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When you glance up from your drink at Toronto’s Civil Liberties, a cocktail-forward bar in Toronto’s Bloorcourt neighbourhood, it’s hard not to notice something’s different.

Instead of the usual single malts, bourbons and tequila that most often occupy prime real estate on bar shelves, the most prominent eye-level shelf is dominated by a row of elegant bottles of high-end liqueurs, exuding violet, rose and bright orange hues. After more than a decade of being ignored, ridiculed and shunned, liqueurs are staging a serious comeback.

As bars were remade into more serious spaces, starting about a decade ago – ones devoted to the promotion of bitter, strong and tough drinks – liqueurs faded into obscurity, generally replaced with house-made syrups and tinctures. Now, though, thanks to a quality revolution and a surge in the number of niche importers, cocktail bartenders are eagerly anticipating shipments of artisanal crème de banane, snapping up local craft amaretto and unflinchingly shelling out cash for bergamot and violet liqueurs made by obscure Italian producers such as Antica Distilleria Quaglia.

Many use these hand-crafted, high-quality liqueurs to invent new and fresh flavour profiles for signature cocktails. Others use them to make high-quality renditions of old “hall of shame” cocktails that have never entirely left the building.

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“I used to kind of dread it when somebody asked for a lychee martini or an apple martini, because we only had so many ingredients to work with,” says Grant Sceney, head bartender at the Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver. “But now, Giffard actually makes a green apple and a lychee liqueur, both of which are really good products. We even put a cachaça and lychee cocktail on the menu in the Lobby Bar.”

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The California-based Tempus Fugit specializes in bringing extinct spirits back to life.Supplied

That’s in contrast, Sceney says, to the synthetic-tasting liqueurs that were omnipresent during the “Martini Bar” era (around the late nineties and early aughts), which saw the invention of drinks such as chocolate martinis and lemon drops. Even mid-century liqueur-heavy drinks can now be salvaged.

Toronto’s Drake Hotel recently designed an entire retro menu around Tempus Fugit’s crème de cacao, crème de menthe and crème de noyaux (almond-flavoured, made from peach pits), which includes the rarely seen Grasshopper and Pink Squirrel (crème de noyaux, crème de cacao and cream).

Based in Novato, Calif., Tempus Fugit is a niche spirits company known for bringing extinct spirits back to life; it’s had tremendous success with high-quality, artisanal liqueurs. Its crème de banane, for example, is consistently generating buzz, especially at bars that specialize in tiki and tropical cocktails.

At Toronto’s Miss Thing’s, head barman Robin James Wynne, one of the city’s foremost rum cocktail authorities, is anxiously awaiting his shipment.

“It’s kind of like a toasted, roasted banana bread kind of flavour,” Wynne says. “That’s missing from those fake artificial banana liqueurs. I literally feel like I’ve roasted bananas with rum and the leftover is what’s in that bottle. It’s just pure flavour.”

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Tempus Fugit's crème de banane is increasingly popular at bars that specialize in tropical cocktails.

Italian and French imports are a big part of the equation, but so are Canadian craft distillers, many of whom are playing with local fruits and herbs to create natural-tasting alternatives to the mass-market standards.

In Vancouver, Sceney satisfies his customers’ cravings for nutty flavours with a natural-tasting No. 82 Amaretto, made by Sons of Vancouver. In Montreal, cocktail bartenders turn to Distillerie Mariana’s Avril Amaretto, which is easily one of the most luxurious and rich nut liqueurs on the market. Similarly, Les Subversifs in Sorel-Tracy, Que., makes a fresh-tasting and bright crème de menthe that could force people to rethink the entire category.

This quality revolution, both at home and abroad, isn’t just about improving flavour, it’s also in response to bartenders with long prep lists who are trying to save time. Making in-house syrups from scratch (especially the nut ones) is incredibly time-consuming, but bar staff did it because options were limited. Now, that work is often hard to justify, since commercial products may well be better.

“Making things just for the sake of saying that they’re homemade is going away,” says Marlene Thorne of Famous Last Words, a west-end Toronto bar with a dynamic cocktail program. “There are still a couple of things we make in-house, like a crème de cacao, because we can’t get our hands on anything that is good enough quality, but there’s so much available now that we don’t have to spend days on end creating our own liqueurs. We can focus our efforts in other areas and be inventive and creative in other dimensions.”

In this new market, which emphasizes versatility above all else, bergamot liqueur is just as important as bourbon. So, liqueurs are not just back, but taking centre stage.

Nobody puts amaretto in the corner. At least not anymore.

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