Sweet, citrus, and with infinite varieties, the many types of orange liqueur are a mainstay in cocktail recipes. From triple sec and Curaçao to Cointreau and Grand Marnier, there are many options.
Higher-quality orange liqueurs have been enjoyed as an apéritif or digestif for almost two hundred years. Since the early 20th century, they’ve become essential in cocktails like the Sidecar and Margarita. Each type is made following a different recipe, but with no labeling laws, finding a preferred orange liqueur is up to taste.
Types of Orange Liqueur
Orange liqueurs are difficult to categorize, however, there are four most common styles and brands.
Curaçao – Recognized as the original orange liqueur, it was created by the Dutch during their occupation of the Caribbean island of Curaçao. The Valencia orange trees they brought adapted poorly to the climate and became bitter. The Dutch then used the peels with locally available rum and sugar to create the orange liqueur. Its tropical origins and sweeter profile make it the preferred orange liqueur in many tiki and tropical cocktails. Today, Curaçao is both a brand and a category, with Bols claiming to be the first producer of the spirit. Pierre Ferrand also has variations.
Triple sec – Triple sec is the French answer to Curaçao. The origins of its name are disputed, however, sec translated to dry in French and is a clue to the liqueur’s drier style. Made with column distilling instead of Curaçao’s pot distilling, it adds a light orange flavor to cocktails without being as strong as Curaçao. Cointreau and Combier are high-quality triple secs and both claim to be the first distillers of the spirit. The category itself offers a range of quality within it.
Cointreau – The iconic square bottle of Cointreau is the most well-know orange liqueur and is the choice of craft bartenders across the world. As a triple sec, it is drier but well balanced and of sip-worth quality. Distillation involves a neutral sugar beet base spirit mixed with sweet and bitter orange peels. It’s essential for a well-rounded Margarita and the preferred triple sec to elevate many recipes.
Grand Marnier – The French orange liqueur was originally called “Curaçao Marnier.” Known by 1880 as Grand Marnier, it is a triple sec/Curaçao hybrid, using copper column distillation for the orange liqueur and copper pot distillation for the Cognac, which is then aged in French oak barrels. Like Cointreau, it has a higher alcohol. However, it is stands apart from the other orange liqueurs because 51% of the liquid is aged. This lends itself to a deeper color, toasted notes and overall more complex flavor. This makes it difficult to substitute for other orange liqueurs, giving it a categorization of its own.
Triple Sec or Cointreau Cocktail Recipes
The light orange flavor of triple sec is the most widely used orange liqueur in cocktail recipes. Cointreau’s quality and heritage make it the most popular brand, but most triple secs will make a suitable substitute.
A riff on the original sour, the Cognac-based Sidecar is a Prohibition cocktail that has withstood the test of time. Made with Cointreau, lemon juice, and Cognac, it’s reminiscent of a Daiquiri and a descendent of the Brandy Crusta.
The sister cocktail of the Sidecar, the White Lady, swaps brandy for gin for a more herbaceous taste, mixed with Cointreau, and lemon juice. Variations include the addition of an egg white, which adds a richness in texture and softens the flavors of the mixture.
The Manhattan Blanco is a rich and balanced agave-based cocktail that drapes your palate. It’s a spirit-forward concoction with mezcal, blanco tequila, blanc vermouth, and Cointreau. Serve it up or on the rocks for a mellower libation.
One of the many cocktails claimed to revive someone from a hangover. The Corpse Reviver No. 2 is spirit-forward. Made with gin, Cointreau, Lillet blanc, lemon juice, and a dash of absinthe, its balance of flavors makes it easy to consume. However, the Savoy Cocktail Book cautions that “four of these taken in quick succession will un-revive the corpse again.”
The vodka, cranberry juice, lime, and Cointreau melange blew up in popularity thanks to the 1990s hit Sex and the City. Likely related to the Daisy cocktail and Kamikaze, the iconic pink drink is recognizable in a martini glass is easy on the eyes and the palate.
The Margarita is one of the most popular tequila and orange liqueur cocktails — a mainstay in the beverage world for decades. Made with tequila, triple sec or preferably Cointreau, fresh lime juice, and agave syrup, the classic recipe is a perennial favorite.
The sweeter Dutch-Caribbean rum-based orange liqueur lends itself well to the fresh tropical and citrus fruit juices in tiki and tropical cocktails.
7. Pegu Club
A golden-hued riff on a Gin Sour, the Pegu Club, is from an early Burmese 20th century bar of the same name. Made with gin, lime juice, Angostura bitters, orange bitters, and sweetened with Curaçao, its complex and dry without being overwhelming.
The tiki Mai Tai is generally listed as a rum cocktail, but its addition of orange liqueur links all the ingredients with a sweet citrus kick. Made with three different types of rum, Curaçao, and orgeat syrup, the drink is a tropical classic.
Created in the early 20th century at Raffles Bar in Singapore. It has been a mainstay for over a hundred years. However, no two recipes that have been published are the same. Created as a variation on the gin sling. It’s fruity and complex, herbaceous and strong — while not saccharinely sweet. The original recipe is made with gin, orange liqueur, maraschino liqueur, Bénédictine, lime juice, pineapple juice, grenadine, Angostura bitters, and soda water. The ingredient list is long, and proportions are essential to ensure nothing is overpowering.
The French brandy-based orange liqueur adds a depth of flavor and sweetness to many a cocktail recipe.
While there’s no consensus on a recipe for a Millionaire Cocktail, this one is the original from 1923. Made with rye, Grand Marnier, grenadine, lemon juice, egg white, and absinthe, it’s a complex drink with citrus sweetness, a hint of aniseed, and a luscious palate.
Named after the Irish capital, the Dubliner was created in the 1990s. It’s a modern classic that combines Irish whiskey, sweet vermouth, Grand Marnier, and orange bitters for a rich and boozy cocktail.
A true celebration of the Franco-Irish, The Brotherhood combines French herbal liqueur, Bénédictine, with Irish whiskey mixed with the sweet citrus of Grand Marnier. The unique combination manages to be spirit-forward while staying delightfully refreshing.