Let's face it: These days we take our liqueurs for less-than-medicinal purposes. We don't expect eternal life; we'll settle for a fuzzy feeling in the general vicinity of the solar plexus.
The history of liqueurs goes back at least to medieval times, when alchemists and magicians sought elixirs of eternal life. Not only did these pointy-hatted wizards try to create gold out of base metals, they also suspected that with the right combination of herbs, spices, and alcohols, time itself could be brought to a standstill. (They obviously never sat through an entire episode of Divorce Court.)

Even if these elixirs didn't extend life indefinitely, some of them turned out to be effective cures for specific ailments. What's more, they were just darned fun to drink. People began to discover that they didn't really need a case of lumbago to justify a daily dram of their favorite concoction.

Americans used to call these sorts of drinks "cordials" (from the Latin cor meaning "heart"), a charmingly old-fashioned term that indicates their cockle-warming qualities. They come in an amazing array of flavors - herbs and spices, anise and camomile, coffee and chocolate, citrus and berry, agave and pomegranate, hazelnut and honey - and just about any other aromatic that can be infused in alcohol and captured in a bottle.

These three very different liqueurs show how our modern-day alchemists approach this time-honored tradition.
JUST DESSERTS CRÉME BRÛLÉE CREAM LIQUEUR ($18)
The quest for new liqueur flavors is evidently endless. Cream liqueurs were first perfected in Ireland in the mid-20th century, when fresh dairy cream was blended with Irish whiskey. It was found that, after stabilization, no refrigeration was necessary. These creamy concoctions were great as after-meal treats, especially for those who wanted to forgo a complete dessert course.