Do Bitters Go Bad?

Reader Sam writes:

“Hi Drinkhacker, love your articles. I have a question maybe you can answer. I’ve had a bottle of bitters on my shelf for a while now, and I was wondering if bitters ever go bad. Thanks for reading and keep up the good work.”

Sam’s question is a good one. If you’re interested in mixology, you likely have a bottle of bitters stashed away for when it’s needed, but it’s not like you use a ton of the stuff when you make drinks; most recipes just call for a few dashes, so that 8-ounce bottle of bitters could last you for a decade or more. Is it a waste of money buying anything more than a little 2-ounce bottle, because the rest will spoil before you can use it?

To start: What exactly are bitters, anyway? Bitters are made by infusing a neutral spirit with various herbs, fruits, bark, spices, seeds, and just about anything else you can think of. In this way, they’re essentially a liqueur, like an amaro or any other bitter spirit. Could you drink a bottle of bitters straight? While we won’t recommend it (it gets the name ‘bitters’ for a reason, drinking it straight is a potent experience reserved for the insane), it’s perfectly safe to just take a swig of bitters, and in fact that was the idea when bitters were first invented: for a long time, bitters (as well as other bitter herbal liqueurs) were actually made as medicines, to be taken as a cure for everything from an upset stomach to gout. There’s evidence that suggests that bitters, or at least a bitters-like liqueur, was the first type of alcohol made: In China, they’ve uncovered evidence of a fermented concoction brewed with bitter hawthorne berries dating back to 7,000 BC, likely used as a medicine.

So now that you know a bitter more about what bitters are, let’s finally get around to answering Sam’s question. The general answer is that bitters don’t go bad, with one exception that we know of. As a liqueur, bitters have a high alcohol content that might surprise you: Angostura, the most famous brand of bitters, has a whopping 45% abv in that little bottle. Because of this, most bitters have a shelf life comparable to any spirit: essentially indefinite. Like all spirits, chemical reactions and evaporation in the bottle will eventually start to change the taste if you keep the same bottle for a decade or more, but none of it will hurt you and the product won’t spoil.

The one exception we have seen are some fruit bitters made by Fee Brothers, because they sometimes dissolve their flavoring ingredients in glycerin instead of ethanol like most liqueurs. Unlike ethanol, glycerin does have a shelf life of about a year or two before it spoils. If you want some fruit bitters and aren’t sure about that bottle of Fee Brothers that’s been sitting on your shelf for a while, maybe try buying a different brand, or just learn to infuse your own neutral spirit with a fruit of your choice. It’s easy and fun.

Thanks to Sam for the question, and if any readers have questions about the strange and wonderful world of alcohol, write to me at [email protected], and hopefully we can answer your questions, too!

Does Absinthe Make You Hallucinate?

“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.” – Oscar Wilde

Though absinthe has been legal in the United States for a decade now, in the grand scheme of things it’s still a rather mysterious spirit, one that’s cloaked in superstition. And though the average imbiber might not know what absinthe is made out of or what it tastes like, the one thing everyone knows is the story of the “Green Fairy,” the hallucinations that one is said to get from drinking absinthe, and which has a lot to do why it was banned in the U.S. for about a century (1912-2007). So of course the question must now be asked: Does absinthe really make you hallucinate? If so, why? And if not, what the heck was going on with the ban?

So first off, what is the reason the stories give for absinthe’s hallucinogenic properties? The general consensus has been that wormwood, an herb used as a flavoring agent for the drink, contains thujone, a supposedly psychoactive compound that can cause someone enjoying the drink to see things. However, research shows that that just doesn’t seem to be the case; while wormwood definitely contains thujone, and thujone has been shown to block GABA receptors in the brain and can be toxic when taken in high enough doses, you won’t find any absinthe that contains the levels of thujone necessary for a reaction. (Not to mention that the effect of blocked GABA receptors isn’t trippy visions, but in fact painful convulsions. Not our idea of a good time.) Indeed, due to absinthe’s high alcohol content (typically around 60 to 70% abv), you would likely die of alcohol poisoning long before you ingested enough thujone to have any effect at all, good or ill.

