Liqueurs: ‘Last category to premiumise’

30th October, 2019 by Lucy Britner

In terms of spirits premiumisation, liqueurs are the final frontier. But with a host of influential bartenders launching creative new products, the category is taking an exciting turn.

*This feature was originally published in the August 2019 issue of The Spirits Business

When three of the world’s leading bartenders put their names to a new liqueur brand, the industry sits up and takes notice. Muyu, which launched in February, is the brainchild of on‐trade talents Alex Kratena, Monica Berg and Simone Caporale, in collaboration with Dutch firm De Kuyper Royal Distillers.

Muyu, which translates as ‘seed’ in the Native American Quechan language, was inspired by the Amazon rainforest, and is made with natural ingredients. The range comes in three variants, each formulated by one of the co‐founders: Kratena created Muyu Vetiver Gris (22% abv); Berg made Muyu Jasmine Verte (24% abv); and Caporale produced Muyu Chinotto Nero (24% abv).

Albert de Heer, global marketing director at De Kuyper, says that while bartenders have always cared about liqueurs, “a lot of products were just not interesting or innovative enough. The world is full of interesting ingredients, and with new liqueur creations such as Muyu they are finally getting the spotlight.” The rollout of Muyu is surely set to spark a new wave of liqueur launches, in what Kratena says is “possibly the last category to premiumise”.

De Heer says more bartender‐led liqueur creations will be launched at Bar Convent Berlin in October. “We are looking forward to introducing them,” he says, without giving away any details. Kratena adds: “Bartenders have their fingers on the pulse when it comes to spotting interesting ingredients – way before trend‐forecasting agencies. I can’t wait to see what my peers have got coming.”

Speaking of peers, the latest bartender to enter the world of liqueur creation is Marian Beke from The Gibson Bar in London. He has collaborated with Italian liqueurs firm Casoni to launch three ‘savoury’ liqueurs. The range comprises: 29% abv bitter herbs and smoked almond‐infusion Amarotto; 17% abv Wild Berries and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena; and 21% abv Figs and Cherries and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. “In the two‐year development we have used the incredible processes of Casoni to create a truly modern take on classic liqueurs,” says Beke. The liqueurs were released in July via Master of Malt.

Muyu’s bartender-led range

In May, Lukas Stafin of London’s Purl, who has 15 years as a bartender under his belt, teamed up with Dariusz Plazewski of the city’s Bimber Distillery to launch a kumquat‐flavoured liqueur, Fortunella.

“Three years ago, we were making kumquat gin at Purl and I looked at the market and saw there was nothing really new in the liqueurs category,” explains Stafin. “I found a gap in the market.” He says his expression shares a similar premium positioning as Muyu and Giuseppe Gallo’s Italicus rosolio.

Stafin’s kumquats are sourced from China, India, South Africa and South America. The fruits are hand‐prepared for the liqueur’s four‐ stage, small batch production process.

When he set out to create Fortunella, Stafin asked himself why there weren’t more bartender‐led, premium liqueurs on the market. “When I started making it, I realised it takes a lot of time and effort,” he says. “It’s easier to make a gin.”

The explosive growth of the gin category, particularly flavoured gin, has helped boost the world of liqueurs, and this year has seen that trend continue. New gin‐based liqueurs have appeared from the likes of Hayman’s, with its namesake Gin Liqueur, while Eden Mill’s Love Gin Liqueur range has grown with the addition of a Mango and Pineapple variant, and Maison Villevert’s G’Vine Gin brand added G’Vine June – a 30% abv peach‐flavoured liqueur that uses G’Vine Floraison as its base.

Chris Jones, managing director at G’Vine’s UK handler, Paragon Brands, says G’Vine June “mixes well with Prosecco or tonic”, making it ideal for the continuing – and relatively lower‐abv – Spritz craze.

At Eden Mill, co‐founder Paul Miller says the brand’s 20% abv Mango and Pineapple flavour “can be enjoyed neat, or over ice served with premium tonic or sparkling elderflower and garnished with a pineapple or orange wedge”. At less than half the strength of the company’s 42% abv Original Gin expression, the liqueur also makes a good case for lower‐alcohol serves.

After all, liqueurs are, in the main, lower in alcoholic strength than spirits. For example, the Muyu line up ranges from 22%‐24% abv. At the time of the launch, the brand highlighted famous long drink the Highball as a key serving suggestion.

