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!
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…
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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