A Brief History of Orange Flavored Liqueurs

Orange liqueur is a staple of any bar, used for dozens of different mixed drinks, from simple classics like the margarita, to obscure Prohibition-era drinks like the XYZ. But there are several different styles of orange liqueur, and it can be hard for the average consumer to tell just what it is they need. We’re here to give an overview of orange liqueur, and hopefully shed some light on, for example, what Grand Marnier is, and how it’s different from triple sec.

In general, there are two distinct styles of orange liqueur: triple sec and curaçao, but there is a tremendous amount of debate over which came first, and where, and how. Curaçao (pronounced ‘kura-sow’), a sweet creation of Dutch origin, and is named after an island off of Venezuela that the Spanish used to cultivate oranges during and after the conquest of the Americas. Unfortunately for the Spanish, but fortunately for us, the climate of the island proved woefully inadequate for growing oranges, and the fruit ended up tough and bitter. Eventually, the island was sold to the Dutch, who discovered that the peels of these bitter, inedible fruits could be dried out and added to spirits to give the resulting liqueur a distinctive, sweet orange taste. Curaçao was initially made using brandy, but these days most inexpensive curaçao is made with simple neutral spirits, like vodka. Because of conflicting stories, we don’t really know whether curaçao as a liqueur was first created by Bols in the Netherlands or the Senior family, which was based out of the island itself. Arguably the most famous brand of curaçao is actually French, however: Grand Marnier, which uses French Cognac for its spirit base. And then there’s blue curaçao, which actually is just the same thing as regular or orange curaçao, only dyed blue. The dye doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) impact the taste of the liqueur, and so is entirely for aesthetic purposes for mixed drinks.

So if that’s what curaçao is, then what’s triple sec? Triple Sec is a French spin on orange liqueur, and has its origins in two famous liqueurs: Combier and Cointreau. Both Combier and Cointreau claim to have invented triple sec, just like Bols and Senior Curaçao of Curaçao do with curaçao, though with triple sec we at least have a general idea of when triple sec came to be: both Cointreau and Combier were marketed starting sometime in the mid-1800s, with Combier claiming 1834 and Cointreau’s statement of ‘1849’ right there on the bottle. So how does triple sec differ from curaçao? Well, the French word ‘sec,’ meaning ‘dry,’ belies its intent: in theory at least, triple sec is meant to be less sweet than curaçao, though where they got ‘triple’ from is still somewhat clouded in mystery. Like curaçao, most triple sec these days are made with neutral spirits, with Cointreau specifically being made with a spirit derived from sugar beets.

So to reiterate the main points: curaçao is sweeter, triple sec is drier (in theory… really both are quite sweet). Grand Marnier is a brand of curaçao, whereas Cointreau is a brand of triple sec. Now that you have the basics, try a margarita with both and let us know in the comments which one you prefer!

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4 Responses

  1. neandrewthal May 7, 2017 / 11:44 am

    I much prefer Grand Marnier. Cointreau is just so one dimensional. To me the best Margarita is made with no orange liqueur at all though and just agave nectar instead.

  2. Dominik MJ the opinionated alchemist May 9, 2017 / 11:20 am

    Wow – this is such a bad article – it almost needs to get some recognition for a novel.

    There are indeed two main categories of orange liqueurs. But the distinct parts are wrong: Triple Sec is an abbreviation of Triple Sec Curacao! Hence the two specific liqueurs are Triple Sec Curacao and Orange Curacao. Blue (and previously red, green…) Curacao are just Triple SEc Curacaos which are dyed with artificial food coloring.
    Triple Sec Curacao is based on neutral alcohol which is infused and re-distilled. Orange Curacao is usually *flavored* with an oak aged spirit (not only brandy/cognac, but can also have some aged rum instead of brandy added).

    There is also no hint at all, what the original “Triple Sec” actually means. Liqueurs in the 19th century were even sweeter than today – hence “dry” doesn’t make a lot of sense.
    The origin of Curacao isn’t really clear – but it is pretty for sure, that Cointreau was the dominant brand of Triple Sec Curacaos. There were so many brands which tried to copy Cointreau, that they first of all “dropped” the “green ribbon” moniker (because the bitter oranges were stripped in an unripe stage, it looked like green ribbons) and then the “Triple Sec” designation… to keep their product distinctive to the many copies.

    @NEANDREWTHAL
    Cointreau is quite wonderful in Margaritas or even just on the rocks (or in Sidecars etc.).
    I don’t think at all hat it is one-dimensional. It is straight forward (that’s true), but the aromas are bright and fresh and delicious.

    Grand Marnier is not bad – but I feel, that it isn’t so good for mixing, because the lack of brightness… but this is personal taste….

    • Ivan Lauer May 9, 2017 / 12:08 pm

      Hi Dominik, thanks for your comments. In my research for the article I didn’t see a mention that Triple Sec was a type of Curacao, though I certainly could have missed it. Everything I read during my research pretty much conforms to what I wrote. If you have a link to maybe something I overlooked, I’d love to read it.

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