Regularly compared together by cocktail geeks like me, Grand Marnier, the worlds most famous brandy-based orange liqueur, and Gran Gala, the Italian underdog, are bitter rivals in the spirit world. Is Grand Marnier the more famous for good reason, or does Gran Gala just need a little more press to usurp the French king? For details on how the comparison was performed, check the notes on the showdown.
Gran Gala is made by Stock Spirits of Trieste in Italy, and has been in production since 1884. Stock are perhaps most famous, aside from Gran Gala, for their Maraschino liqueur, but they also produce a large range of vermouths, brandies and liqueurs. Gran Gala is made using Stock VSOP brandy and Sicilian oranges.
Gran Gala is a rusty orange colour, with a vivid nose of bitter-orange zest and Cognac. There is also something else in the background which reminded me a little of Maraschino, though it is very subtle. In the mouth an initial mild orange sweetness gives way to a more bitter orange along with some Cognac notes, aromatics and a mild burn. The finish is long, with a mixture of sweet and bitter orange, Cognac and spice.
Gran Gala is an interesting drink which has many of the typical brandy-based orange liqueur characteristics, yet also has a few surprises up its sleeve. The additional spice and aromatic notes, as well as a certain sort of must from the brandy, give it a slightly pungent nature. I don’t mean pungent in a bad sense at all, and indeed I enjoyed Gran Gala a lot, but it’s certainly not an indistinct liqueur.
In 1827 Jean-Baptiste Lapostolle founded a fruit-liqueur producing distillery in Neauphle-le-Château, and in 1876 Louis-Alexandre Marnier married Jean-Baptiste’s granddaughter creating the Marnier-Lapostolle family. Louis-Alexandre soon came up with the Grand Marnier recipe, and in 1880 it began to be sold, initially by the name Curaçao Marnier. The spirit is made by blending the result of a maceration of bitter orange skins and neutral alcohol with Cognac, and then ageing this further in oak barrels.
Grand Marnier is a deep golden amber colour, with a medium Cognac nose that has a slight heat to it. There is a a mild orange background, which has a notably bitter edge. On sipping you get a strong bitter-sweet orange flavour which is followed up by some Cognac notes and a slight burn. This burn continues through a long finish that has a nice mixture of bitter and sweet orange hints behind the Cognac.
I wasn’t surprised when I learned this one was Grand Marnier. It has a nice complexity but remains balanced and approachable, making it a really good orange liqueur for sipping. In cocktails I’m not so sure, as the orange is fairly subtle and may not hold up against spirits. We will learn more once I start trying these liqueurs in a few mixed drinks.
Grand Marnier and Gran Gala are often compared to one another – indeed Gran Galas marketing campaign focuses fairly heavily on a tasting which ranked it much higher than Grand Marnier when used in a Margarita. While my views on these liqueurs in cocktails await a tasting I have yet to perform, as sipping spirits I think both work nicely but are fairly different in character.
They share the same brandy/Cognac characteristics, but where Grand Marnier goes for a fairly smooth and balanced approach Gran Gala has a little more kick, and also a little more going on flavour wise. I’m not sure I could pick a favourite – it would depend on what mood I am in. I don’t really want to sit on the fence, but sipping them side-by-side now it really is hard to choose between them. So similar, yet so different…
Note: In the interests of full disclosure, the liqueurs included in this comparison are a mixture of bottles I have purchased myself, and samples solicited from their UK distributors.
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