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Understand Your Orange Liqueur Options

Curacao, Triple Sec, Grand Marnier... Which to Choose?


Back bar with liqueur bottles

Back bar with liqueur bottles

Maria Pereira Photography / Moment / Getty Images
Golden Margarita

Golden Margarita

Plush Studios / Photodisc / Getty Images
Rosangel Margarita

Rosangel Margarita

Helen Yin / Moment / Getty Images

Of all of the liqueurs used in cocktails, you will find that orange liqueurs are used most often and that makes them essential for a well stocked bar. There are many orange liqueurs available today and the list is continually growing. Triple sec, curaçao, Cointreau, and Grand Marnier are the names you will see most often in recipes, though some simply list orange liqueur as an ingredient. With all of these options, how does one know which liqueur to use? What is the difference and can one be substituted for another? These are tricky questions and orange liqueur is possibly one of the most confusing categories in distilled spirits, so I will do my best to help with this dilemma.

The Orange Liqueur Confusion

The story behind orange liqueurs is as diluted in conflicting stories as the origins of the Martini and Margarita. It is a topic that many modern cocktail experts continue to debate, research, and attempt to track down. Even the exact definitions of each of the main categories are up for debate. One of the better attempts of explaining this issue has been done by Jay Hepburn on the blog Oh Gosh!. From my own research, I agree with his 'conclusions' in the article A Short History of Orange Liqueur. Instead of repeating what is written so well, here are the main points of distinguishing orange liqueurs from one another:

  • Curaçao - (also curaçoa) This liqueur originated on the Caribbean island of the same name. It is believed that when the Spanish planted orange trees there the climate produced a far more bitter fruit that was found to be better after drying and eventually the dried peels were used in making this new liquor. The Dutch company Bols has one claim as being the first to produce curaçao.

    Curaçao was also used in classic cocktails such as the Brandy Cocktail as a sweetener prior to the popularity of vermouth and drier cocktails. Around the turn of the 20th century, curaçao producers began selling the spirit in a variety of colors. Today it can be found in orange, blue, and (rarely) green, with the blue version being one of the most common ways to create blue cocktails.

    See Page 2 for cocktails that call for these liqueurs specifically.

  • Triple Sec - It seems that triple sec was the French answer to the Dutch curaçao. Both Combier and Cointreau have made claims as being the first triple sec and both remain the premium options of triple sec. The name 'triple sec' has been attributed to mean triple dry, triple distilled, as well as the third Cointreau recipe tried and the one that continues to be bottled.

    Today, 'triple sec' is more of a generic term for an orange liqueur and has a reputation as being a low-grade spirit. This is attributed to the many triple sec bottles you can find for around $5 that are almost unpalatable on their own and therefore do not add much in terms of quality to a cocktail. This could be why the premium brands of triple sec have shied away from using the name on their label.

    See Page 3 for cocktails that call for these liqueurs specifically.

  • Grand Marnier - This is the signature brand of Cognac-based orange liqueurs, which are few in number, though the Italian liqueur Gran Gala is another fine option. Grand Marnier started out under the brand name "Curaçao Marnier" and many of the original curaçao's had a brandy or rum base, so this is a good option for classic cocktails.

    See Page 4 for cocktails that call for these liqueurs specifically.

  • Other Orange Liqueurs - There are a variety of brands of orange liqueur that fall into none of the categories above, some for the pure purpose of branding do not use a particular label. These orange liqueurs will vary in the base spirit, variety of oranges, and additional ingredients.

    See Page 4 for cocktails that call for these liqueurs specifically.

Which Orange Liqueur Should I Use?

This is a loaded question and, quite honestly, there is no correct answer the majority of the time. Some cocktails work best with the darker Grand Marnier while others may be best with the crisp aspect of a premium curaçao. There are many drinkers who have their own personal preferences as well. Many cocktail recipes will suggest a particular orange liqueur, sometimes using the generic name of triple sec or curaçao and sometimes referring to a specific brand that has either been found to work well or one that is specific to a marketing campaign.

When choosing the orange liqueur to use, you may want to keep the following in mind:

  1. Keep both a light and dark based orange liqueur in your bar stock. The most common premium choices would be Cointreau (light) and Grand Marnier (dark), though there are other brands that are equal in quality to both.

  2. When substituting, try to retain that same light or dark base as the recipe calls for.

  3. A cheap orange liqueur (yes, I'm thinking of those $5 triple secs again) can ruin an otherwise perfect cocktail.
  4. If you have a favorite orange liqueur and a new recipe that calls for a different liqueur, give your favorite a try. It is likely to be just as good, if not more pleasing to you.

  5. In general, when left with no other guide than 'orange liqueur' I tend to begin with a theory of using light orange liqueurs in cocktails with similarly light flavored ingredients and dark orange liqueurs in darker cocktails. For instance, in gin, rum, and tequila cocktails I may begin with a curaçao while in cocktails with brandy or whiskey I would start out with Grand Marnier. This is not always the best option, but it is a good starting place.

Again, I want to direct you to Oh Gosh! where Jay Hepburn did an Orange Liqueur Showdown in 2008. Included in that collection of articles are comparisons and tasting notes of many of the premium orange liqueurs available on the market and a study of how some compare when mixed into different styles of cocktails.

Note: Orange liqueurs are occasionally used in food recipes. Skip to the end of page 4 to browse these recipes...

Orange Liqueur Cocktails

Below are cocktail recipes that use the generic term 'orange liqueur' as an ingredient. This can make it difficult to decide which orange liqueur to use. See the tips above or simply use what you have in stock and see how it goes.

Page 2: Curaçao Cocktails >>>

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