The Bittersweet Symphony of Modern Liqueurs

From walnut to aloe, producers are using a variety of ingredients to craft increasingly interesting liqueurs that artfully combine sweet with bitter.
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Think of liqueurs as Halloween candy for grown-ups. Sure, many are decadent sweet treats, reminiscent of boozy nut-studded chocolate bars rendered in delicious liquid form. But increasingly, those liqueurs are heading in more sophisticated directions.

It’s not unlike evolving preferences from Hershey bars to squares of 72% cacao dark chocolate: You’re still getting that beloved chocolate fix, but with less sweetness and more complexity; the experience is even enhanced by subtle amounts of bitterness and spice.

Walnut-based liqueurs figure prominently among these sip-worthy liqueurs, artfully mixing the bitter with the sweet.

The latest crop of new liqueurs channels that same experience, melding sweet (but not-too-sweet) with bitter, spice and herbaceous tones. Overall, the result is complex and nuanced, yielding satisfying sippers for the dessert table—plus a number of newcomers that almost read like bottled cocktails.

Walnut-based liqueurs figure prominently among these sip-worthy liqueurs, artfully mixing the bitter with the sweet. Known as nocino in Italian, noix in French and nüsse in German, walnut liqueur is traditionally made from freshly harvested, still-green walnuts, which are steeped in an alcohol base, then spiced and sweetened. The nut naturally tempers the sweetness with light bitterness and a delicate tannic edge.

In addition to the bottlings below, other well-­recommended offerings include Don Ciccio & Figli Nocino from the Washington, D.C.-based producer; Nero Walnut Liqueur, a Bulgarian bottling made with a base of distilled Pinot Noir; and Italy’s savory-spiced Vicario Nocino.

In addition to nocino, our recent reviews also include a wider range of new liqueurs. Some—like Jägermeister’s Manifest—channel gingerbread spice, while others showcase gentler flavors, like the North Forest Kreme Pumpkin Liqueur that seems ideal for fueling pumpkin-spice fantasies this Halloween.

Looking to Update Your Bourbon? Try Nocino

Chareau Aloe Liqueur (USA; Charron Favreau, Camarillo, CA); $45, 96 points. This ethereal, delightful liqueur is clear in the glass, with a fresh, bright aroma that suggests fresh-cut green melon and cucumber water, plus a zesty citrus hint. The palate teases with sweet, vegetal, floral and fleeting jalapeño spice in turn, without quite settling in one space. A treat with tequila. abv: 25%

Nux Alpina Walnut Liqueur (Austria; Haus Alpenz, Edina, MN); $29/375 ml, 95 points. Plush, subtle and not overly sweet, this nut-brown liqueur opens with aromas of spices and spearmint. Concentrated cocoa and espresso tones warm the palate, tapering off with the faintest hint of walnut bitterness. Sip after dinner or mix with any brown spirit. abv: 32% 

Galliano L’Aperitivo (Italy; Lucas Bols USA, Manhasset, NY);$17/375 ml, 94 points. Ideal for Negronis and other aperitivo cocktails, this bright red bitter is a touch lighter and more citrusy than standard-bearer Campari. The aroma skews fruity, while the palate is immediately bitter. A bit of red fruit emerges on the midpalate, while the long finish offers tones of grapefruit peel and cinnamon. abv: 24% 

Jägermeister Manifest (Germany; Mast-Jägermeister US, Inc., White Plains, NY); $60/1 L, 94 points. The brand best-known for college shooters may finally have a product to transition away from that image. This complex, sweet-spiced liqueur shows hints of gingerbread, honey and warming baking spices, finishing long on hints of dried fruit and vanilla. Sips nicely over a chunk of ice; ready to mix into cocktails too. Limited release as of May 2018. abv: 38% 

North Forest Kreme Pumpkin Liqueur (USA; Chankaska Spirits, Kasota, MN); $24, 93 points. Ready for all manner of autumnal imbibing, this easy-sipping liqueur pours out chocolate milk brown with a sweet, spiced aroma. The palate is pleasingly soft, with a flavor evoking mellow baking spice more than actual pumpkin flesh. abv: 17%

Marble Gingercello Liqueur (USA; Marble Distilling, Carbondale, CO); $39, 93 points. Described by the producer as “a contemporary cello adaptation,” look for a pale straw hue in the glass and sprightly fresh ginger root fragrance. The palate is moderately sweet and viscous, spiced with plenty of ginger and finishing with lemon peel brightness. abv: 35%

Marble Gingercello Reserve (USA; Marble Distilling, Carbondale, CO); $55, 93 points. This is a ginger-laced take on the limoncello category, lightly aged in oak casks. The end result is a golden liqueur with warming, muted ginger tones tinged with vanilla. It almost drinks like a young brandy. abv: 35% 

Destillaré Intense Orange Curacao (USA; Copper & Kings, Louisville, KY); $35, 92 points. This is made with a base of Copper & Kings apple brandy liqueur plus orange peels and honey, then finished in former brandy barrels. The end result is a viscous liqueur with a golden-orange hue and not-too-sweet honeyed palate, followed by subtle orange peel flavor and cinnamon sizzle. Mix into Sidecars and other brandy cocktails. abv: 45%

Cardinal Spirits Nocino (USA; Cardinal Spirits, Bloomington, IN); $28/375 ml, 90 points. This craft distiller releases a new vintage each year, made with green walnuts harvested from the co-founder’s family’s trees. The 2017 has a relatively sweet aroma ­reminiscent of cola. The palate is appropriately bitter up front, quickly rounding into cocoa, rich red fruit and cola notes laced with allspice and plenty of anise, which lingers into the long finish. Made with a vodka base and sweetened with maple syrup. abv: 39% 

Skip Rock Distillers Nocino Walnut Liqueur (USA; Skip Rock Distillers, Snohomish, WA); $45, 90 points. Some nocinos are made in a matter of weeks or months; this one takes a minimum of two years from walnut harvest to bottle, the producer says. Look for a deep brown, opaque appearance in the glass. The aroma suggests sarsaparilla, while the palate leads with warm red fruit accented by hints of dark chocolate, dates and dried figs, finishing with a mild walnut bitterness. abv: 33%

North Forest Kreme Walnut Liqueur (USA; Chankaska Spirits, Kasota, MN); $24, 88 points; $24, 88 points. Made with walnuts and maple syrup, this cream liqueur has a chocolate milk-brown hue and sweet, nutty aroma. The velvety palate offers nutty sweetness braced by just enough bitter walnut edge. abv: 17%

Published on September 27, 2018
Topics: Drinks
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of several cocktail books, including Shake.Stir.Sip. and NIGHTCAP: More than 40 Cocktails to Close Out Any Evening, which debuts in September 2018. Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net




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