Eden Mill’s Love Gin Liqueurs range

SUGAR AND ALCOHOL

This brings us to the second big driving force behind the new wave of interest in liqueurs – the wider health and wellness trend, which is causing more consumers to look for low‐ and no‐alcohol drinking options.

According to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, demand for low‐ and no‐alcohol is set to grow in key markets including the UK, US, Australia and Germany. While the IWSR’s numbers for the overall global liqueurs category are sober reading – down by 2.1% in 2018 to 73.7 million nine‐litre cases, and estimated to be “fairly flat” over the next five years – there is room for optimism.

“As consumer interest in health and wellness continues to increase across the globe, we foresee a number of new and innovative low‐ and no‐alcohol products – across categories – designed to meet that demand,” says Jose Luis Hermoso, Central and South America research director at IWSR.

“Our consumer research shows that one of the top factors that influences low‐ and no‐ alcohol decision making is taste, so the liqueurs category, given its diversity and flavour profiles, is uniquely positioned to be a leader in the future development of these ‘better for you’ products.”

At De Kuyper, the low‐alcohol trend is on the radar. “Low‐alcohol offers make drinks menus more versatile and more interesting,” believes de Heer. “As bar culture advances, people realise you can make delicious drinks without relying on alcohol.” He says that when developing liqueurs, the distillery takes into account consumer desire for lower‐ alcohol and lower‐sugar options. “Using the liqueur as a base instead of a modifier helps reduce the alcohol per serve.”

Meanwhile, at liqueurs giant Lucas Bols, the focus is on serves. The company introduced a range of lower‐alcohol cocktail recipes last year, called Low Bols. As part of the company’s 2018/2019 annual report, company CEO Huub van Doorne said the move was a response to the low‐alcohol trend.

“We welcome this trend and take responsibility to deliver products that are in keeping with the growing global trend towards health awareness while at the same time acknowledging that every person in the world deserves a fantastic cocktail experience,” said van Doorne in the report. “Low Bols provides the base for low‐alcohol cocktails based on the Bols liqueurs range.”Serves include Bols Cucumber with tonic and Bols Ginger with soda water.

Though the low‐abv trend is prevalent, it’s worth noting that not all liqueurs are low in alcohol. Hayman’s Gin Liqueur, which launched in late May, weighs in at 40% abv. “This is a liqueur for people who enjoy the taste of gin,” said James Hayman, distillery co‐owner, at the time of the launch. “By adding just the right amount of sugar to our blend of 10 classic botanicals we’ve been able to capture all that wonderful gin character but layer in the underlying sweetness traditionally associated with a liqueur.”

Purl’s Lukas Stafin has developed Fortunella

Fortunella’s Stafin also purposely kept his brand’s alcohol content high. At 36%, it is not far off the 37.5% abv EU requirement for vodka and gin. “Most liqueur brands go in at 20% abv,” he says, “but I wanted 36% abv so Fortunella is the star of a drink.” Stafin also kept the sugar content of Fortunella relatively low, because “people are concerned” about their sugar intake. He says Fortunella contains 110g per litre.

“The requirement for liqueurs in the EU is at least 100g per litre,” he explains, with many brands way over that mark. “A liqueur at 20% abv can still be the star of a cocktail,” he says, “though often the high sugar content means it’s not so easy to play with them as the main ingredient.” De Kuyper’s de Heer agrees, saying many modern liqueurs are designed with lower sugar content, “to improve mixability”. He says: “Our liqueurs are relatively low in sugar compared with other liqueurs. In most new creations we use the bare minimum we have to work with for liqueurs, so 100g per litre, like in the Bébo Cuban Coffee Liqueur.

That expression was developed to ride the Espresso Martini wave, highlighting the continued importance of liqueurs to cocktails and cocktails to liqueurs.

“Liqueurs have played a pivotal role in cocktails since the early days,” adds de Heer. Just to cover the basic cocktails he says a bar needs at least 10 different bottles – “think Margarita, Espresso Martini, 20th Century, Singapore Sling, and that doesn’t include anything special yet or any variations”.

While all bartenders use liqueurs, de Heer laments that the “awareness and appreciation towards the category is still low” – a tide he hopes will turn with projects such as Muyu.

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