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

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 are 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 let's try 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 at 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 to 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.

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.

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.

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, a variety of oranges, and additional ingredients.

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.

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.

Curaçao Cocktails

Curaçao (pronounced kurra-sow) liqueur is a sweet, orange-flavored distilled spirit. It is often made from the dried peels of small laraha oranges that are more bitter than common oranges.

Curaçao liqueur is the oldest style of orange liqueur known and is often called for in classic cocktail recipes.

There are four colors of curaçao available : orange, blue, green, and white.

  • Orange is the most commonly used and if a recipe does not note a specific color, either the orange or white are the best choices.
  • Blue curaçao is the most popular way to create blue cocktails and is found in many of these recipes.
  • Green curaçao is still made, though is not as commonly found as orange or blue curaçao.

Nonetheless, the color options of curaçao can be used to create drinks of different colors while maintaining the general flavor of the drink. If you do switch out the curaçao to get a different color effect, do be aware of how the color will be affected by the cocktail's other ingredients (e.g. blue curaçao with pineapple juice will create an aquamarine colored drink).

Most curacao liqueurs are 30% ABV (60 proof).

Note: Blue curaçao is also available in a non-alcoholic form. This is useful when you want to turn mocktails a shade of blue. This curaçao can often be found in the mixer section of the liquor store, next to the grenadine, sodas, and lime juice.

Triple Sec Cocktails

Triple sec is orange-flavored liqueur that varies greatly in quality. Cointreau and Combier are two of the oldest and most trusted premium brands available, and there are many that are considerably lower in both price and quality. This liqueur is often clear-colored, though some with a brandy base may be golden.

Sec translates from French to mean 'dry' and triple sec is often thought to mean triple dry, though in this sense it often means that the liqueur is triple distilled.

Most triple sec is 30% alcohol by volume (60 proof).

Cointreau Cocktails

Cointreau (pronounced kwahn-troh is a brand name for the most well-known premium triple sec liqueur. It's exceptional smoothness and crisp orange flavor makes it ideal for cocktails and this is why it is often called for by name. The recipes below fall into this category, listing Cointreau as the suggested orange liqueur. 80 proof (40% alcohol/volume)

Visit Cointreau's website.

Combier Cocktails

Combier is the 'other' premium triple sec that claims to have been the first of its kind. This French liqueur was first produced in 1834 by Jean-Baptiste Combier and is not as well known in the United States because it only recently became available here. It is distilled three times and flavored with three varieties of bitter and sweet oranges. Combier Original has a neutral spirit base and Royal Combier blends the original with V.S.O.P. Cognac.

Combier Original: 80 proof (40% alcohol/volume), Royal Combier: 76 proof (38% alcohol/volume)

Visit the Combier website

Grand Marnier and Grand Gala Cocktails

Few orange liqueurs have the distinction of being an ultra-smooth, brandy-base the likes of Grand Marnier. It is a favorite orange liqueur among bartenders and can be used in countless cocktails. Grand Marnier has a base of French Cognac and it has an Italian counterpart, Gran Gala with a brandy base. There may be a handful of other orange liqueurs that come and go on the market that may rival these, but these two are the mainstay of this style of orange liqueur.

Drinkers find that the combination of brandy and orange to be very useful in cocktails and it can often stand on its own or in equal measure with other refined distilled spirits as the Beautiful cocktail demonstrates. Each of the drinks in this list call for one or the other.

Both liqueurs are 80 proof (40% alcohol/volume).

Grand Marnier Website - Review of Gran Gala

Other Specific Orange Liqueurs

Orange liqueurs are so popular in cocktails that there are many other brands on the market. A few, such as Patrón Citrónge and Aperol, are mainstays in the market, while others are more of specialty boutique liqueurs that may not be widely available nor have a long life on the market. My recommendation is that if you come across a unique bottle of premium orange liqueur, give it a try because there are some hidden gems and this flavor is one that distillers can be quite creative with.

Aperol 

This aperitif is has a bright orange flavor and color. Aperol is produced in Italy and is infused with bitter and sweet oranges along with a proprietary recipe of herbs and roots. It mixes very well in simple, high-end cocktails. 22 proof (11% alcohol/volume) Visit the Aperol website.

Borducan Orange Liqueur

This orange liqueur is often compared to Cointreau. If you are accustomed to using the popular orange liqueur in anything from a Cosmopolitan to a Margarita, then you may want to give Borducan a try as many find it less sweet but with a bolder orange flavor. Borducan is produced in Northern Italy and begins with a neutral spirit base to which orange and a combination of Alpine herbs and saffron are added. 70 proof (35% alcohol/volume) 

Visit the Borducan website.

O3

One of the liqueurs in the product line of DeKuyper, O3 is a premium orange liqueur that can be used in a variety of cocktails. It is flavored with the essential oils of the Brazilian Pera Orange. 80 proof (40% alcohol/volume)

Visit the DeKuyper website.

Patrón Citrónge

Produced by Patrón Tequila, Citrónge has a base of neutral grain spirits and is flavored with organic Jamaican and bittersweet Haitian oranges. Many drinkers think this spirit the best option for Margaritas and it is a nice addition to other cocktails, especially tequila cocktails. 80 proof (40% alcohol/volume) 

Visit the Patrón website.

Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur 

Produced in Sicily, Solerno is a very nice premium orange liqueur that can be used in place of almost every other brand on this list. It has a neutral spirit base and has three rounds of distillation: one with whole Sanguinello blood oranges, one with blood orange peel, and one with Sicilian lemons. 80 proof (40% alcohol/volume) 

Visit the Solerno Facebook page