You’ve got the spirit basics covered on your bar cart—everything from warming whiskeys to top-shelf vodkas, and noteworthy tequilas. But there are also some liqueurs that are bidding for a primo spot on your cart. The very best liqueurs are complex but not cloying; suitable for sipping on their own. But they’re also diplomats—meaning they can add an extra layer to cocktails without stealing the spotlight and overpowering your favorite liquors.
The sweet concoctions in weird bottles that can be confused with maple syrup or the candy-like puckers you open once a decade need not apply to our latest curation of the very best liqueurs. These nine refined bottles are for the discerning at-home bartender.
1. Amaro Averna
Amaro Averna is a bar cart classic that’s made with a closely guarded 150-year-old recipe. The traditional Sicilian way to drink it is over ice, with a squeeze of fresh lemon, and with a sprig of herbs and a twist of lemon as the garnish. But this bittersweet Italian liqueur that’s made with Mediterranean herbs, roots, and spices is also nice in an espresso martini (in case you’ve missed it, the coffee cocktail has made a comeback stronger than a double shot) or in a black Manhattan—a riff on a whiskey cocktail that calls for Amaro Averna instead of sweet vermouth. There’s a lot of great things happening in this liqueur. Start by homing in on the notes of citrus, licorice, and juniper berries.
Because of its versatility, St-Germain, an elderflower liqueur, is known as a “bartender’s ketchup,” says Lynnette Marrero, co-founder of Speed Rack bartending competition and bar director of Llama Inn and Llama San in New York City. “It goes well with any spirit from light to dark,” she says. “It’s equally comfortable in a spritz or old fashioned.” A little bit goes a long way to adjust the balance of a cocktail and add a unique flavor, which is floral but not perfumy. The claim is that there’s up to 1,000 wild elderflower blossoms in every bottle.
Go ahead, you’d be correct to judge this liqueur by its superb aquamarine bottle that will shine on your bar cart. Italicus is crafted with bergamotto, which is a citrus that’s similar to an orange in size but has a green-yellow peel rich in essential oils. Through a process known as “Sfumatura,” the peels are infused in cold water, releasing bittersweet essential oils. It’s then blended with other botanicals, like Roman chamomile from Lazio, and lavender and yellow roses from Northern Italy. The liqueur adds a nice complexity to summer spritzes. Or you could make a simple beer cocktail with one part Italicus, four parts of your favorite IPA. In a cocktail world of age-old spirits, Italicus is a newcomer: It was born in 2016, and quickly garnered recognition including a “Best New Spirit” honor at Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.
If you love tequila cocktails like margaritas and palomas, keep a bottle of Fruitlab Hibiscus Liqueur from Greenbar Distillery on deck. Created with whole hibiscus flowers and fresh California lemons, this hibiscus liqueur is juicy and tart without being cloying. It also plays nicely with rum and mezcal cocktails and can be added to sparkling wine for a little holiday oomph. Also, for every bottle purchased, Greenbar plants a tree in Central America rainforests, which is cheers-worthy.
This silky French liqueur was originally made by a monk in the 1600s and is an alchemy of 27 secret spices and herbs, with tasting notes that include citrus and honey. “A delicate and nuanced herbal liqueur, one of the first to be employed in cocktails, it is indispensable in many classic formulations including a number of New Orleans classics such as the Vieux Carré,” says Nicholas Jarrett, a bartender at Peychaud’s in New Orleans. Vieux Carrés, by the way, are stiff rye whiskey cocktails with cognac and spices from the Bénédictine.
Mexico’s heirloom Cacahuazintle corn is traditionally used to make tortillas and tamales. It also makes a damn good liqueur that’s savory and sweet with just a hint of roasted corn, plus notes of vanilla and caramel. Swap it for orange liqueur in your next margarita or kick your old fashioneds up a notch with the addition of some Nixta. If you’re a baker, you can use it in pastries like flan or panna cotta too. The textured bottle, you’ll notice, looks like an artistic interpretation of a corn cob.
Supposedly made from 130 different herbs, Green Chartreuse is the most complex herbal liqueur you’re going to come across, promises Harry Jameson, general manager of a.kitchen + a.bar in Philadelphia. The centuries-old recipe is protected by Caruthian monks and those involved in the production only know fragments of the recipe. “There is absolutely no substitute for this liqueur,” he says. “It’s an essential ingredient in a Last Word or a Champs-Elysees, but can also give a fantastic kick to any kind of gimlet variant.” It’s minty, so you could add a splash to your hot cocoa or après-ski drinks for a winter warmer.
This classic Venetian aperitif was dreamed up in 1920 in the Castello district at Pilla Distilleries, a spot well respected for the art of liquor making. Today, this ruby red liqueur is synonymous with the Venetian cocktail scene and is the base for the Original Venetian Spritz. Make one of your own with three parts prosecco, two parts Select Aperitivo, and a splash of soda with a green olive garnish. Aromatic and bittersweet, this bottle has a blend of 30 botanicals and hints of vanilla and cardamom.
If you tend to make a lot of bright, citrus-forward cocktails at home, “fruit liqueurs can take them to the next level,” says Jameson. But exercise some caution—you don’t want a syrupy sweet fruit liqueur. His recommendation: anything from Giffard. “While many liqueurs have a bright pop of initial flavor that then fades into an artificial and unpleasant bitterness, I find Giffard liqueurs to have a deeper flavor that lingers much longer and gives cocktails a more complete flavor profile,” he says. The Crème de Pamplemousse Rose specifically is a liqueur infused with pink grapefruit zests, which is a secret weapon in palomas or could be splashed into bubbles.