That said, drinking absinthe isn’t a death sentence, either. Like the supposedly headache-inducing sulfites found in wine, thujone is naturally found in all sorts of things we ingest, and you don’t see people keeling over or having wild visions on the streets. The mundane truth is that neither wormwood nor the thujone within cause hallucinations, and the fact that people still fervently believe they do today shows how powerful the absinthe myth is.

But that’s the modern stuff. The absinthe that was available in its golden age was much more potent and psychotropic, right? Not likely. Despite the widespread belief that pre-ban absinthe had a much higher level of thujone in it, according to absinthe expert and Lucid creator Ted Breaux, absinthe never really had any hallucinogenic qualities. Instead, the poets and artists who claimed to see green fairies were likely just overtaken by absinthe’s high alcohol content, plus perhaps the power of suggestion, of course. If you have deep pockets, you can test Breaux’s claims yourself: There are plenty of sealed bottles of pre-ban absinthe on the market, they’re just very expensive.

So what was up with the ban in the first place? Remember that absinthe was banned in most countries in the early 20th century, when temperance movements were strong and had powerful political backing. The United States banned absinthe in 1912, even before Prohibition, while in France luminaries were attacking absinthe as the cause of all of the country’s declining moral values. It’s likely that absinthe, with an alcohol content a third higher than most gin or whiskey, was just a scapegoat for what was generally a bad time for alcohol. It took a lot of lobbying by folks like Breaux (and changing attitudes toward drinking) to finally overturn the ban just 10 years ago.

So that’s the strange, convoluted story of absinthe and its supposed effects. If you’re not going to rush out and break the bank on a pre-ban bottle, try a bottle of Pernod for the traditional experience, Lucid to see what bars are doing with it, or Wild Card for a more contemporary, “craft” absinthe.

What is Fortified Wine and How Is It Made?

“Silver and ermine and red faces full of port wine” – John Betjeman

Fortified wine, that is, wine with a spirit (usually brandy) added to up the alcohol content, is a style that fell out of fashion decades ago. While once enjoyed in the salons of well-off aristocrats throughout Western Europe, these days ports, sherries, and their fellow fortified wines are a much more niche pleasure, a hidden gem for those seeking something more powerful and rich and decadent than they might get otherwise. For a wine aficionado with cellar room to spare, fortified wine’s high alcohol content provides its ability to be aged exceptionally long, with good ports having the potential to be cellared for a century or more. If you want to try something new, follow along and discover the world of four of the most common styles of fortified wine: port, sherry, Madeira, and Marsala.

Port

Port is the most wide-ranging and approachable of these four wine, and for more detail on the intricacies of its production, check out our Portugal wine travel guide. For now though, know that port comes from and is named after the city of Porto in Portugal, where port wine is still stored and shipped out to other countries. The actual growing and fermenting of the grapes is done along the Douro River in the Northeast of the country, which for centuries was then brought downstream to Porto for sale and distribution in rickety boats. What makes port so complex is that it has many different sub-categories of style within the general umbrella of “port.”

The post famous style of port is known as Vintage Port, and it’s the one that a wine drinker can put down for a few decades to invariably improve; because of the spirits added to the wine, a good vintage port usually won’t go bad within one person’s lifetime, and will continue to improve for 30 years or more. Vintage ports are massive, brooding, and sumptuous with the blackest of black fruit flavors, and ageing them will add endless complexity with notes of brown sugar, nutmeg, butterscotch, and other delights. Vintage port benefits greatly from decanting before drinking, to let the true force of the flavors open up and to eliminate sediment.

Ruby ports and Late Bottled Vintage (or “LBV”) ports on the surface look, smell, and taste like vintage ports, but they are simpler, not made for ageing or decanting. If you are curious about port and don’t want to immediately spend a fortune on a bottle of vintage, an LBV port is a good way to try the style. With an LBV you’ll get notes of dark raisins, black plum, and other rich fruits, without the nuance and complexity of a vintage port, but usually also at a quarter of the price or less.

