French herbal liqueurs are made by the maceration and/or distillation of numerous botanicals, resulting in a strong, complex spirit. Chartreuse and Bénédictine are the two best-known French herbal liqueurs, but there are others, such as Italian herbal liqueurs. These are sweet liqueurs flavoured with a variety of botanicals and coloured yellow with saffron or other colouring; the most famous examples include Strega and Galliano. There are also herbal liqueurs made in other European countries (such as Jäegermeister in Germany) which have varying degrees of similarity.
Chartreuse and Bénédictine were both originally made by monks as medicinal tonics. The recipes are secret but both make use of a wide range of botanicals, including flowers, fruits, roots, spices and nuts, sweetened with sugar or honey.
Strega and Galliano are the two best known Italian herbal liqueurs. ‘Strega’ means female witch in Italian. According to Italian folklore, women in the Campania region, where Strega is made, have a history of concocting secret potions from wild herbs – hence the name. It is made from grain spirit, which is macerated with the botanicals, then redistilled, aged in wooden vats, sweetened and bottled.
Galliano comes in a distinctive tall bottle and has the same bright yellow colour. It is flavoured with 40 botanicals, including vanilla, star anise and various roots and berries.
Given the large number of botanicals used, these liqueurs have a complex flavour. Galliano is sweeter than Strega and slightly lower in alcohol. In Italy, Strega is drunk as a digestif and is used in a number of dessert recipes and cakes. Galliano in particular is used in cocktails: the Harvey Wallbanger and Screwdriver are classics.
The high price of herbal liqueurs reflects the care with which they are made. Strega and Galliano are available from specialist drinks retailers.
Herbal liqueurs keep quite well and the higher the alcoholic strength, the better the keeping qualities. The flavour may begin to suffer with very long-term storage (more than one year).
Herbal liqueurs such as Chartreuse and Bénédictine are classic digestifs and are also good in cocktails, such as the Singapore Sling. The flavour of herbal liqueurs varies a great deal, so if a cocktail recipe calls for a particular liqueur, it’s best to stick to that specific drink.
For example, Strega should not be used as a substitute for Galliano in cocktail recipes but the two can be used interchangeably in cakes and desserts, although the final flavour will differ.
Article by Susan Low
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