What Are Whisky Liqueurs?

A Liqueur is a spirit base (whether vodka, rum, whisky, neutral grain spirit, or whatever else) flavored with natural (or unnatural?) flavorings like nuts, herbs, spices, and especially sugar. Liqueurs form the sweetener of a great many classic cocktails, and add interesting flavors to new, inventive drinks (Creme de Violette and Douglas Fir Eau de View for example). A whisky liqueur is, simply, any sweetened or flavored spirit that starts with a whisky (or whiskey) base. Some examples include Drambuie, Jim Beam Red Stag, Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey, and my new favorite in this category: Spicebox. Whisky liqueurs are really meant for mixing, and I doubt anyone would recommend drinking them neat at room temperature.

I’ve had Drambuie a few times, and while I like the concept (what’s not to like about real scotch ‘enhanced’ with honey and Scottish herbs and spices?), the stuff always tastes like medicine – bad medicine – to me, a flavor that even a cocktail and a fistful of ice can’t mask. Keep in mind that I’m not a big proponent of bitters, which are essential to many cocktails, and I rarely enjoy bitter notes in my single malts either.

Regular readers will know exactly what I think about Red Stag, whose similarities to Robitussin can’t be ignored. I have a miniature of Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey that I’m scared to try for the same reason (honey-flavored cough drops anyone?). I was thus skeptical when presented with a miniature of Spicebox, a sweetened Canadian rye liqueur. According to the marketing material, this is Canadian blended rye whisky (aged 3 – 6 years in ex-bourbon barrels) flavored with three kinds of vanilla, nutmeg, fruits, and other spices. The material doesn’t mention sugar sweeteners, but the resulting brew is syrupy as all get-out, and must be fortified with not a little sugar. Rather than try to taste it like a single malt, I nosed it, sipped it neat, and then had the rest with two ice cubes. Clearly, this stuff is not meant to be sipped neat at room temperature (melted ice cream and lukewarm chai tea came to mind). With the ice, though, it becomes a very relaxing dessert-y drink with some serious flavor, and not a medicinal note to be found. For what it’s worth, here are my notes:

Nose: Treacly sweet. Vanilla extract, butterscotch pudding, processed honey and children’s breakfast cereal. Cinnamon, clove, and other mulling spices round out the “spice box”, although the overwhelming sensation is of syrupy sweetness.

Palate: Spicy! Mostly cinnamon. Cinnamon buns complete with the sugary white glaze. Vanilla taffy. Some bourbon-like corn syrup flavors. Easy to drink, but just as sticky-sweet as the nose promised.

Finish: Brief. The spices come back to the fore – something of a circus of real spices with fake sugars – churros, chai-latte-in-a-bottle, etc.

Overall: It’s intriguing, but it’s not whisky. The “natural flavors” added must have included a fair bit of sweetener, a lot of vanilla, and a sprinkling of (very realistic) spice-cabinet spices. This would make a gorgeous spiced apple martini, hot toddy, or Irish (Canadian?) coffee, but it’s simply too sweet and too artificial-tasting to enjoy neat. However, two ice cubes in the glass make this smell (and taste) like butterscotch ice cream. Mmm. That’s not half bad. *guzzles the rest*

It’s caramel colored, 40% ABV, and around $20 a bottle. My sample came from Laura at the Baddish Group. Thanks Laura!

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  • I’m a big fan of Sortilege (Canadian whisky and maple syrup). I usually keep a bottle in the freezer for drinking or drizzling over vanilla ice cream. It’s definitely not an every day drink but fun for company and gatherings.

    • Putting aside the totally unnecessary ad hominem attack (what, precisely, have I done to you, sir?), I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. I barely mention scotch in the above article, which is about sweet whiskey-based liqueurs (Canadian whisky-based, not scotch-based, in this case).

  • An old article yes, but still relevant. Thank you for the recommendations.
    One suggestion, though. I am not against mixing since if a drink needs something to make it more enjoyable for an individual then go with the green light.
    However, a good Scotch need not be mixed with anything – a good whiskey never needs enhancing with an additive. That is clearly personal and not meant to dish out on anybody. When you have found the bottle you like without a mix then you have found yourself a good whiskey – for you!
    I do consider ice to be an additive as the melt water dilutes the flavours of the main.
    Try putting your bottle in the freezer and note the difference when poured straight. Enjoy.