A short history of orange liqueurs

March 23rd, 2008

The Great Oh Gosh! Orange Liqueur Showdown

Let me preface this by saying everything you are about to read may be completely incorrect. Having spent a fair amount of time reading and researching cocktail related subjects, I’m used to finding conflicting stories, dubious claims and chronologically impossible histories. Perhaps due to their very effect, the history of cocktails is a hazy one, but orange liqueurs really do push that from a tipsy forgetfulness to a drunken blackout.

Curaçao and triple sec are the most common labels for orange liqueurs, but I’ve yet to find a definitive description of each. On top of that at least three different companies claim to have invented the clear product known both as Curaçao or triple sec. As for orange Curaçao, that is made variously with a rum, brandy or neutral-spirit base. It’s not that there aren’t stories and history – it’s that every time you think you’ve worked out a sensible history and set of definitions you read something which pulls it all back apart.

With that said, the following is the history I have assembled from the various writings about orange liqueur I have found. Those interested in counter-stories and further detail would do well to read this eGullet thread which contains a lot of interesting discussion on the topic of orange liqueurs. I’m glad I’m not the only one who is struggling to define Curaçao and triple sec!

Oranges

Curaçao

Curaçao is a small Caribbean island, with a population of just over 130,000, off the north coast of Venezuela. The Spanish settlers of Curaçao planted orange trees on the island in the sixteenth century, but the climate and soil produced small, green fruits that were too bitter to consume. However it was noticed that the peels of the Laraha, as the fruits became known, produced a pleasing aroma when dried out. At some point, someone had the idea of steeping these peels in alcohol, and Curaçao was born.

Although you might expect rum to have been the original base spirit given Curaçao’s location, rum at this time was a fairly poor quality, unrefined product which wouldn’t have produced anything approaching what we know as Curaçao today. It seems more likely grape or grain spirits from Europe formed the base of this new orange liqueur. Indeed it may well have been produced in Europe, and named Curaçao simply because of the origin of the peels.

As Curaçao’s popularity grew imitators inevitably appeared, who cut corners by using different oranges and poor quality alcohol which was masked by adding extra sugar. This led to Curaçao eventually becoming known more for its sweetening properties than any orange flavours, and meant the people producing better quality Curaçaos needed a name to differentiate themselves…

Triple Sec

I’ve seen triple sec described as meaning “triple dry” or “triple distilled”, while others claim the name comes from the fact Cointreau’s recipe is the third one they tried. Whatever the actual meaning the first use is generally attributed to Cointreau, though the Combier distillery claim they invented it first in 1834 – a full 41 years before Cointreau was first sold.

Though the meaning of triple sec is fairly uncertain, the spirit it labels is easier to define. Triple sec is a drier version of curaçao, and uses sweet as well as bitter oranges. Like Curaçao, the triple sec name became tarnished by poor quality products, leading Cointreau to drop the triple sec label and sell by its brand name alone. Curaçao Marnier followed in similar steps, dropping Curaçao from its name and becoming the now famous Grand Marnier.

Where does brandy fit in?

Today, many of the products labelled as orange Curaçaos use brandy or Cognac as their base-spirit, or at least as a component. Indeed, before I started reading up on the subject I had always assumed the difference between Curaçao and triple sec was the use of brandy rather than neutral spirits. It’s unlikely brandy was the original base for Curaçao itself, but is a brandy-based liqueur what is meant when recipes call for orange Curaçao?

Honestly, I don’t know. Grand Marnier’s original name suggests brandy-based liqueurs were indeed known as Curaçaos, but given the number of different opinions I’ve read I’m just not sure any more. Part of my comparison will include a cocktail try-out, so while we may never know the original meanings, we can at least see what works best in a real-life drink. Ultimately, that’s what is most important.


Now you’ve read my categorisation of orange liqueurs, I’d love to hear yours… does anybody have that elusive definitive description of Curaçao and triple sec?

