October 16th is National Liqueur Day, so celebrate with a shot of your favorite.
But first, what is liqueur?
Pronounced lih-CUR in French and lih-KYOOR by some Americans, it’s one of a group of after-dinner drinks that also includes eau de vie, cordial and schnapps.
Most people—including American producers and importers—use these terms interchangeably. But there are differences:
Schnaps/schnapps, a generic German word for liquor or any alcoholic beverage, is more specific in English, where it refers to clear brandies distilled from fermented fruits. The English added a second “p,” spelling the word as schnapps. True Schnaps has no sugar added, but products sold in the U.S. as schnapps may indeed be sweetened. As one expert commented, “German Schnaps is to American schnapps as German beer is to American Budweiser.”
Eau de vie is the French term for Schnaps. American-made brands labeled eau de vie (“water of life”) are often heavily sweetened, and have added glycerine for thickening.
EAU DE VIE, CORDIAL, LIQUEUR & SCHNAPS:
You can drink liqueur from any glass, but this is one of the classic liqueur glass shapes. Photo courtesy Bourbon Blog.
Liqueur is an already distilled alcohol made from grain which has already been fermented, into which fruits are steeped. It is sweeter and more syrupy than a European eau de vie or schnapps.
Cordial, in the U.S., almost always refers to a syrupy, sweet alcoholic beverage, a synonym for liqueur. In the U.K., it refers to a non-alcoholic, sweet, syrupy drink or the syrup used to make such a drink. Rose’s Lime Cordial, a British brand, is called Rose’s Lime Juice in the U.S. so Americans don’t think it’s alcoholic.
THE HISTORY OF EAU DE VIE, “WATER OF LIFE”
The distillation of alcohol may have taken place as early as 200 C.E., possibly by alchemists trying to make gold. Because spirits were initially intended to be medicinal, “water of life” was a reasonable name for the distilled alcoholic preparations.
The Russian term zhiznennia (life) voda (water), which was distilled down (that’s a pun) into “vodka,” also means water of life (the literal translation of vodka is “little water”).
The Gaelic uisce beatha, pronounced ISH-ka BYA-ha, too, means “water of life.” The pronunciation evolved into the more familiar term, whiskey.