From the Margarita to the most obscure tiki recipes, Orange Liqueur is one of the most ubiquitous non-base cocktail ingredients. It has a variety of uses, but most often it’s used to add a mellow, understated natural sweetness with a hint of orange essence.
So what is it?
Well, let’s start with liqueur – sweetened spirit, in this case, orange sweetened spirit. The category breaks down into two subcategories: Curacao & Triple Sec. What’s the difference? Well… that’s tricky.
Off the coast of Venezuela, on the island of Curacao (“kurra-sou”), a special variety of bitter orange peels were harvested & distilled with brandy. That same method found its way to Europe where they were distilled with neutral spirit. Today, you can find these two basic categories on the market.
– Curacao tends to refer to the aged brandy-based liqueur that offers more complexity & tends to be a little bit sweeter.
– Triple Sec tends to refer to the neutral spirit based liqueur that tries to capture the straightforward “essence” of orange flavor, usually with less sweetness & less complexity.
There is, however, no legal differentiation. This means that a neutral spirit based liqueur with caramel color & spices added might be called Curacao. Curacaos might be clear, they might have subtle spice added like coriander & cardamom, they might not. “Sec” is French for “dry,” but triple secs might be sweet or tart.
On Blue Curacao: It might seem like (& is) a byproduct of the 80’s & 90’s cocktail Zeitgeist to have shelves upon shelves of neon colored liqueurs designed to make vodka cocktails more visually interesting, but the tradition of blue curacao actually goes back several decades. Originally, butterfly pea blossoms were dried & steeped in curacao to dye it blue, & in the 1950’s, Bols, an old Dutch company known for Genever & their wide portfolio of liqueurs, released their blue Curacao, which Tiki Pioneer Harry Yee put on the map in 1957 when he crafted the Blue Hawaii the Hawaiian Village Hotel.
When you find blue Curacao in stores, despite the name, it will typically be a sweeter triple sec with blue color added.
So… Which ones to buy?
You’re in luck! Because while I haven’t tried a wide variety of orange liqueurs, I have done a lot of legwork combing through reviews, comparisons, & blind tastings. I will be combining my findings with my own experiences to give you a good view of the playing field of Orange Liqueur.
We’re looking for a natural orange flavor with minimal sugar added at full 80 proof, because paying for extra water in our bottles does our wallets & tastebuds no favors.
Budget of The Budget: Bols Triple Sec
If you need something quick & cheap for a batched cocktail, or if you’re on a tight budget, the wide variety of orange liqueurs on the store shelves with colorful labels & low low prices can be tempting.
At about $6/liter, Bols Triple Sec is not only one of the cheapest, but it’s also the best in the <$15 category. It’s weak at 21% ABV, but most other options are 15%-20%. While it’s very sweet, it has the least fake-candy-orange flavor of the other options, with a subtle hint of baking spices.
Picture Source: Bols
Best Value Triple Sec: O3 Premium
DeKuyper is one of the many brands offering low price, low quality liqueurs for bad appletinis & layered bar shots. However, they have a trick up their sleeve: O3 Premium Orange Liqueur. Since their basic options are so low in both price & expectation, this premium brand offers much more quality for not much more price. At $15-$18, O3 is definitely on the sweeter side, but offers a full-fledged natural orange flavor at 40% AVB.
Picture Source: Dekuyper USA
Best Triple Sec: Senior Curacao
While it may be called Curacao (because it’s from the actual Island), Senior Curacao Triple Sec is well balanced in terms of its sugar content, orange fleshy taste & bitter peel character. Available at 31% ABV & in a variety of colors for themed drinks, this Triple Sec is one of the best in the category. At only $30-$33, it won the blind tasting I link below, beating out Cointreau, the typical standard of the category.
Picture Source: Hotaling & Co
Best Value Curacao: Gran Gala
At half the price of Grand Marnier, Gran Gala is Italy’s answer to the French benchmark of the category. It can be had for $20, is full strength & widely available, & won out above Grand Marnier in the blind taste test I link below thanks to its more prominent & pleasant orange flavor.
Picture Source: Total WIne & More
Best Curacao: Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
While this liqueur is a Cognac based curacao like Grand Marnier, one similarity it doesn’t share is its presence in world class cocktail bars & books. From the producers of Pierre Ferrand Cognac & bottlers of Plantation Rum, this curacao raises the bar of quality, & though it might not be as easy to find, it will set you back only $30.
Picture Source: Maison Ferrand
It’s a shame that I can’t make you a Margarita or Sidecar with Leroux Curacao & one with Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao & let you compare them side by side. It makes a big difference, one that’s easy to overlook if you haven’t experienced it yourself. I encourage you to go to a bar or nice Mexican restaurant & ask for 2 of the same cocktail that prominently feature orange liqueur but made with different quality ones & taste them side by side. Sure the differences show up when tasted neat, but the real story is how they impact your docktail.
One nice thing to remember about Orange Liqueur is that most cocktails only call for 0.5 to 1 oz, rather than your typical 1.5 to 2 oz for other liquor, so the extra dollars that you hopefully spend on a good quality liqueur will go even further. As always, good luck on your journey, & cheers!