If you pick up a bottle of Tawny Port, you may notice an age statement (such as “10 years”) and think you’re getting a great deal — but tawny port is really a bit of stage magic on the part of port makers. Tawny ports are aged in small wood barrels to make for a more complex, wood-forward character, and then blended with other tawny ports to approximate the typical flavor of a tawny at that age. As such, tawny ports are nutty and loaded with baking spices, chocolate, and some oxidized notes. Like LBVs, they’re designed to be a good value compared to vintage ports, and are a good way to try out a bottle to see if you like what this style of port has to offer.

Sherry

Other than port, the only other fortified wine with much of a presence these days is Sherry, though finding good sherries can be a more arduous task than finding good ports. Sherry comes from the region of Jerez on the Southern coast of Spain near Gibraltar, right where the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean converge. One of the defining characteristics of sherry is the production of a thick film of yeast that forms on the surface of the wine in the barrel, called flor, which speeds up the process of converting sugar into ethanol, as well as protects it from excess oxidation. While there are many, many styles of sherry, three tend to dominate; the amount of flor that is allowed to interact in the wine determines which style of sherry you’re getting.

The driest of sherries is Fino, which is made when flor converts almost all of the sugar found in the wine to alcohol. Fino is very dry and nutty, with a flinty, mineral quality that can be off-putting to those who aren’t used to it. Like an Italian Pinot Grigio, however (another dry wine loaded with a mineral taste), fino sherry goes great with food, especially salty food. Try a glass of fino with nuts or dried seafood, and its dryness will blend perfectly with the salt on your tongue.

Next up is Amontillado, which begins its life as fino, but the layer of flor doesn’t last in the barrel and the wine partly oxidizes. As such, amontillado has residual sugars which give it a sweeter taste, and the contact with air gives it a rich brown color not unlike tawny port. Compared to fino, amontillado is similarly nutty, but the flinty quality is replaced with a bit of meaty richness, like smoked meat or sauteed mushrooms. A good pairing for amontillado would be pork or duck, something with a little gaminess that would blend well with the wine’s smoky qualities. Fans of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories will also recognize amontillado as the object of revenge in his classic short story “The Cask of Amontillado.”

The last style of sherry we’ll discuss today is Oloroso, the biggest, boldest, and often sweetest of the sherries. While amontillado is made when the sherry’s flor breaks down on its own, with oloroso the cellarmaster destroys the layer of yeast intentionally, which allows the wine to oxidize heavily. Oloroso is often made with the grapes Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez, which make the wine much sweeter than fino or amontillado, a closer taste to port for those not used to sherry. Oloroso will also be a style of interest for Scotch drinkers, since many Speyside Scotches, like Macallan, are often aged or finished in oloroso sherry barrels.

Marsala and Madeira

Port and sherry are by far the most common kinds of fortified wine, but it’s worth mentioning two other kinds: Marsala and Madeira. Both are widely known to consumers these days for use in cooking, but both are fortified wines that can be consumed alone just like any other. Marsala comes to us from Sicily in Italy, and is typically consumed as an aperitif. Its aromas and tastes include vanilla and apricot. Like sherry, it can range in taste from dry to sweet, though it doesn’t have special designations for each style like sherry does.

Madeira gets its name from the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal. Taste-wise, it has the nutty and spiced components of a tawny port, like caramel and hazelnut, as well as a bit of the citrus of a sherry, like peach and orange peel. There are several styles of Madeira, but the main ones are Finest, which is a drier wine aged 3 years, and Rainwater, which is sweet and fruity and is great in cocktails or on its own. Numerous styles of aged Madeiras, made with different grapes to impact the amount of sweetness in them, are also available. (Click the above link for some examples.)

As you can see, there’s a lot to say about fortified wine, and this article only scratches the surface. Let us know what you think in the comments, and maybe an article exclusively on port or sherry is in our future!

