When was the last time someone offered you a crème de menthe -- you know, the liqueur that turns your teeth bright green? Never?
Liqueurs, or cordials, are not as high on most people's list of after-dinner drinks as they were when ladies retired to one room and men to another.
But a slew of apple, chocolate, even chili-based liqueurs are now appearing in the market, fueled by bartenders crafting high-end cocktails.
"These products are popping up in new cocktails because they add novelty without upping the alcohol too much," says Rachel Burkons, senior editor of the industry magazine The Tasting Panel. (Most liqueurs range from 15 to 30 percent alcohol.)
Yet the category is still led by orange liqueurs, with plenty of competition capitalizing on the soaring popularity of premium margaritas, which also drives the sales of high-end tequilas. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., sales of "high end" tequilas rose 14.6 percent, "super premium", 11.3 percent and "pre-mixed cocktails" with tequila 12.2 percent in 2011.
Mexico's Patron is now making a Citronge liqueur to add to its line of premium tequilas, albeit at a high 40 percent alcohol. Cognac maker Pierre Ferrand is trying to carve a niche in the market with a "ancienne methode" Dry Curacao, which is not so sweet and uses Ferrand's fine cognacs instead of basic brandy.
"A margarita has two iconic ingredients, tequila and orange liqueur, and people have gotten very well versed in them," says Sean Beck, beverage director at Hugo's Mexican restaurant in Houston. "The orange liqueur segment has really grown up, and I match the specific tequila, we have 60, to a specific liqueur, like mixing a soft resposado tequila with Grand Marnier or Royal Combier, both with a cognac base."
Hugo's does not make frozen margaritas, which Beck says is just a way for a bar to extend profit margins: "That cold ice just masks the taste and aroma of the spirits, so they use cheap triple sec."
Bar chef Abigail Gullo of the new SoBou bar-restaurant in New Orleans says customers are very specific about the orange liqueur they want in margaritas and other cocktails.
"With premium margaritas, cosmos and sidecars, you need top ingredients like Cointreau and Grand Marnier, which people request by name. There's also a big resurgence of those Polynesian-style tiki cocktails like mai tais that require orange liqueur."
At SoBou (short for South of Bourbon Street) the newest featured cocktail is the New Orleans Yacht Club, made with three kinds of rum, falernum, lime juice and curacao orange liqueur.
I myself swear by Cointreau, now owned by Remy Martin. It was created in 1875 by Edouard Cointreau in Angers, France, using sweet and bitter orange peels. (Many liqueur makers just use orange flavoring.)
Once, on a tour of the Cointreau distillery (open to the public by appointment), I could clearly smell the different perfumes in the various orange peels, dried before distillation. Today Cointreau sells 13 million bottles a year, in more than 150 countries.
What I love about Cointreau is that it is bittersweet and shows itself in a mixed drink as more than orange-flavored sugar. On its own, poured over crushed ice, it is a superb after-dinner drink, as is Grand Marnier, created in 1880 by Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle using cognac, orange essence and sugar.
Yet though they blend impeccably in cocktails, these two products are expensive. Cointreau is about $35, Grand Marnier about $40. (Premium bottlings of these same liqueurs cost much more.)
So I assembled a range of orange liqueurs, some new to the market, and tasted them on their own and in margaritas. It made for a long afternoon. Here's my report.
Mathilde Grande XO ($22). This is another, somewhat cheaper Ferrand cognac product from their Dry Curacao, and you can smell and taste the brandy, with 40 percent alcohol. It has a fine bitterness upfront that gives way to a cream sweetness, then ends with a light sting of heat.
Patron Citronge ($24). I was surprised this came across with so much sweetness, perhaps made on the belief that Americans prefer candy-like spirits. It's rather like an orange Creamsicle, which would not be my first choice in a mixed drink.
DeKuyper 03 Premium ($25). Made from Brazilian pera oranges by one of the leading cordial producers, begun in Holland in 1695, John DeKuyper & Sons, this is a crystal-clear liqueur with a pleasant, light citrus nose and, beneath a thick mantle of sweetness, a good dose of orange flavor that goes well with a basic blanco tequila or most mixed drinks.
Stock Orange Gran Gala ($21). Made with VSOP brandy, this has a lovely caramel orange color, but its bouquet smells and tastes medicinal, with a chemical aftertaste.
Solerno Blood Orange ($30). This Sicilian bottling has plenty of Italian style, starting with the gorgeous, punted, slim-necked scarlet bottle and the fact that it's made from blood oranges.
But the liquid is clear and colorless, the aroma quite refined and the taste unique, with a berrylike flavor, medium sweetness and a faint, pleasing burn. Its bitter component keeps it clean and makes this an excellent, slightly cheaper alternative to Cointreau.