There’s no real need to rehash the whole quality-ingredients-matter thing, right?
Because I am actually here about the margaritas. The ones you’ll be making for Cinco de Mayo. I have a whole plan, for another day, to write about how much I love that drink in (almost) all its forms. With jalapeno, agave, strawberries even. But I love it best when it’s in a real cocktail groove—served strong, up, and balanced. Above all, greater than the sum of its parts.
And achieving that alchemy requires more attention than most people give to the third main ingredient, after lime juice and tequila. Triple sec. Orange liqueur, in some form.
Truth be told, any number of them have had a home on my shelf, over the years. But it’s time to get this right. I grabbed the top four brands in the stores near me and put on a straight-up head-to-head home tasting, trying each both neat and with an ice cube. How they will play in a margarita will vary—and let’s not forget the Cosmo, and the White Lady, and the Sidecar—but quality and finesse is the way to go in any drink.
So, What Are These Orange Liqueurs?
Generally—as in the cases here—they are French.
Orange peels of one sort or another (often a mix of sweet and bitter varieties) are infused in a strong, generally neutral, spirit, then that infusion is distilled.
In the case of Combier, the resulting powerful elixir (96% ABV, after the first pass) is then distilled two more times.
“Triple sec,” get it?
At least that’s what the brand claims the descriptor means. Other folks have different explanations for the term, which in itself doesn’t make literal sense: “Sec” means “dry” in French. But as with other French beverage terms, like cru, they often don’t mean the same thing in different contexts. It’s more or less safe to call this category of products “triple secs.”
The smart cocktail writer Michael Dietsch did a thorough roundup on this tricky topic a few years back, suffering through a number of lesser offerings so we don’t have to.
It was common in the 19th century to add to the distillate a separate infusion—in the case of Pierre Ferrand’s Dry Curacao, for instance, walnut skins and prunes which have been infused with brandy and cognac—but the method isn’t common today.
Finally, in all cases, the orange concoction is then blended with a) sugar of some kind, as well as b) brandy or cognac. As part of quality control, Grand Marnier makes its own cognac. Cointreau, as part of the Remy Cointreau company, has a ready supply.
Now, to the test. Prices here are a quick-search retail average, for a standard 750 ml bottle.
One of the big boys in this category, Cointreau has a rich history tracing back to 1840, when founder Adolphe Cointreau began experimenting with various fruit formulas. In 1849 he pivoted to focus on the then-exotic orange; his concoction took a medal at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition—the World’s Fair—marking the brand’s first steps into the Americas. In 1922 the bottling became part of the first Sidecar recipe; in 1988 it witnessed the invention of the Cosmopolitan, and shortly thereafter the company merged with Remy Martin.
IN THE GLASS The spirit emerges crystal clear from its brown bottle. The addition of ice produces an opalescent effect, a la ouzo.
ON THE NOSE A fair bit of alcohol heat, warm orange.
TO THE PALATE The spirit’s brightness falls off a bit quickly; we’d prefer it more as a mixer than a standalone.
This proudly clear bottle shows off its proudly clear spirit, and above the product name is the phrase “L’Original.” They really mean it; Combier claims that its namesake founder invented triple sec in 1834, in the Loire Valley’s charming town of Saumur.
After the three distillations, the brand says, its base receives “a careful douceur of natural sugar crystals … to soften the complex orange aromas, and the finished liqueur is then reduced to 40% ABV and bottled.”
IN THE GLASS Clear, with light clouding when on ice.
ON THE NOSE Orange punch, and a hint of creaminess.
TO THE PALATE Combier has a persistent sweetness on the palate, a lingering creamsicle effect.
This stately standby, with a red ribbon twisted at the neck and affixed to the bottle’s broad shoulder with a wax stamp, stands at quiet attention in nearly every decent bar in the world. In my experience, that’s not just because it’s a staple but because it is, for many industry folk, the shift drink of choice. It might be 10PM or 2AM, but their work day has just ended, and they are happy to have something delicious, complete in itself, and pleasurable. A “Granny,” in a snifter, is an excellent way to decompress from serving the wretched public. Comprised of French cognac and oranges from the West Indies, this is an enduring classic.
IN THE GLASS By far the darkest of this quartet—dare we say ochre?
ON THE NOSE Alcohol, ripe orange.
TO THE PALATE This liqueur seems closest to its cognac father—pleasant and boozy.
Pierre Ferrand declares its product to be “a traditional French ‘triple sec’–three separate distillations of spices and the ‘sec’ or bitter, peels of Curacao oranges [then] blended with brandy and Ferrand Cognac.” Drinks guru David Wondrich collaborated on this resurrection of a 19th century approach, and the result is a splendid standalone liqueur.
IN THE GLASS A clear light-brown, like an aged tequila.
ON THE NOSE Very bright citrus with integrated alcohol.
TO THE PALATE A light-bodied candy quality characterizes the flavor—delicious though not cloying.
Any of these will work serviceably in a margarita. For a Sidecar, which in our view ought to be boozy, we’d go with Grand Marnier. For a Cosmo, the Combier’s slightly lighter touch would be a fine choice. But the winner here (and new to me) was the Pierre Ferrand—delicious on its own, it has an elegance that would make it a welcome partner in all the standard drinks calling for orange liqueur.