What Botanicals Are Used to Make Gin (and Why)?

Our recent martini taste test has lit a juniper-scented fire under us here at Drinkhacker HQ, so we’ve decided to once again explore gin, the most aromatic of spirits. Today we’ll be giving an overview of the different botanicals that go into your favorite gin; unlike wine, which can have aromas and flavors of a variety of different fruits and minerals but only really contains grapes, gin can contain essences of potentially dozens of different botanicals added in during production. While you’ve no doubt heard of some of these, others can be pretty obscure, as distillers search for the perfect blend to make their product stand out from the pack. This won’t be an exhaustive overview of the botanicals used in gin, because you could fill a book with that information. Instead, let’s explore some of the more common seeds, oils, and berries found in gin.

Juniper Berries

We have to start somewhere, and no botanical is more deserving than juniper berries; without them, you’re really not making gin but rather just flavoring vodka. The word “gin” is actually derived from the Dutch jenever and the French genièvre, both of which come from the Latin juniperus, which means juniper, and when most people think of gin they think of the flavor of juniper. Commonly found in Tuscany in Italy, as well as Macedonia near Greece, the juniper plant is actually a relative of the spruce or fir trees that people use as Christmas trees, a relationship that’s borne out by the scents and flavors of pine, lavender, and camphor. The true value in juniper isn’t actually in the flesh of the fruit themselves (which aren’t even really berries, but little fleshy pine cones), but in the essential oils found in the seeds, which give gin its most recognizable flavors and aromas.

Coriander Seeds

The second most important botanical used in gin are coriander seeds. Found in regions as disparate as Morocco and Bulgaria, coriander seeds come from a plant that fans of Indian food might recognize better as cilantro, and in gin coriander imparts a similar profile of tastes and aromas to those found in Indian cuisine: notes of citrus peel, ginger, and sage are all found within the essential oils of the seed, as well as notes of pine and camphor similar to juniper berries. If you’re a fan of curry, keep those in the back of your mind next time you have some gin, and see all of the flavor connections you can make!

Angelica Root

The Angelica plant is grown throughout Northern Europe, and its root compliments the flavors found in the previous two botanicals: like those, it gives the gin a piney character. Being a root, angelica also imparts a bitter, herbal, musky scent, like sitting among the fallen leaves in a vast forest. Angelica is also used in vermouth, which explains why gin and vermouth complement each other so well in martinis. Juniper, angelica, and coriander are probably the most essential botanicals used to make gin, and the tastes and scents of all three blending together make gin what we know it.

Orris Root

Coming from Florence in Italy, the root of the iris flower, known as orris root, is outside of gin mostly used in perfumes. One whiff will tell you why: the root is very bitter and very floral, and serves mostly to fix and enhance the scents of the other botanicals in the gin. The root itself mostly imparts aromas of flowers, but it is ground into such a dense powder that within the context of gin it mostly holds on to the notes and flavors of the other botanicals, and keeps your drink rich and fragrant for longer.

Cardamom Seeds

The last botanical we’ll examine in detail today are the seeds of the cardamom plant. Native to India, cardamom seeds are similar to coriander seeds in their aromatic capacity: citrusy lemon peel and medicinal eucalyptus come to the fore from the oils found in the seeds. Like coriander, cardamom is used to add rich aromas to food from India and Southeast Asia, and its musky tang will be recognizable to fans of those cuisines.

Citrus Peel

As you’ve no doubt noticed, the two main aromas and flavors that you get from a typical gin are evergreen pine and tart citrus. As you can probably guess, the final botanical we’ll cover today gives a big boost to the latter. Grated peel from lemons and/or oranges enhance the bitter citrus bite of the coriander and cardamom seeds, and helps to prevent the gin from just tasting like you’re drinking a pine tree.

