Difference between Liquor and Liqueur
The spellings may look similar and may fall under the same category of beverages but liquor and liqueur are two completely different things.
Liquor is a distilled beverage made from organic products like grain, fruit, vegetables, etc. The first step of the process is fermentation, similar to winemaking. Sugar is often added to the fermenting liquid but the sweetness is not part of the final spirit. It is used so that yeast can convert it into alcohol. After fermentation, it is the process of distillation which defines the liquid as a spirit or liquor. Distillation is a purification process which removes additives and particles in the fermented liquid, mostly water. The process also helps concentrate the alcohol content taking it up to easy 40% ABV and more, making the spirit more potent. It is because of this that whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, etc, are known as hard liquor. Many consider Absinthe to be a liqueur but with ABV ranging from 45-70% it firmly falls under the liquor category.
While liqueurs are made from liquors it is the infusion of botanicals which make them different. These can be flavors, oils or extracts of fruits, herbs, spices, flowers, cream and dairy, etc. The amount of alcohol also varies; it can be anything from 15% ABV to 55% ABV. Cointreau for instance is a triple sec or an orange flavored liqueur and has 40% ABV, Bailey’s Irish Cream on the other hand has just 17% ABV. Liqueurs need a base spirit which could be any distilled spirit which suits the flavor profile of the final liqueur; it could be anything from whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, etc. The term liqueur comes from the Latin word liquifacere which means to liquefy.
Liqueurs are often known as cordials, they were used as medicinal properties which derive from the botanicals used. The usage of sweeteners makes it sweeter and syrupy making it more palatable as an aperitif as it masks the harshness that alcohol brings with it. Liqueurs can be consumed on their own without mixers, most commonly they are used in cocktails to add a flavors and depth to the drink.
Schnapps is not a liqueur; it comes under liquor category due to its distillation process. Schnapps is a German word for any type of clear fruit based brandy. This has no added sugar unlike liqueurs. Eau de vie is another term used for clear brandies. A lot of commercial players create flavored and sweetened brandy which they call schnapps.
Flavored liquors or infused liquors are also very different from liqueurs. Commonly found variations are in vodka, rum and often tequila. The neutrality of these spirits make them suitable to additional flavors. Vodka by far is the most popular spirit to be flavored, brands like Smirnoff and Absolut have infusions ranging from coffee to mango and more. The concept of infusion is similar to that of liqueurs but it is the sugar and alcohol content which makes all the difference. Flavored liquor maintains their high ABV percentage and has no added sweeteners.