Time to learn something.

I am not sure how exactly I came to this conclusion, but I was always under the impression that orange liqueur was orange liqueur, and for fun there were various grades/types that you could select.  There was the poor mans version – triple sec in all its generic forms.  If you were in the mood for crazy colors you could opt for blue curacao.  Then once you graduated college and could afford a little better you could upgrade to Cointreau.  If you were crazy you then go all the way for the Grand Marnier – for the baller in you.

Funny thing is, I was wrong.  While they are all technically orange liqueurs, they are each made in a very distinct way with different ingredients.  They can all be drunk as an aperitif, often over ice or used as the ingredient of a fun libation.  Here is the summary:

  1. Triple Sec.  The generic standby.  This is actually a type of curacao, but not as sweet as the other varieties.
  2. Curacao (including the fantastically blue version I sampled here).  This is a specific type of liqueur made in the Dutch West Indies using dried sour orange peels.  Surprisingly, it was originally made with fruit from the island of Curacao.
  3. Cointreau.  This is technically another curacao, but it has no relation to its Caribbean cousin.  This is made from a complex recipe, but the primary difference is that it made from a base of grape brandy – who knew?  There is also a secret mix of plant ingredients included to enhance the flavor.
  4. Grand Marnier.  This once should be different – it is the only one that has a brown coloring.  This is a further refinement of a curacao, this time using cognac as a base.  To mellow the taste it is also cask aged.  This is fine enough to enjoy neat if you are no inclined.

Now I know how they are different – how do they taste different?  To be honest I had never tried any of these outside of a cocktail recipe, so no time like the present for a taste test.

Tasting Notes:

  • Triple Sec – smooth and sweet.  When sampled alone almost has the taste of an orange tic-tac.  While it is certainly sweet, it is not as sweet as I was expecting.
  • Curacao – sweeter, harsher, and in this case blue!  While I have to say it is only subtly different from the Triple Sec, it tastes like a less refined version.
  • Cointreau – one word – sweet!  This is a whole different level of orange liqueur.  The smell lures you in with the pleasant hint of orange peels, but the taste is powerful, almost spicy.
  • Grand Marnier – totally different again, very much the taste of cognac, and the orange flavor is almost secondary.  Not as sweet and definitely more robust a flavor.

Now you know – there is a difference, so my years of reckless substitution are over!

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