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First use of the word liqueur

Everyone knows what a ‘liqueur’ is, right? They come in many shapes, sizes and flavours, but they can all be essentially described as a distilled alcoholic drink that’s usually sweet and loaded with extra flavours like fruits, herbs or spices.

But it wasn’t always so easy to define. Before the word liqueur was universally settled on, such alcoholic concoctions were known by many names, from essences to elixirs, and a million in between. Problem was, before the new kind of sweeter, more pleasurable liqueur was created in and around the eighteenth century, and enjoyed as a digestif, everyone knew elixirs and their like as horrendous (usually face-pullingly sour) cure-all medicinal drinks prescribed by doctors.

The first known use of the word ‘liqueur’ in its modern sense was in 1755, written by the gloriously named Father Polycarpe Poncelot. There’s not too much known about him, except that he was a French mathematician, philosopher, scientist and economist from Verdun. Oh, and a monk.

He wrote a terrific scientific treatise called Chimie du Goût et de l'Odorat, ou Principes Pour Composer Facilement, & à Peu de Frais, les Liqueurs à Boire, & les Eaux de Senteurs’ (Paris, 1755), which translates as, ‘The Chemistry of Taste and Smell, or Principles for Easily and Inexpensively Composing Liqueurs to Drink, & Scented Waters’.

Primarily about the science of distilling, his 390-page book covers everything from the apparatus and general principles of distillation and infusion (with informative diagrams) to actual recipes for liqueurs, scented waters (perfumes) and other distilled drinks, complete with lists of relevant ingredients.

What sets this chemistry book apart is its opening theoretical section. In the introduction, called the ‘Preliminary dissertation on the wholesomeness of liqueurs and the harmony of flavours’, he argues that essences, elixirs and liqueurs needn’t be foul-tasting.

His theory, which is beautifully phrased, revolves around “the pleasure of liqueurs depends on the blending of flavours in a harmonic proportion ... that transmit an agreeable sensation to the brain”. He compares these flavours to sound vibrations in the air that help us to hear. “Flavours consist in vibrations of salts [that are] more or less strong, which agitate the sense of taste, just as sounds consist of vibrations of the air [that are] more or less strong, which agitate the sense of hearing.” So if people were only to perfect the art of flavours in their liqueurs, there would be “a music for the tongue and for the palate.”

He goes on to devise a scale of seven flavours – acid, insipid, sweet, bitter, bittersweet, astringent, and pungent – that he assigns and compares to a musical scale (A for acid, B for insipid etc). So different flavours can create different “music”, like lemon and sugar producing a “simple, but charming consonance, a major fifth”. Ingenious!

To finish, he says, “I regard a well-crafted liqueur to be like a kind of musical air. A composer of stews, of preserves, of ratafia, is a symphonist in his genre, and he needs to have a thorough knowledge of nature and the principles of harmony if he wants to excel in his art, the object of which is to produce pleasurable sensations in the soul.”

Beyond his beautiful and thought-provoking words, he of course includes a new spelling for liqueur that was to become globally adopted. Yet it seems somehow appropriate that Poncelot is the one to describe and define a new generation of sweet and delicious spirits popping up all over the world.


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