Orange Liqueurs, Part I

I wrote a couple articles on orange liqueurs for another site, and I'm going to republish them here.

When many of us start acquiring a collection of liquor so that we can have a drink in the evening or offer guests a cocktail, mixers tend to stump us.  What mixers should I buy?  Does my liquor cabinet need to look like the bars that Tom Cruise works in Cocktail?

Fortunately a few basic mixers are called for in the majority of cocktails that you will want to shake up or stir, such as a daiquiri or a margarita or a cosmo.  This article will make you an expert on the most commonly found orange-flavored liqueurs that should be found in every home bar.

Triple SecTriple sec (which means distilled three times in French) is the most widely used orange-flavored liqueur, used for flavor and sweetness.  If you’ve drunk  a Between the Sheets, Cosmopolitan, Long Island Iced Tea, Margarita, or Sidecar,  you’ve tasted triple sec.

Triple sec was invented in 1834 by Jean-Baptiste Combier.  A Combier brand of triple sec is still made today, using oranges from Haiti that are distilled in 100-year-old copper stills.  Nineteenth-century bar guides sometimes called it “white curaçao”  (see below for more on curaçao liqueur).

All brands of triple sec are distilled from the dried peel of Caribbean oranges.  The higher-priced brands use brandy or cognac as a base.  Many brands are colorless, but some of the ones you will find have an orange color.

Today triple sec tends to be 60 proof (30% alcohol by volume).   The brands that you will find in your local liquor mart tend to be Bols, DeKuyper, and Hiram Walker.  Bols has a higher alcohol content, 42%, and sometimes is drunk straight up or on the rocks.

Triple sec has a decidedly OJ-like smell when you sniff it, and it tastes a bit like an orange gumdrop: very sweet and orangey, although not overpowering. The sweetness makes a big contribution to sweet drinks such as cosmos and margaritas.  If you are making a sweet dessert orange sauce, consider using triple sec to give your dessert a little unexpected kick.

Triple sec will run you under $10 a bottle and is a must-have for every liquor cabinet.

Curaçao and Blue CuraçaoCuraçao, in its blue version, is what makes that Smurf cocktail blue.  An orange-flavored liqueur like Triple Sec, curaçao is distilled from the laraha, a bitter citrus.  The laraha was developed from Valencial oranges on the island of Curaçao, off the Venezuelan coast.  Its fruit is so bitter as to be inedible, and only the dried peel is used.

Curaçao was first distilled by the Seniors, a Jewish family of Spanish and Portuguese descent.  The Senior brand is still sold today as the original curaçao.

After the peel is soaked with alcohol and water, spices are added.  Some manufacturers add other flavors, such as rum-raisin and chocolate, but the predominant flavor is orange.  Curaçao ranges from 40 to 80 proof (20 to 40% alcohol by volume).

Orange or green coloring is often added to curaçao, which is naturally colorless, but blue curaçao is probably best known.  Both blue and green curaçao are used to add color to mixed drinks, but all colors have basically the same flavor with just slight differences in bitterness.

The main manufacturers of triple sec also make curaçao: Bols, DeKuyper, and Hiram Walker.  You can also find higher-quality versions made by Marie Brizard and Bardinet.

Curaçao is sweet, similar to triple sec, but with a more mellow flavor.  Some brands have a very strong rubbing alcohol taste, like the orange-flavored cough medicine that you may have had poured down your throat as a child. Blue curacao, like the orange variety, has very little smell.  It has a slightly different taste from the orange, with not as much of the cough medicine flavor.

Orange curaçao can be used where triple sec is called for in a recipe.  Popular drinks made with the blue version include the Blue Hawaiian,  Blue Lagoon, Electric Lemonade, and Zombie.  Like triple sec, curaçao will run you around $10 a bottle.

Other Orange-Flavored MixersBesides Cointreau, Grand Marnier, and Mandarine Napoléon, higher-quality (and higher-priced) orange-flavored liqueurs that will be discussed in a follow-up article, a few other orange flavorings are worth investigating, although they aren’t must-haves for your liquor cabinet.

Torani Amer is a San Francisco–distilled aperitif with a bitter orange flavor and notes of gentian and cinchona.  It is a good substitute in recipes that call for Amer Picon, a French orange liqueur that is unavailable in the United States.  Torani Amer has become a popular ingredient in the cocktail revival of the last few years.

Orange bitters cannot be used as a substitute for triple sec or curaçao, but you can give a few dashes for a slight orange flavor in recipes where bitters are called for, like the Manhattan. You may have to order them over the Internet; I couldn't find them locally or even in a nearby, fairly well-stocked liquor mart.

Orange flower water is a very intensely orange-flavored clear liquid.  It is usually used in baking and is not a substitute for triple sec or curaçao, but a few drops will give a definite orange flavor to any drink.

And, of course, there is always fresh-squeezed orange juice (please don’t use the stuff from concentrate in your cocktails) or, better yet, blood orange juice.

If you are putting together a liquor collection for everyday use or buying an assortment for a special occasion, triple sec and curaçao are basic, inexpensive mixers that you will want to have on hand.