This is far from an exhaustive list of the botanicals used in gin: the combinations can be almost endless, and many more herbs, fruits, roots, or peels are used to try and find that perfect balance. In some gins you can also find almonds, licorice, ginger, nutmeg, and many, many others. Nearly anything that can impart a strong aroma can be used to enhance the blend that these essential botanicals offer.

Shaken or Stirred: Which Makes the Best Martini?

“A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?”

-Ian Fleming, Casino Royale

Like a manhattan or an old fashioned, a martini is on its surface a simple drink to make: dry vermouth, gin (traditionally) or vodka (modern), and an olive as garnish. But a martini is something special; it’s lodged in the popular imagination, through no small fault of the man quoted above, Ian Fleming’s super spy James Bond. Whether through Fleming’s novels or film adaptations featuring Sean Connery, Daniel Craig, or countless others, if there’s one thing the average person knows about James Bond, it’s his preference of martini: shaken, not stirred.

The question is: Why? Does shaking vs. stirring change the taste of the martini? And if so, which is better? Naturally for this question we decided to hold a tasting to see how a martini fares when shaken or when stirred. For this tasting, we went with two gin martinis, made with Bombay, one shaken and one stirred.

Stirred Martini

Nose: The nose of a martini is a lovely thing, subtle and herbal and bitter. The stirred martini had notes of pine, bitter orange peel, and juniper — not too overpowering. The aroma of the vermouth was almost indistinct, and served mostly to highlight the aromas of the gin.

Palate: The initial taste of the stirred martini was briny, lightly acidic sea salt from the vermouth. Then came the gin, with the promise of the nose being borne out by juniper, bitter citrus peel, and a light Christmas-tree pine. Gin can be a tough thing for an alcohol novice to wrap their heads around, but a martini is a good, aromatic, interesting way to try something new.

Shaken Martini

Nose: The nose of the shaken martini was similar to the stirred martini, if perhaps a bit more piney. The decision of shaking or stirring didn’t seem to factor much into the nose.

Palate: Here’s where things get radically different. To start, the shaken martini was much colder, as a result of the gin being shaken up with the ice. (Many shaken martinis will even have ice chips in the drink, which some drinkers consider offensive.) The chill of the drink translated over to the taste, which was light and very, very subtle, almost to the point of not tasting like much of anything at all. There were slight notes of juniper and peel and pine, but they were buried beneath a watery simplicity. As the martini warmed up, the flavor became a bit stronger, but it was still more jumbled and indistinct than the stirred martini was.

Conclusions

So why did the drinks turn out this way? A lot of it has to do with the cold: Like a glass of white wine, it’s easy to over-chill a martini by shaking it, and the primary result of a too-cold martini is that it becomes much more thin and tasteless. This is compounded by the fact that shaking introduces more water into the drink via melted ice; a stirred martini will be a bit stronger, and thus more flavorful. As well, gin is a sensitive spirit and vigorous shaking has the result of muddling its taste. (There’s much talk of “bruising the vermouth” if you shake a martini, but it’s the gin that has the bigger problem.) All in all: A stirred martini is indeed more interesting and flavorful than a shaken one.

If there’s not much to recommend a shaken martini over a stirred one, then why does James Bond order them? The answer is twofold: first of all, Bond is the ultimate bad boy, and that extends to his choice in drinks. He doesn’t follow our rules, and from his first appearance in Casino Royale back in 1953, he was a man that blazed his own path. If society tells us to stir our martinis, of course Bond is going to be the type of guy who drinks them shaken. The other reason is more mundane. Look at his recipe again. In addition to the gin and vermouth, Bond requests a measure of vodka, making it a drink that he named The Vesper, after that book’s femme fatale. Vodka is a much heartier spirit than gin is, and if you’re drinking a vodka martini, shaking might actually be good for it, since vodka is best when it’s ice cold. Of course, given that Bond is drinking a martini with both gin and vodka in it, perhaps he just prefers a weaker drink with some water in the mix.

So that’s another taste test done, and another curious corner of the history of spirits explored. If you feel like trying this experiment yourself, let us know in the comments which style you prefer, and why!

