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The Serious Eats Field Guide to Orange Liqueur

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[Photographs, unless otherwise noted: Robyn Lee]

Orange liqueur has earned a bad reputation over the last few decades. Take, for example, curaçao. When many people think of curaçao, they immediately recall bright blue cocktails, sticky sweet and garish—drinks they might have had in college or even as recently as last weekend.

But orange liqueur needn't be limited to blue curaçao and other sugary concoctions. Today we'll look at a range of orange liqueurs, from high-priced brandy-laced products to inexpensive triple secs.

A Taxonomy of Orange Liqueurs

Before diving into a tasting of various brands, I should start with some terminology. It's difficult to pin down precise definitions of these terms, but I'll try.

Orange liqueur is the easiest term to define, so here's where I'll start. Orange liqueur is simply a sweetened alcoholic beverage with orange flavoring. The alcohol itself can be either a column-distilled neutral spirit (similar to vodka) or it may be a pot-distilled spirit, such as grape brandy.

Curaçao

Historically, curaçao is a product of the island of Curaçao, made from a pot-stilled brandy and flavored with the dried peels of Curaçao oranges. These oranges were first brought to Curaçao as Valencia oranges by Spanish settlers. But the Valencia orange didn't take well to Curaçao's dry climate, and over time, the oranges became bitter and inedible. The plants began to grow wild, but then someone—it's unclear who—discovered that the skin of a Curaçao orange, left to dry in the sun, produced a pleasantly fragrant aroma. By 1896, distillers in Curaçao were using the peels of the Curaçao orange to add flavor and aroma to their distilled products.

Curaçao is not a protected appellation. Some products, such as cognac and Champagne, are protected, and must by law be made in their region of origin. Curaçao doesn't enjoy this level of protection, however, and therefore it may be made anywhere and by any method. Earlier, I said that historically, curaçao is a product of Curaçao, made from brandy and dried Curaçao orange peels. Modern curaçaos, however, are not necessarily made this way.

Some traditional curaçaos are still available, most notably, a brand called Curaçao of Curaçao, produced by the Senior family of Curaçao. The blue stuff, I probably don't need to add, is not a traditional curaçao.

Triple Sec

Triple sec originated as a French product. It was originally made with less sugar than used in curaçao, which led to the name sec, which means dry. No one knows with any certainty where the designation "triple" originated. Triple sec is not triple-distilled, as some people claim, and nor is it thrice as dry as curaçao or other liqueurs. The most reasonable explanation is that "triple" was mere marketing, a way to trump up new products and denigrate the competition.

What's the Deal with Grand Marnier and Cointreau?

Perhaps the two most famous brands of orange liqueur are Grand Marnier and Cointreau, and you might be wondering where they fit in to this taxonomy. Simple. Grand Marnier is an orange liqueur in the curaçao tradition, and Cointreau is a triple sec.

Grand Marnier is a blend of cognac and triple sec, so although it's not a traditional curaçao, it's a similar product. Cointreau, on the other hand, is straight up a triple sec. In fact, Cointreau initially called itself Cointreau Triple Sec, and you can sometimes find old-school, collectible bottles with this labeling on Internet auction sites.

In response to the dreck that other distilleries were putting out and branding as triple sec, Cointreau repositioned itself as a product apart from triple sec, removing those words from its label and marketing.

Major Brands of Orange Liqueur

There are numerous orange liqueurs on the market, but here's a basic guide (in alphabetical order) to the differences between prominent brands, and which bottles are worth seeking out.

Bols

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Style: Triple sec. 30 proof, or 15% abv
Country of origin: USA
Color: Clear.
Nose: Intensely, almost artificially, orange. Smells like cheap orange perfume.
Palate: Tastes better than it smells. Very sweet, orange, hints of clove and cinnamon.
Overall impression: At approximately $8 for a liter bottle, Bols is among the cheaper brands, and perhaps the best of the Will Gordon set. Although the main impression is of imitation orange, notes of warm spices complement the main flavor, making Bols less of a one-note product than other brands. Still, I'd avoid this unless you're really throwing a party on a tight budget.

Clément Créole Shrubb

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[Photograph: Rhum Clément]

Style: Rum and orange liqueur, 80 proof
Country of origin: Martinique
Color: Orange gold.
Nose: Bitter orange, funky rum, spice.
Palate: Dry, sharp, bitter orange, hints of rhum agricole and spice.
Overall impression: This liqueur is produced by Rhum Clément, a maker of rhums agricole in Martinique. It's made in a style similar to a curaçao, in which a base pot-stilled spirit is flavored with bitter orange and spices. The base spirit here is Clément's rhum agricole, giving this product a healthy (and to my palate, delicious) note of funk and complexity. A spirit like this is lovely in tropical rum drinks, such as the Mai Tai. Expect to pay about $40 for a 750 mL bottle.

