Liquor vs. Liqueur: What’s the Difference?

Read this before you pour after-dinner drinks.

Ever found yourself pouring Baileys into a spiked hot chocolate or shaking up a couple of mai tais for a tiki party and wondering, what’s the different between liquor and liqueur?

It’s a common question, and we’ll break it down so you’ll never mix the two up again—unless you’re making cocktails, of course.

There are a few key differences when it comes to liquor vs. liqueur. First, liquor and spirits are one and the same. Another quick tip to fall back on is to look at the alcohol percentages. Liquors are boozier than liqueurs. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! Let’s dive into the basics.

What Is Liquor?

Liquors are spirits, those strong distilled alcohols made with grains, sugar cane, grapes and so on. In other words, liquors are vodka, whiskey, gin, tequila and rum, all perfect for when it’s time to break out the cocktail shaker.

Spirits range in alcohol content. The minimum is 20% alcohol by volume (ABV) on the low end of the spectrum, with most bottled around 40%. Some liquors boast higher ABV levels, like navy strength gin and overproof rum.

In short, if you plan to make a martini, sip on a G&T or say cheers with an Old-Fashioned, you’re going to need liquor.

What Is Liqueur?

While liqueurs contain spirits (i.e., liquor), they’re also blended with other ingredients. Think spices, herbs, flowers and fruits, along with other flavorings, and most notably, sugar. Yes, liqueurs are delightfully sweet tipples enjoyed not only in cocktails (where they’re usually mixed with liquor) but also as after-dinner drinks, whether neat, over ice or splashed into a cup of coffee. Common liqueurs include amaretto, kahlua, sambuca and Irish cream.

Liqueurs have a lower alcohol content compared to spirits, usually between 15 and 30%, though there are some exceptions. In the past, the ancestors of many of our modern liqueurs were used as herbal tonics and medicines, and some, like Chartreuse, remain with us today. You’ll find many types of liqueurs: chocolate, flower, fruit, nut, cream, coffee and several more to boot.

From your classic Godfather made with amaretto to the Kahlua and Baileys-infused mudslide (aka a grown-up milkshake), liqueur transforms cocktails from good to great. Keep a couple of bottles of liqueur in your home bar—right next to your liquor.

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Camille Berry
Part of the third generation in a family of restaurateurs, Camille was born with a passion for cooking and food. She embarked on a career in hospitality where she excelled as a sommelier and wine director. This hospitality experience has given her a wealth of first-hand knowledge about how to pair all manner of drinks with food—plus some serious kitchen skills. These days, she's hung up her wine key in favor of a pen and covers all aspects of food and drink.