Big Bang ... in a little glass

Which dessert goes with which liqueur for a walk down happy-tongue lane? What do you do with those little liqueur glasses you inherited from Aunt Tilda? And what is that long, tall bottle of flaming-yellow elixir that sits behind Every Bar USA? Should we try it? (Yes.)

The liqueurs-and-more menu goes long: There are coffee, fruit, cocoa, crème and cream flavors – the latter containing shelf-stable dairy. There are proprietary products, like Kahlúa, and generic versions, such as coffee liqueur made by a variety of vendors. There are schnapps, bitters and anise-
flavored spirits.

Demystifying the liqueur category

Liqueurs and cordials, which tend to be handled in one breath along with their cousinly bitters, do have their differences. Liqueurs are herb-based with flavors dissolved in them; cordials, however, take their flavor from fruit pulp or juices rather than herbs.

Both are sweetened, both are redistilled; neither necessarily improves with age. Staging time is required, though, for the flavors to blend. The difference in cream liqueurs is the base. Baileys, for instance, has an Irish whiskey base. Vermeer Dutch Chocolate Cream is chocolate, cream and vodka.

Schnapps is a German word for a brandy-based flavored liqueur; flavors include apple, peppermint, cinnamon and even watermelon. Sambuca, a clear, sweet, thick brand of liqueur that tastes licorice-y, goes well with espresso. It also flames nicely, enabling a bartender or server to make a spectacle of it.

Tim Greco, assistant manager and spirit buyer at Lukas Liquor in Ellisville, likes Marie Brizard, an old French company that makes very good crème de cacao and some crèmes de menthe. He also has some tips on pairing liqueurs and desserts:

• If you’re going to cook with your liqueur, do not cook with one that you would not drink.
• If there is no chocolate in your dessert, don’t pair it with a chocolate liqueur.
• The dessert should be the centerpiece, not the liqueur. However, the liqueur should have a like or complementary flavor found in
the dessert.

“Your best bet in pairing liqueurs with dessert is hewing to the ingredients,” agreed Andy Ayers, chef and owner of Riddle’s Penultimate Café & Wine Bar in The Loop, where desserts and “after-dinners” make wow-inducing combos. Consider Grand Marnier with Ayers’ Santa’s Kiss, a house-made eggnog-Courvoisier ice cream sprinkled with semisweet chocolate shavings and trimmed with a cinnamon swizzle stick that made a December appearance on his restaurant’s ever-changing menu.

At Vin de Set in Lafayette Square, owners Paul and Wendy Hamilton pour and drop liqueurs into martinis to create coffee and nut and berry variations. Take Goldschläger, a cinnamon schnapps, for example. Its spicy essence blends well with Chambord (black raspberry liqueur) and cranberry juice. Known as the Shattered Ornament during the holidays, the drink will be tweaked to feature a Valentine’s Day twist this month.

But how to pair liqueurs with dessert? “Think of baking and what flavors go good together, like cinnamon and butterscotch. Then take a dessert and see what goes with it,” Paul Hamilton said.

Bitter – in a good way

Bitters, very herbal like the popular Jägermeister, were once considered medicinal, though broadly speaking that is true of liqueurs, as well. Some folks still imbibe bitters thinking these potent little drinks will settle their stomachs and make a heavy meal sit lightly.

Bitters get less attention, perhaps, but Greco gives them respect. “A lot of people don’t really enjoy the bitter flavors because they don’t know what to pair with them,” he said. He spoke of Underberg, a little-known bitter made from roots and herbs. It is as powerful – 88 proof – as it is intense and bitter, yet its producers claim it eases an overfull or queasy stomach. And what’s the next trend in bitters? Campari. Enjoy it with something salty to eat.

Ayers told of a favorite after-dinner pairing: “When I was mistakenly delivered a bottle of straight benedictine once, I started to experiment and eventually settled on what I most enjoy now – B&A – benedictine and Armagnac.” (The latter is one of the globe’s finest brandies.) He recommended his liqueur-brandy concoction as an excellent companion to sweets and chocolate, and as “an outstanding sipping cocktail. You can literally match the level of sweetness to your food or to your mood by changing the ratio of the two ingredients.” But be careful, Ayers warned with a smile – getting the ratio right can take time and a lot of tasting.

Andrew Liebermann of Cherokee Street Catering may pair vanilla ice cream with brandy and crème de cacao, and he may love the idea of a cheese tray with port and goat cheese on crackers or crostini with a side of Grand Marnier, but he pointed to the social pleasure of liqueurs and etceteras. “Sure, [the after-dinner drink] complements the food and vice versa,” Liebermann said, “but more importantly, it allows more time to enjoy the company of those you are spending the evening with.”