As with many drinks terms and names, it can get a bit confusing when determining the difference between liquor vs. liqueur. While they may sound similar, there are important differences to know when opening a bottle.
So, we broke down the important distinctions between liquor vs. liqueur terms, plus everything else you should know about this expansive category of spirits.
What’s the Difference Between Liquor vs. Liqueur?
In the same way that Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne, all liqueur is liquor, but not all liquor is a liqueur.
The difference between liquor vs. liqueur can understandably get confusing, especially because the words are so similar. Liquors (pronounced li-kr) are “unsweetened spirits whose flavors are determined solely by their base ingredients during the distillation and aging process,” according to The Gourmet’s Guide to Cooking with Liquor and Spirits. These are classic ingredients you’d stock your bar cart with and mix up in a basic cocktail, like whiskey and gin.
In comparison, liqueurs (pronounced lih-cure), sometimes called cordials, have additional sweetness or spiciness added to their base alcohol. Liqueurs are grouped by flavor profile rather than spirit type. In terms of liqueur, think herbal Amaro and coffee-like Kahlúa.
What Are the Different Types of Liquor?
Though there are more classic liquors than we could ever compile into a list, here are a few common ones that you’ll likely see on menus.
Whiskey is an umbrella term for distilled spirits made with water, yeast and grains like corn, rye or barley malt. It’s spelled whisky if it’s made in Japan, Scotland or Canada, and also includes different subgroups like Scotch and Bourbon.
How to Drink Whiskey: Enjoy it straight or try it in the classic Old Fashioned or whiskey sour.
“Gin can be distilled from any raw material,” previously wrote Kara Newman, spirits reviewer and Wine Enthusiast writer at large. The only required botanical flavoring is juniper, but you’ll also find rose, lavender, citrus peels and more.
How to Drink Gin: Enjoy it straight, try a classic gin martini or mix up a gin and tonic, a timeless classic.
Vodka is clear without much aroma or flavor. It varies based on the brand because it can be made anywhere in the world from just about any ingredient—seriously, even fog.
How to Drink Vodka: You can sip it straight, but its neutral flavor profile lends itself to a whole host of cocktails like the Cosmo, the Vesper Martini and more.
This sugarcane-based spirit has a whole host of styles ranging from silver rums, which are filtered to remove color, to dark rums, which are blended with molasses or caramel.
How to Drink Rum: You can enjoy this spirit straight, but rum’s wide flavor profile lends it to a whole host of cocktails like the Hurricane and mojito, among others.
Brandy is one of the broadest categories of spirits, which means it can get a tad confusing. But “the vast majority of brandies are distilled either from grapes (Cognac, Armagnac, grappa or pisco) or apples (Calvados, applejack or apple brandy),” Newman previously wrote for Wine Enthusiast.
How to Drink Brandy: Enjoy it as is or mix it into the Brandy Alexander or Almond Orchard cocktails.
The agave-based spirit lends itself beautifully to a whole host of cocktails. And while the plant can be found around the world, tequila is made specifically from Blue Weber Agave grown in Jalisco, Mexico, as well as municipalities Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.
How to Drink Tequila: Sip it straight or mix it up in a margarita or Ranch Water cocktail.
What Are the Different Types of Liqueur?
There are multiple types of liqueurs that range from coffee and fruit-flavored options, like orange-flavored brands Triple Sec or Cointreau, to herbal, cream, or nut-flavored liqueurs, so there’s a style for every palate. Though significantly more liqueurs than we’ve compiled exist, here are a few of our favorite options to get started.
Cynar is an herbal liqueur flavored with artichokes along with other spices and first came about in Italy in 1952. For another herbal option, try Chartreuse, a green liqueur that has been made since the 18th century.
How to Drink Herbal Liqueur: Cynar adds a great twist to the classic Manhattan and mixes well with tonic. You can also drink it straight as an aperitif or digestif. Drink Chartreuse straight or mix it into hot chocolate or the Last Word cocktail.
Orange-flavored Triple Sec originated in France but is now produced around the world. You can also try Curaçao, which refers to a type of bitter orange that grows on the spirit’s namesake Caribbean island. You can use it interchangeably with other orange-flavored liqueurs like Grand Mariner or Cointreau, which has a crisp and smooth flavor profile.
How to Drink Orange Liqueur: Triple Sec tends to be citrusy and lends itself well to a margarita or sangria. You’ll find Cointreau in drinks like the Sidecar or Cosmopolitan.
Amaretto is a sweetened spirit that gets its flavor from “steeped almonds, apricot pits (which have a distinct almond flavor), peach stones, or a mix of the three,” Courtney Iseman previously wrote for Wine Enthusiast. There are a few origin stories surrounding Amaretto, but people have been drinking it since the 1500s. For another nutty liqueur reach for Nocino. This Italian spirit is often made with “green walnuts. It’s a deep-hued, nutty sipper with a tinge of natural bitterness,” Newman previously wrote for Wine Enthusiast.
How to Drink Nut-Flavored Liqueur: Drink Amaretto straight as a digestif or mix up a classic Amaretto sour. Try Amaretto in the Ghost Story Cocktail.
Newman previously described cream liqueurs in Wine Enthusiast as, “cozy, slightly indulgent and a treat to enjoy when you need a little lift.” The category tends to run lower in alcohol than others and though the base alcohol varies, it is often more approachable for consumers due to its creamy texture and luscious flavor. Some popular varieties include Irish cream, made from Irish whiskey, or coffee cream, often made with rum or other spirits.
How to Drink Cream Liqueur: Add a splash of your favorite cream liqueur to coffee, tea or hot chocolate, or shake it up in a creamy cocktail, like the It’s a Wonderful Life.
What Does Top-Shelf Liquor Mean?
Much like other aspects of the drinks world, there are no hard rules. But typically, these liquors are on the highest shelf in a bar setting and will often retail for $50 per bottle or more. Mid-shelf spirits are a step down and typically fall in the $25-$50 range.
Does Liquor Ever Go Bad?
Liquor that’s unopened and not “fortified with sugar, like plain vodka, gin, whiskey, Scotch, tequila and so on, have a nearly indefinite shelf life,” Wine Enthusiast previously reported. And while your liquor won’t go bad per se after it’s opened, it will slowly oxidize and lose its quality over time. Typically, whiskey can stay good for at least a year, if not longer, after opening. Gin, on the other hand, should be consumed within a year of opening.
Does Liqueur Ever Go Bad?
The shelf life of liqueur can vary greatly from bottle to bottle. As a good rule of thumb, the higher the proof, the longer the shelf life.
“For a loose, unscientific guide, aim to replace liqueurs under 35% abv every three to four months, those from 35–44% every six months, and those 45% or above every 12 months,” Dylan Garret previously wrote for Wine Enthusiast.