Cointreau

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Style: Triple sec, 80 proof.
Country of origin: France
Color: Clear.
Nose: Subtle orange, spice, some alcohol.
Palate: Well balanced. Dry, bitter orange, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove.
Overall impression: Cointreau is well-regarded for a reason. The flavors are perfectly balanced between bitter orange and sweetness. Warm spices lend complexity to the spirit while complementing the orange. In a great orange liqueur the other flavors should serve to enhance the orange flavor, not mask it, and in this regard Cointreau excels. It's not my choice for a pure after-dinner sipper, but it's tops for cocktail versatility. A 750 will set you back about $40, but most shops also offer this in 375 mL bottles, for which you can expect to pay about 20 bucks. A 375er should last you a while, so this is a perfect option for most inebriates.

Combier Liqueur d'Orange

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Style: Triple sec, 80 proof
Country of origin: France
Color: Clear.
Nose: Subtle orange, alcohol.
Palate: Semi-dry, bitter orange, not much spice. Not as balanced as Cointreau, skewing more toward sweetness.
Overall impression: Combier is a recent arrival in the United States, and it's marketed as a slightly less-expensive Cointreau replacement. I found Cointreau to be better balanced on the nose and palate, but I'll admit that when they're mixed into cocktails, I don't notice much difference. As a standalone sipper, Cointreau's better, but for cocktails save a few bucks and buy the Combier ($32 per 750ml).

Grand Marnier

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[Photograph: Grand Marnier]

Style: Curaçao-inspired blend of cognac and orange liqueur, 80 proof.
Country of origin: France
Color: Amber-gold.
Nose: Brandy, orange, alcohol.
Palate: Dry, bitter orange, subtle brandy notes, very subtle hints of wood aging, some spice.
Overall impression: As I said earlier, GM is a curaçao-style liqueur, made of a blend of pot-stilled cognacs, bitter-orange peel, and spice. Grand Marnier is a clear winner as a standalone, after-dinner sipper. The flavors are beautifully balanced and the palate is dry overall, and not very sweet. As a mixer, GM can be tricky. A lot of bartenders find it too brandy-forward for Sidecars, for example, skewing the flavor profile of such cocktails too heavily spiritous. I urge you to experiment for yourself, and enjoy the endeavor, but just be aware that you'll need to take a light hand with Grand Marnier. You can always add more. A 375ml bottle runs about the same as a similar sized Cointreau: $20.

Hiram Walker Triple Sec

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Style: Triple sec, 60 proof.
Country of origin: USA
Color: Clear. Nose: Orange.
Palate: Very sweet (cloying), artificial orange.
Overall impression: Another barrel-scraper, at about $11 for a 750ml bottle. Cloying and unpleasant, this tastes primarily of artificial orange. Only one note, and that one's harsh. If you're staying bottom shelf, stick with Bols.

Luxardo Triplum

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Style: Triple sec, 78 proof
Country of origin: Italy
Color: Clear.
Nose: Orange, alcohol, light spice.
Palate: Dry, bitter orange, spice.
Overall impression: Nicely balanced blend of bitter orange, sweet orange, and spice. Lovely to smell, and even better to sip. I was impressed by this, having never previously tasted it. If I were going to replace Cointreau with a cheaper offering, this would be it. A 750 mL bottle sells for around $22.

Mandarine Napoleon

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Style: Orange liqueur and cognac, 76 proof
Country of origin: Belgium
Color: Dark amber.
Nose: Not just orange aroma, but specifically, and very obviously, mandarin orange.
Palate: Cloying, one note, not specifically mandarin at all.
Overall impression: I was delighted and surprised by how specifically Mandarine Napoleon smelled of mandarin oranges. I mean, it's right there in the name, sure, but even so, the strong specific whiff of mandarin is unexpected. But something happens between smelling and sipping, unfortunately, and the mandarin flavors are overwhelmed by sweetness in this liqueur. Disappointingly unbalanced and unfortunately not worth the $32 bucks for a 750 mL bottle.

Marie Brizard Orange Liqueur

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[Photograph: Marie Brizard]

Style: Triple sec, 78 proof
Country of origin: France
Color: Clear. Nose: Orange, alcohol.
Palate: Moderately sweet, orange, with some spice.
Overall impression: Another budget offering, moderately more expensive than the Hiram Walker, at $19 for a 750 mL. Better balanced than old Hiram, with only moderate sweetness and some spice to complement the orange flavor. If you can't find Bols for your bottom-shelfer, Marie will hook you up well enough.

