Orange is one of my favorite cocktail flavors. When I cut an orange peel for a cocktail and the oils spray into the air, my nostrils instinctively flare and my mind snaps to attention. Fresh juice adds sweetness, tartness, and a good dose of bright acid. But fresh ingredients haven’t always been as in vogue as they are now, and many cocktails get their orange flavor from a sweetened spirit.
Knowing what sort of orange-flavored liqueur to buy is not easy. There are tons on the market and they come in different colors, strengths, prices, and shades of flavor. Some call themselves triple sec, some orange liqueurs, and some curaçao.
Triple sec and curaçao are just catchall terms for orange-flavored liqueur; there aren’t any official and well-policed definitions of the terms. Some people consider triple sec a type of curaçao, while others say that curaçao is a subset of triple sec. The major difference seems to be that triple secs are generally uncolored, while curaçaos come in neon shades from a frightening deep blue to a bright Tang-like orange. There are lots of generic and suspiciously cheap versions of both on the market.
When it comes to high-quality orange spirits, basically the choices are Cointreau and Grand Marnier. Though both are brandy-based and often spoken about interchangeably, they are very different. Cointreau is clear and, according to Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh’s book Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails, it’s “the first and best Triple Sec. ... Use generic Triple Sec only if you are short on cash.” (However, Combier also claims to be the original and evidently has been around since 1834, while Cointreau only since 1875.) Cointreau is notable for its bright, almost shrill flavors of orange peel. Grand Marnier—called “the grandma” by bartenders—employs mellowed, aged Cognac and carries the colors and rich vanilla-spice flavor of oak-barrel aging.
The flavor differences between the two suggest vastly different uses in cocktails. For distinction, let’s look at the Sidecar, the famous cocktail calling traditionally for Cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice. It’s a great bright drink, with lemon and orange notes underscored with the nutty, figgy flavors of the brandy. You might think that substituting Grand Marnier for Cointreau would be a natural fit—after all, the round, rich flavors of the grandma mirror the flavors of the brandy. But I think that cocktail tastes flat. Rather, the brightness of the Cointreau lifts the drink, like a tent post lifts a tent. That’s not to say that Grand Marnier isn’t a wonderful mixer (try the delicious Yellow Daisy), and it’s certainly better to sip on its own.
There are a couple of newish orange liqueurs on the market worth knowing about. Both are rum-based, which is sensible, since the orange peels for every major orange liqueur come from rum country, be it Curaçao itself or other islands such as Haiti. Santa Teresa distillery, in Venezuela, is one of the world’s best rum producers, and it has directed its talents to an orange liqueur. It’s a beautiful blend of layers of orange flavor with notes of spice, pepper, and burnished brown sugar. It’s a great sipper. I also like to stir it with another dark rum and some bitters for a sort of rum Manhattan. Créole Shrubb from the Martinique distillery Rhum Clément is another new one. It uses dried orange peels from Curaçao as well as spices including vanilla, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and its flavor is bright and clean with sweet, complex aromatics. It’s a superior mixer and can either stand in for something like Cointreau in, say, a margarita or a Cosmopolitan, or bring an extra spiciness to the drink. It also makes a fine addition to hot chocolate.