A Guide to Orange Liqueurs

CointreauI'm fascinated with orange liqueurs. Whether it's triple sec or curaçao, dry or sweet, orange or blue, I love the stuff. Not to drink on its own — I've never really cared for that — but for use in cocktails. Orange liqueur is one of the most important cocktail ingredients, adding depth and flavor to so many great drinks. (Two of my favorites are the Mai Tai and the Margarita.)

I've been meaning for some time to do a comprehensive write-up of orange liqueurs, but there's a lot of work involved and I haven't gotten around to it yet. In the meantime, though, Michael Dietsch at Serious Eats has put together a very useful primer on the subject.

Dietsch does a good job of defining the different types of orange liqueur, although in practice the terms are so misused that it's often hard to tell what is what. In short:

  • Orange liqueur is any sweetened distilled spirit with orange flavoring added. This includes curaçao, triple sec and other varieties.
  • Curaçao is a liqueur made with a base of brandy that is sweetened and flavored with orange. It was originally a liqueur produced on the island of Curaçao, made from brandy and flavored with the dried peels of Curaçao (Laraha) oranges. There is still one company, Senior, that produces curaçao in this fashion.
  • Triple sec is a liqueur made with a base of neutral spirit (essentially vodka) that is sweetened and flavored with orange. The "sec" in this case is the French word for "dry," since originally triple sec was less sweet than curaçao.

Grand_marnierDietsch includes a lot more detail and history, which is definitely worth reading. And yes, the subject gets confusing, especially as there are no regulations on the use of the different terms. So distillers can call their product "triple sec" or "curaçao" without regard to how it's actually produced or what it contains.

The bulk of the article is a look at several different brands of orange liqueurs, with brief critiques of each. I agree with most of what he wrote, and it's something you'll want to review before making your next trip to the liquor store.

The two most important names in orange liqueurs are the two that most people already know: Cointreau and Grand Marnier. These are two of the most expensive liqueurs you're likely to buy, but in this case you really get what you pay for. Their quality may not be unmatched, but it's certainly unsurpassed. (However, if you're like me and hate paying for the good stuff, Dietsch suggests some alternatives.)

As for the answer to the question that is so often asked: Grand Marnier is curaçao and Cointreau is triple sec.

Now go make a Mai Tai. Or Margarita. Or Cosmo. Or Sidecar. Or Kamikaze. Or White Lady. Or Pegu Club. Or Derby. Or…

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