Patron Citronge

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[Photograph: Patron]

Style: Triple sec, 80 proof
Country of origin: Mexico
Color: Clear.
Nose: Orange (almost artificial), alcohol.
Palate: Moderately sweet, orange (mildly bitter), some floral notes.
Overall impression: If you hope or expect this product to have a tequila base, you'll be disappointed; it's purely a neutral-spirit based triple sec. It's fine for what it is: a middle-of-the-road triple sec, priced at about $22 for a 750 mL bottle.

Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao

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Style: Dry curaçao, 80 proof
Country of origin: France
Color: Golden-brown. (By sight alone, you could almost mistake it for whiskey.)
Nose: Bitter orange, spice.
Palate: Dry, bitter orange, clove, vanilla, nutmeg, alcohol on finish.
Overall impression: I said earlier that in a great orange liqueur the other flavors should serve to enhance the orange flavor, not mask it, and Pierre Ferrand's version proves the point. Ferrand's curaçao is designed to complement its excellent cognacs and other fine aged spirits in cocktails, but also to be sipped and enjoyed on its own merits. Try mixing it not just with Ferrand's brandies but also rums; Ferrand owns the Plantation Rum brand, and therefore has an interest in producing an orange that plays well with rum. The New York Times has a recent write-up on the product's origins, but it's too long a story for this space. Ferrand's offering is an excellent choice for an after-dinner sip. I might rank Grand Marnier slightly ahead, but that's only because retailers seem to be having trouble at present at keeping Ferrand's curaçao in stock. When you can find it, it's about $30 for 750 mL.

Royal Combier

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Style: Orange liqueur and cognac, 76 proof
Country of origin: France
Color: Amber gold.
Nose: Bitter orange, hint of brandy, some alcohol.
Palate: Dry, bitter orange, lots of spice, some cognac notes.
Overall impression: Marketed to compete with Grand Marnier. It's a reasonable substitute, albeit a little more spendy (at about $40 for 750 mL). Like Grand Marnier and Ferrand, Royal Combier also starts with brandy and bitter-orange peel, adding spices to round out the flavors. Another excellent choice as a sipper.

Santa Teresa Rhum Orange Liqueur

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Style: Rum and orange liqueur, 80 proof
Country of origin: Venezuela
Color: Golden brown.
Nose: Smells strongly of rum, with orange and vanilla in the background.
Palate: Tastes of an orange-flavored funky rhum agricole. Rhum dominates the palate, with hints of orange, spice, and vanilla on the finish.
Overall impression: Similar to Clément's Creole Shrubb, the Santa Teresa starts with rhum agricole and adds bitter orange. I find this tastes more like an orange-flavored rum and less like a rum-flavored orange liqueur. It's perhaps a wee bit too sweet to sip on its own, but some might like that. But it's complex and funky with a hint of barrel aging. It's also one of the most surprisingly delicious products I've tasted this year. Eighteen bucks will earn you a 375 mL bottle.

Senior Curaçao of Curaçao

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Style: Dry curaçao, 62 proof
Country of origin: Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles
Color: Orange. (The label notes that color is added; I suspect it would otherwise be clear).
Nose: Orange, and some alcohol.
Palate: Mildly sweet, bitter orange, moderately balanced. Some clove notes.
Overall impression: As this is the only curaçao from Curaçao, and is made by a family that claims to have invented curaçao, I think I expected more from it. It's markedly sweeter than Pierre Ferrand. The Senior family also markets a clear version and a blue curaçao, but the orange-colored bottling was what I tasted. If you really must have blue curaçao for your cocktails, Senior Blue is the one for you. Reportedly, it tastes just like the orange and the clear, which means it's far less cloying and much better balanced than any other blue product on the market. $25 for 750 mL.

Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur

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Style: Blood orange liqueur, 80 proof
Country of origin: Italy
Color: Clear. Nose: Orange, some alcohol.
Palate: Orange, and tastes specifically of blood oranges.
Overall impression: Whereas the Mandarine Napolean smelled of mandarins and tasted mostly of sugar, this liqueur smells of generic orange but tastes very specifically of blood orange. I was very surprised by this, pleasantly so. If you want to tweak your cocktails with an unexpected flavor profile, this is one way to go. It's on the pricey side, however, at about $40 for a 750.

About the author: Michael Dietsch approaches life with a hefty dash of bitters. He and his family recently relocated to Brooklyn, New York. Find him on twitter at @dietsch.

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