Orange liqueurs add bright flavor, sweetness and bite to classic cocktails.
"Everyone knows you use triple sec in a margarita. What kind of lunatic uses Cointreau?"
Someone said that to me recently, and I had to explain to the poor unenlightened one that Cointreau, no matter what the label says, is triple sec, and it's my triple sec of choice whether I'm mixing up a batch of margaritas at home, or making them one at a time at the tavern where I occasionally pull a shift behind the bar. And although I shied away from using Grand Marnier in my margaritas for many years, I've now come to the conclusion that it, too, works very well as the orange liqueur component in a margarita, providing its relative sweetness is balanced with a tad extra lime juice.
Cointreau is called for in such classics (and modern classics) as the sidecar, the cosmopolitan, the kamikaze and the Pegu Club cocktail, a drink that has become fashionable lately but was actually created at an officer's club in Burma prior to 1930. Yet most people don't understand that Cointreau, no matter what the label says, is a top-of-the-line bottling of triple sec. But then, there are many misconceptions about Cointreau and other orange liqueurs. For example, Cointreau on the rocks? Who orders that?
Ginger Silver Coin
*Ginger Simple Syrup
Mai Tai Royal
Jeffrey Morgenthaler, head bartender at El Vaquero, in Eugene, Oregon, hosts a regular customer who favors Cointreau on the rocks with a single dash of orange bitters in the glass. And on the other side of the globe, Paul Mant, a man who holds forth from behind the stick at Elbert Wurlings, a fine dining restaurant in Hertford, England, waxes lyrical when describing a regular customer who enjoys Grand Marnier neat: "A particularly lovely Persian girl comes in to my bar alone, pulls up a stool and drinks Grand Marnier, non-stop, all night," he says. "She engages me in stimulating conversation when I'm free, always tips well, and leaves promptly at 11.30 p.m." And at my last bar gig, I remember serving more than a few glasses of Cointreau on the rocks with a squeeze of fresh lime.
Cointreau and Grand Marnier are the benchmark orange-flavored liqueurs, and they head the packs of two very different teams. Cointreau starts its life as a very clean, neutral spirit. It has intense orange flavors, a dry, peppery finish, and although the palate is sweet, it's not cloying in the least. Grand Marnier, on the other hand, has a base of fine French Cognac, and the orange flavors on the palate are bold and plump in nature. The finish on Grand Marnier is also on the sweet side, but again, the sweetness isn't too overt.
There are many other, well-made orange-flavored liqueurs on the market, each with its own nuances that differentiate it from the rest, and all of them follow either Cointreau's lead, as clean triple secs, or they fall into the Grand Marnier camp of brandy-based liqueurs.
Bartenders and consumers nationwide all have their own favorite orange liqueurs—some for cocktails, some to sip neat. Morganthaler, for instance, uses Patrón Citrònge, a Mexican triple sec, along with Presidente Mexican brandy and fresh lemon juice when he makes his Mexican sidecar at Vaquero, a Latin-American steakhouse. And at the Halekulani Hotel in Honolulu, orange Curaçao, a liqueur that falls into the triple sec category, is called for in their Mai Tai Royale, a specialty drink designed for the hotel by Dale DeGroff.
Some Curaçaos are made with oranges from the island of Curaçao, the largest of the six Caribbean islands that make up the Netherland Antilles. But only one brand, Senior, is actually made on the island, and it's available in a variety of colors—red, green, blue, clear and, yes, orange. So orange Curaçao isn't necessarily orange in color, but all the colors in Senior's range taste exactly the same—rich, sweet, and, well, orange-y.
At the Soho Cantina East on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan, Christopher Baljag makes a drink he calls the Golden Orchid; he uses Gran Gala, an Italian brandy-based orange liqueur, as well as Navan, a vanilla-flavored, Cognac-based liqueur, in the recipe, which also calls for fresh mint leaves and fresh orange juice. It sounds like the perfect sort of drink to sip alongside the authentic Mexican food Chef Ricardo Hernandez offers at the restaurant.
When experimenting with cocktails at home, I sometimes stray a little from the orange-only path by using liqueurs such as Mandarine Napoléon Grande Liqueur Impériale, a beautiful product with fresh mandarin aromas and bold fruit flavors. Or if I'm in a tangerine kind of mood I go for Van der Hum, a wonderful South African tangerine liqueur. It's even possible to find chocolate-orange flavors if you invest in a bottle of Sabra Orange Chocolate liqueur, a Kosher cordial produced in Israel.
Aperol, an Italian product, can be hard to find, and there's no real substitute for this low-alcohol orange apéritif that's also flavored with gentian, rhubarb and a secret formula of other herbs and roots. They do serve it at The Red Cat, a stylish restaurant on Manhattan's Tenth Avenue, where they serve an Aperol Sprizz, made with Prosecco and club soda. A rare treat, indeed.
And if you head uptown from The Red Cat you might be lucky enough to find Head Bartender Xavier Herit making a DB-llini at Daniel, Chef Daniel Boulud's famed restaurant. The DB-llini is Herit's take on the Bellini, a drink created in 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani, co-founder, with American Harry Pickering, of Harry's Bar in Venice. The drink is transformed at Daniel, though, when Herit adds Grand Marnier, fresh orange juice and a dash of grenadine to the peach purée and sparkling wine in the original formula.
Creative cocktailians never tire of putting twists on classic cocktails, and we've seen plenty of variations on many of these drinks over the past few years, but sometimes simplicity is the best approach. At the Grasshopper Asian Kitchen and Bar in Durham, South Carolina, Beverage Director Brett Davis simply adds a little ginger-infused simple syrup to a classic margarita formula calling for Herradura Silver Tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime juice. Voilà, the Ginger Silver Coin is born.
Triple secs are marketed at very reasonable prices under many different brand names such as Bols, DeKuyper, Marie Brizard and Hiram Walker, and some of these can be fine products to choose, especially if you're mixing large batches of margaritas for a group of friends. And don't overlook Luxardo Triplum Orange, a top-shelf triple sec that works well when sipped over ice or used in cocktails. Other high-end, brandy-based, orange-flavored liqueurs that you should keep in mind include Harlequin Imported Orange Liqueur, Extase XO Liqueur d'Orange & Cognac XO, Royale Montaine Fine Cognac and Orange Liqueur, and La Belle Orange Cognac & Orange Liqueur. They are all great options, whether you're making cocktails, or just looking for a lush orange liqueur to round out a fine dinner.
They say that nothing rhymes with "orange." And there's nothing to match it, either.