-zest ricotta cream. I could go on but I’m sure the point is made – clearly I’m partial to citrus flavours. So it’ll be no surprise that Cointreau, the king of Triple-Sec, is on my list (I could just as well have selected Grand Marnier – also orangey, also superb, great on crêpes – but its local distribution is a bit patchy, so why build up anticipation that may end in disappointment). Cointreau is one of those liqueurs to which I had earlier alluded – boasting a long and proud (and genuine) history constituting some 150 palate-pleasing years. It is notable for having produced one of the (if not the) first motion-picture liquor advertisements, featuring an iconic Pierrot character, and for its inclusion in one of the world’s most popular cocktail, the Margarita (any triple-sec might do, but life’s too short to settle for anything less than the best), but mostly it’s just notable for being downright delicious.
Ok, I’ll admit, you’re not going to catch me drinking much of this stuff, if any at all. I find its nutty sweetness overpowering in the mouth. But I do like its aroma, and, whilst smell might not be as satisfying as taste, it is in a sense a lot more interesting: there are 32 primary aromas and only five primary tastes. One whiff and I can imagine that I’ve dunked my head in a bag of hazelnuts. In typical fashion the brand harks back to ye olden times with its talk of legends and monks and past centuries, and with its Friar-Tuck-habit (or rather the Italian Franciscan counterpart) bottle – rope belt included. Would it be cynical to suggest that the drink was probably synthesised in a Piedmontese laboratory not too long ago? Snide remarks aside, it’s worth keeping a bottle in the liquor cabinet, if for nothing else other than dousing a bowl of ice-cream.