Produce: Keeping spirits up for 500 years
Larry Waterfield

Columnist

Selling fresh fruit, oranges, apples, pears, grapes, or you name it, is a big business around the world. So is selling fruit in liquid form — juices. Actually, selling fruit in distilled form is also a big business.

If you’re looking for reasons to celebrate, here’s one: In about 8 months it will be the 500th anniversary of the first liqueur or cordial, the sweet distilled drinks made mostly from fruits, with some drawn from spices, herbs, nuts and even coffee or cream.

Today, these fruit-based alcoholic drinks are a $2.3 billion industry. Last year, the high-end brands grew 11%, while overall sales stayed steady. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, the entire industry, everything from rum and tequila to scotch, sells $19 billion worth a year.

Benedictine was the first liqueur, made by monks of the order of St. Benedict in northern France in 1510, using herbs and a fruit-derived cognac as a base.

It’s still sold today, and is often combined with brandy and marketed as B&B. Benedictine may carry the most unusual marketing slogan of any product. The label is marked D.O.M. — “Dedicated to God, the highest and greatest.” (Deo Optimo Maximo.)

The monks of Europe were a spirited bunch, in more ways than one. They created other liqueurs, Chartreuse and Frangelico; the first whiskeys, or eau-de-vie; and a monk, Dom Perignon, developed champagne. Monks were early developers of grain-based beer. In fact, the German beer city of Munich (Munchen) means “monks” in German.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds of liqueurs, many closely associated with regions, countries, islands, towns and monasteries.

A lot of the beverages are combined with fruit juices, fruits and veggies to make exotic drinks, cocktails and martinis with names like Bahama Mama, Mudslide, Monkey Gland, Banshee, Scarlett O’Hara, Besame, and some names that cannot be repeated here.

Most fruits have an associated liqueur. With the big anniversary coming up one could imagine some amazing cross-promotions and tie-ins, but that could present tricky image problems, even though in some states supermarkets can sell hard spirits — distilled alcohol — right in the stores and are not restricted to beer and wine.

Liqueurs are not just for sipping after dinner or adding to fruity drink concoctions. They can be used in cooking. They can give a flavor kick to foods and can be added to fresh fruit combinations, such as trifles and fruit salads.

Here are some of the fruits and their liqueur derivatives:

  • Oranges and citrus: Cointreau, Grand Marnier, curacao, Tuaca, GranGala, triple sec.
  • Lemons: Limoncello, an Italian liqueur that evokes visions of lemon groves clinging to steep hillsides above the Mediterranean shore.
  • Pomegranate: PAMA liqueur, which is often seen advertised in high-end fashion magazines.
  • Melons: Midori.
  • Raspberries: Chambord, named after one of the grand chateaus in the Loire Valley of France.
  • Pear: Casalinghi; and Poire William, which might be the most unusual liqueur because it fills a bottle containing a real pear, which is grown inside the bottle. The bottle is placed on the tree, with branch and bud stuck in the bottle.
  • Cherry: Cherry Heering.
  • Plum: sloe gin liqueur.
  • Pineapple: Licor de Pina.
  • Strawberry: Tequila Rose.
  • Apple: Calvados, a strong French liqueur from Normandy, which is closely akin to brandy.
  • Nuts and berries: Frangelico.
  • Mixed fruit: Pimm’s Cup.
  • Potato spirits and mixed fruit: Hideous, a brand produced in Idaho, with fruits from Washington State.

This is only the beginning. There are liqueurs made from banana, peaches, pumpkins. The little Caribbean island of St. Martin has a liqueur made from guavaberries and sold in a colorful square bottle.

Herbs, spices and nuts form the base for other liqueurs, including Amaretto, Galliano, Sambuco, Ouzo, Jagermeister, and the potent Aguardiente from Colombia. (Once in Medellin, I wound up under the table from drinking this stuff.)

Finally, there are liqueurs made from chocolate, coffee and cream, including Kahlua, Tia Maria and Bailey’s. There’s even one from Starbucks.

By and large, the liqueurs are associated with food, meals, dining out, special occasions, holidays. Not many people are bellying up to the bar to order a Cherry Heering.

They can put the exclamation point to a great dining experience. It’s no surprise that they rely on the essence of fresh fruit for their appeal and potency.

So here’s to the Benedictine monks of the Great Abbey at Fecamp, France, and the trend they started almost 500 years ago. Bon Appetit. Cheers!