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Ask for a definition of the word “cordial,” and you’re bound to get a bunch of different (and frankly confusing) answers or possibly even more questions in reply. Is it a spirit or liqueur? Does it even contain alcohol at all? Can the category encompass any possible answer to these questions, as long as the liquid in question contains sugar?
The answer to the latter question is essentially yes. On the website of the TTB (the government bureau that designates what’s permitted and what’s not in the realm of booze), the official definition doesn’t do much to clear things up, other than specify that a cordial must contain 2.5% sugar by weight. In the section that delineates and explains spirits classifications, where there are no fewer than 41 drilled-down different definitions of whiskey, the focus on cordials gets as murky as a louched glass of pastis. There are 21 different types listed, but the focus is on what they’re made of (gin cordial, brandy cordial, sloe gin) and the maximum ABV (typically 60 proof, or 30%, although once talk of anise-flavored spirits begins, it appears entirely up in the air). The legal definition uses the words “cordial” and “liqueur” interchangeably, calling the category a “flavored spirits product” that makes use of fruits, flowers, plants, juices or extracts of any of the latter.
But there’s something particular and important implied in the category’s name. The word “cordial” all but instructs you to serve it as something special to be sipped slowly or used thoughtfully in a cocktail made and presented with care. “To be cordial is to be courteous and pleasant,” says Nicola Nice, the creator and owner of gin cordial Pomp & Whimsy. “And they make you think a little of etiquette, don’t they?”
These half-dozen bottles fill that role beautifully via freshly picked fruit, a bevy of botanicals or simply a carefully considered pivot of spirit base.
Kozuba & Sons Ratafia Classic Cordial
When they migrated from Poland to St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2014, the Kozuba family—biochemist Zbigniew Kozuba and his sons, Matthias and Jacob—brought an Old orld spin on distilling with them, making vodka, whiskey, triple sec, cranberry and quince cordials, as well as ratafia, an Eastern European type of cordial made with whole-fruit macerations. Kozuba ratafia is worth seeking out, with its 27% ABV gorgeous fruit basket of cherries, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, with a dark and rich ruby-amber hue and spunky acidity that makes it easy to sip all on its own.
Mountain State Spirits Hazelnut Honey Bourbon Ratafia Cordial
The flavor of freshly cracked hazelnuts and aromas akin to a savory-sweet hazelnut tart make this ratafia a great addition to your bar cart. This West Virginia producer launched its duo of cordials in 2019, both of which use a two-year-old single-barrel high-rye bourbon base, currently via MGP. The resulting infusions are all whole-ingredient and West Virginia-sourced, and the 32.5% ABV cordials are beautifully light and easy to sip.
Napa Valley Distillery Brandy Cordial
Husband-and-wife team Arthur and Lusine Hartunian have created a line of brandies, bourbons, cordials, garnishes and bitters at their distillery, the first to open in Napa since Prohibition. Their duo of cordials, sweetened with organic cane sugar, are a riff on their flagship spirits. The 40% ABV bourbon-barrel-aged brandy cordial, in particular, offers rich caramelized notes with the taste of old-fashioned butterscotch on the palate and makes an excellent winter nightcap.
Pomp & Whimsy Gin Cordial
Nicola Nice, a PhD in sociology and former spirits brand consultant, is the creator of Pomp & Whimsy, a 30% ABV gin cordial distilled and macerated with 18 different botanicals and fruits that smells of crushed fresh melon, cucumber, lychee and ripe Anjou pear. It’s gently sweet on the palate but tempered by a barely perceptible herbal and citrus-zest bitterness.
Rootstock Spirits Tart Cherry Cordial
Fifth-generation apple farmer Luke DeFisher, who recently renamed his family’s distilling business from the former Apple Country Spirits, ferments Montmartre tart cherries into an eau-de-vie and then macerates baking cherries in the spirit, resulting in an incredibly fresh, bright cherry-fruit-flavored 20% ABV cordial that’s lovely on its own or mixed into a cocktail.
Violet Crown Spirits Midnight Marigold Bitter Cordial
You’ll find it tough to take your nose out of the glass when sipping the 25% ABV Midnight Marigold cordial from Violet Crown, with its savory, botanical bounty of coriander, caraway, candied ginger and turmeric. At first, it comes across juicy and mouth-filling on the palate, with notes of cardamom and orange peel but rolls over into a bitterness that makes it intensely satisfying as a digestif. Owners Jessica Leigh Graves, Matt Mancuso and Chris McLaughlin partnered with bartender Ryan Ehrlichman of Austin’s Midnight Cowboy to create this third bottling in their Texas Wildflower Trio, which also includes jasmine and elderflower liqueurs.