Luxury Spirits
Orange trees
Posted: April 23, 2019

Understanding Orange Liqueur

An interview with Patrick McDonald of Chaval

We interviewed Patrick McDonald, bar manager of Chaval in Portland. He knows a thing or two about spirits and is also a founding member of the United States Bartender’s Guild (USBG) Maine Chapter. We spoke with him at length about the often misunderstood orange liqueur category.

I think it’s important to first understand the origins of this category of orange liqueur and how it developed into its various modern iterations. 

Spanish explorers brought sweet valencia orange trees to the island of Curaçao, in the southern Caribbean, in the 1520s. These trees did not take well to the local climate and soil conditions and mutated into something entirely different, the Lahara fruit. Its bitter flesh is inedible, but the peels contain fragrant etheric oils which are perfect for flavoring spirits. Eventually, in the 17th century, the Dutch took over the island and began to use it as a center of shipping and commerce. The peels of the Lahara fruit were dried and shipped across the Atlantic, and eventually sold to French confectioners to flavor their spirits. 

While the origins of the first Curacao triple sec are disputed, the brand Combier claims that the first triple sec was invented in 1834. Cointreau Distillery, another fine producer of orange flavored triple sec, was established in 1849 in the town of Saint-Barthelemy-d’Anjou, calling their product “Curacao Blanco Triple Sec.” Both produce a clear dry triple sec, with an agricultural spirit base, and a proprietary blend of sweet and bitter dried (sec is the French word for dry) citrus peels. The “triple” most likely refers to triple distillation. 

Many imitators followed suit, leading to Cointreau to drop the term “triple sec” from their branding. Triple sec is produced all over the world, often (unfortunately) with inferior spirits and flavoring agents in order to keep costs down.  Many store-bought triple secs are of poor quality and should be sparingly used as base level cocktail modifiers. There are a few exceptions, including a fine clear triple sec made by the Dutch company Bols. Grand Marnier, a brandy-based orange liqueur, was created in 1880. The most famous of their products is the Cordon Rouge, a 40% abv, blend of Cognac, distilled essence of bitter orange, and sugar.  Bartenders often use the umbrella term Curacao when referring to various orange liqueurs, just like whiskey is an umbrella term that includes bourbon, rye, and scotch.

Let’s start with the two most recognizable brand-name orange-liqueurs, Grand Marnier and Cointreau. What’s the difference between the two?

Cointreau is a liqueur made from a clear agricultural distillate (sugar beets) infused with dried orange peels from the island of curaçao. It is bright and floral with a clean, dry finish. 
Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge is a blend of rare Cognac brandy, distilled essence of bitter orange, and sugar.  It has a spicier robust flavor profile and a sweeter, more viscous mouthfeel. 

Why do margaritas usually call for Cointreau, rather than Grand Marnier? 

Cointreau has a brighter, cleaner, more straightforward citrus flavor that compliments a good blanco tequila. Grand Marnier, being brandy based, has more depth and spice, but still works well in an aged tequila cocktail.  A good rule to follow is: when mixing clear spirits (ie. vodka, gin, blanco tequila) use clear Cointreau, and when mixing darker spirits (whiskey, brandy, rum) use darker Grand Marnier.
What cocktails is Grand Marnier best suited for?

Sidecar, Brandy Crusta, Sangria

Moving on to Triple Sec, what is it, and how is it different from Cointreau and Grand Marnier?

Triple sec is often marketed as a low cost, lower quality alternative to high-end orange liqueurs such as Cointreau and Grand Marnier. It typically costs one fifth the price and is often made with inferior ingredients.
When would you use Triple Sec, as opposed to the other higher-proof orange liqueurs?

Triple Sec, as long as you choose the right one, is typically fine for mixing cocktails with citrus elements, like Cosmopolitans and Margaritas.
Lastly, where does Curaçao fit into the spectrum of orange liqueurs we’ve covered?

Curacao is often used as an umbrella term to refer to a broad range of orange liqueurs. Historically many of these products used actual orange peels from the island of Curacao, but many now do not. One of the best Curacao's on the market is made by French producer Maison Ferrand. Like Grand Marnier, it also uses a brandy base, however, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao contains less sugar. There are also some Curacao's still produced on the Caribbean Island and are often artificially colored either blue or orange to lend an exotic appearance to drinks.
Is there any difference between orange curaçao and blue curaçao, other than the color?

No. Both are typically artificially colored. 
Most people are familiar with citrusy classics like the margarita, but do you have any suggestions for interesting and unconventional flavor pairings with orange liqueur in cocktails?

I think there are many fine uses for Curacao as a modifier. Some people find the classic Negroni cocktail to be too bitter; try cutting the bitter Campari component with some Cointreau for a brighter, easier drinking cocktail. A splash of Curacao in a bourbon Manhattan is a great addition for a summer day, just be sure to adjust your proportion of vermouth to account for the additional sweetness. Another favorite is the Honeymoon cocktail, made with Apple Brandy, Curacao, Benedictine, and fresh lemon juice. 


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A photo of a delicious looking adult beverage as seen from above.
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