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Posted in Orange Liqueur Showdown, Reviews

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8 responses to “A short history of orange liqueurs”

  1. gilrain gilrain says:

    After doing a similar amount of frustrating, contradictory, and vague research, I averaged my knowledge and simplified: Grand Marnier would be my “orange curacao,” and Cointreau would be my “triple sec.” Not all true, not all false, and dammit if it doesn’t make for good cocktails.

    I’ve since moved to just using Cointreau in all instances since, after some personal experimentation, I haven’t yet found a cocktail it doesn’t taste better in than GM or other alternatives.

  2. Brian Brian says:

    I’ve always understood that Triple Sec was a blend of three different types of citrus – I can find some supporting evidence of this online (and think I’ve even seen pictures of the different citrus on one or more labels).

  3. Marshall Marshall says:

    Great Post Jay! Sean and I just completed a tasting of various orange liqueurs – Cointreau, Grand Marnier and Clement Creole Shrub. We should have the tasting notes up with a day or so. The orange liqueur debate is certainly interesting . . . and tasty!!!

    Cheers!!

  4. Seamus Seamus says:

    This is an interesting topic. I am pretty sure there is a difference between Triple Sec and Curacao.

    I think triple secs and curacaos have different flavor profiles. Brands vary, but triple sec seems intensely and sharply flavored and higher proof, while curacao seems mild and rounded in flavor and lower proof.

    I would saw Cointreau had a very typical triple sec taste (good quality one of course), but I wouldn’t say Grand Marnier was a typical curacao (at least compared to modern curacaos). Being high alcohol and having the brandy base makes it different to others I have tried.

    But really I have no idea what the difference between triple sec and curacao is. I’m just observing based on products I have tried that carried the two names.

  5. Briefly Noted for March 25, 2008 says:

    [...] Curacao, Triple Sec, Cointreau, Grand Marnier? Confused about the difference or trying to decide which tipple to use in your Cosmo? A London “cocktail enthusiast” provides relief with a short history of orange liqueurs. [...]

  6. Jay Jay says:

    gilrain – I’ve always been a big fan of Cointreau, though replacing Grand Marnier with it is an interesting one. It would certainly alter the taste of the drink quite a bit (depending on how much is used I guess), but if it tastes good then that’s what matters I guess. Do you have any specific examples?

    Brian – yes, triple sec meaning three different citrus types is a description I’ve come across too. I think it’s definitely true triple sec uses a blend of sweet and bitter oranges.

    Marshall – I can’t wait to compare notes!

    Seamus – I think comparing existing products is all we can really do these days, given the murky history. I will be giving more of my thoughts on the Curaçao vs triple sec debate once I have completed writing up my tasting notes.

    The comparison has certainly given me a better perspective on the whole orange liqueur category. That and incredible tooth ache… ;)

  7. Alan Alan says:

    Any of you enjoyed a Cointreau snifter?

    Triple sec = cocktail ingredient

    Grand Marnier is going further than that: after dinner, cocktail ingredient and cooking ingredient

  8. Charles Charles says:

    I think the “triple sec is a reference to sweetness/dryness” argument makes the most sense, based on the use of the term “demi sec” in Champagne manufacture. Demi secs were originally the half-sweet (or rather, half dry) Champagnes, though taste in Champagne changed so much over the past 200 years that demi secs are now the sweetest available and we are now mostly drinking the very dry bruts.

    Applied back to orange liqueurs, by claiming the liqueurs were “triple sec”, they were in fact claiming that they were “triple dry,” whatever that means. Which suggests again that the orange liqueurs of the day had to be sickeningly sweet.

    On the “Orange Curacao” front – I always read this as a reference to Curacao that has been dyed the color orange (to distinguish it from clear or blue Curacao), rather than anything about the way it was produced. The orange color is called for in some recipes because it adds to the visual aesthetics of the end drink, not for flavor profile.

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