Should You Let Your Whisky Breathe?

So now everyone knows that the shape of a glass can radically change the taste of the spirit inside it, right? But are there any other ways to improve the taste of your favorite beverage even further? What about letting your whiskey aerate before drinking, like we do with tannic wines? Does whiskey “open up” the way wine does after exposure to air?

In order to determine if aeration has any noticeable effect on the taste of whiskey, we’ve done another taste test experiment: This time we’ve let the same whiskey sit for three different lengths of time, to compare and contrast how much effect time spent in glass before consumption had on what’s inside. The whisky chosen for this experiment was Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask, and the glassware used was three Glencairn whisky glasses. We let one glass sit for ten minutes before tasting, one for five minutes, and one for no time at all. How did the whiskey fare in each glass? Read on to find out.

No Resting Time in Glass

Nose: Light, sweet, enticing aromas of honey, white sugar, and white flowers. Balvenie is always a favorite at Drinkhacker HQ for good reason; this is simple but wonderful stuff.

Palate: There’s a very brief rush of bitterness that fades almost instantly, leaving a sugary sweetness that lingers on the tongue. This is almost certainly because of the rum barrels that the whisky is aged in, making this an easy choice for those just getting in to trying whisky.

Five Minutes Resting in Glass

Nose: The honey is still there front and center, but it is now flanked with richer sugar tastes: butterscotch, a standard for whiskies, and the rum barrel comes through this time with a nuanced taste of coconut. Just nosing it, this is far more enticing and interesting than the initial pour.

Palate: Surprisingly, not much different from the initial pour. Though the nose had evolved, the palate remains loaded up with soft sweetness, though perhaps it comes across as a bit more subtle than the first pour. The taste buds at the tip of the tongue are fired up, and the whisky lingers on the tongue for some time.

Ten Minutes Resting in Glass

Nose: We can see a clear line drawn from the first pour to the last: Each pour deepens and enriches the aroma found in the glass. The honey here is rich and sumptuous, the butterscotch is decadent, and the coconut has been replaced by a general tropical fruit scent; subtle, sweet papaya and mango waft through the senses.

Palate: And yet again, on the palate it’s mostly the same story. It’s more subtle still — soft and lightly sweet, not overpowering. Easy to drink and tasty, Balvenie remains a whisky that both novices and aficionados can appreciate, but the core flavor has remained surprisingly consistent over the course of the tasting.

Conclusion

So what can we infer from all of this? Clearly it seems from this simple test that while aeration has an effect on whisky, it’s not as dramatic a change as if it were applied to, say, a heavy, tannic cabernet. The taste of the whisky remained surprisingly consistent from pour to pour; in fact if anything the whisky got lighter and more subtle with time. Where the changes occurred were in the nose, where the aromas got deeper and richer as time went on, and new scents floated up to the top of the glass.

All of this is likely because two contradictory things are happening in the glass as time passes: first, alcohol is evaporating from the glass, as we saw in the glassware taste test. This allows you to more readily access the aromas that are initially hidden by the ethanol fumes (though as we have seen, the right piece of glassware cuts these fumes pretty heavily just to start). Secondly, the water in the whisky is evaporating as well, which actually concentrates the remaining flavors left behind. In just ten minutes, neither of these phenomena are terribly significant in terms of the abv of what’s left in the glass, but clearly the shifting amounts of alcohol in the whisky and the free vapor in the glass open up subtle changes in taste — and more pronounced changes in aroma. These effects would likely be even more dramatic in a higher-proof alcohol, so if our article on bonded whiskey inspired you to pick up a bottle of Old Grand-Dad 100 Proof, trying this experiment with that whiskey will likely produce interesting, potentially exciting results.

To sum up the experiment, letting whisky breathe isn’t as essential as letting wine breathe, but you will find detectable changes on the nose and palate as you let your drink aerate. Hopefully these findings will help you enjoy your preferred whisky even more, and if you decide to do the experiment yourself, let us know in the comments!

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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