Sure, orange liqueurs are key for adding citrusy sweetness to margaritas, Sidecars and other cocktails. But as the category has become more varied and nuanced, many are enjoyable to sip straight.
In a cocktail, the role of a liqueur is to bring “proof, sweetness and seasoning” to the drink, according to Cocktail Codex (Ten Speed Press, October 2018), a new book from the proprietors of Death & Co. and other high-end bars. Some are stronger, some are sweeter, and the flavor profiles can vary from mild and clean (like Cointreau) to rich and boldly spiced (like La Grande Josiane). The flavor is rarely just straightforward orange.
Even when orange is a dominant flavor, that too can fluctuate depending on what is used: bitter or sweet oranges; dried or fresh peels; specific varieties like Valencia or Satsuma.
As the category has become more varied and nuanced, many are enjoyable to sip straight.
Those that are suitable for straight sipping often come down to the quality of base spirit—and more often than not, that underlying spirit is brandy. While there’s a lively debate over who created orange liqueurs (was it the Dutch, who lay claim to first making curaçao in the New World, or the French, who pioneered Old World triple sec?), I would argue that the French perfected it.
Indeed, most of the orange liqueurs that score highest are built on a strong French brandy foundation, including La Grande Josiane’s Armagnac-based sipper, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao and Grand Marnier’s new Cuvée Louis-Alexandre, of which the latter two start with Cognac.
Many orange liqueurs are made with a specific cocktail in mind, so it makes sense that Patrón Citronge’s agave base might be most harmonious in a margarita, while a rum-based version might shine in a tiki drink.
To find which orange liqueur you prefer, try mixing it into a Sidecar. A piece of orange peel twisted over the top of the drink, then used as garnish, accentuates the liqueur’s citrusy core.
The Sidecar Cocktail
Cocktail Codex by Alex Day, Nick Fauchald & David Kaplan (Ten Speed Press, October 2018)
- 1½ ounces Cognac, preferably VSOP
- 1 ounce orange liqueur, like Cointreau
- ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
Add all ingredients to shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously until well chilled. Double strain through fine mesh strainer into chilled coupe. No garnish.
Orange liqueurs to look for
La Grande Josiane Orange Liqueur (France; Biagio Cru Wines and Spirits, New Hyde Park, NY); $50, 95 points. Armagnac plus orange liqueur equals a delightful sipper. The rich aroma bursts with orange oil and rich, comforting vanilla. On the palate, nuanced cocoa and coffee wind into a cinnamon-warmed finish, plus just enough alcohol to cut the sweetness. abv: 36%
Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao (France; Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits, Stamford, CT); $30, 95 points. Less sweet and more sprightly than most orange liqueurs, the aroma explodes with orange peel and marmalade. The palate echoes those notes, finishing brisk and slightly bitter, tinged with ginger sparks. abv: 40%
Grand Marnier Cuvée Louis-Alexandre (France; Gruppo Campari, New York, NY); $70, 94 points. This newcomer drinks like brandy, meaning it’s velvety, rounded and not overly sweet; it’s made with 82% VSOP Cognac and 18% orange liqueur. Vanilla leads the nose and palate, with orange oils and orange peel appearing mainly on the long, spiced finish. Add a cube of ice and serve as a dessert pairing. abv: 40%
Bauchant Orange Liqueur (France; Palm Bay International, Port Washington, NY); $25, 92 points. Consider this full-flavored, relatively sweet liqueur for the dessert table. The golden liquid with orange highlights is scented with a mix of vanilla and candied orange peel. The viscous palate shows lots of vanilla and maple, exiting with orange peel and cinnamon heat. Best Buy. abv: 40%
Cointreau (France; Remy Cointreau USA, New York, NY); $40, 92 points. This familiar workhorse liqueur is clear in the glass and offers a juicy orange flesh aroma. The sweet palate has a familiar orange flavor and finishes cleanly, with just a hint of warm spice. abv: 40%
Magdala Orange Liqueur (Spain; Torres Brandy, Armonk, NY);$25, 92 points. This honey-hued liqueur invites with a warm aroma that suggests orange peel and brandy. The palate is rich and viscous, with most of the flavor on the exhale. It’s not overtly “orange,” but finishes with a subtle orange oil note and welcome flurry of spice. Best Buy. abv: 39%
Mathilde Liqueur XO Orange (France; Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits, Stamford, CT); $28, 91 points. Burnished gold in the glass, this liqueur has a bright lemon and orange peel fragrance. The first honeyed sips warm all the way down, showing rich, rounded nuttiness melded with vanilla, baking spice and just a subtle hint of lemon peel on the exit. Nice sweetener for any drink made with brown spirits. Made from a brandy base and sweet orange peels. abv: 40%
Patrón Citronge (Mexico; Bacardi Limited, New York, NY); $30, 91 points. Look for a pale straw tinge and a bold agave scent from the moment this orange liqueur is poured, backed by candied citrus peel. The palate opens juicy and honey-sweet, braced up with agave bite and a citric note in the finish that suggests lemon. While this orange liqueur seems custom-made for sweetening margaritas and other Tequila-based drinks, the assertive agave note might be less harmonious in drinks made with other spirits. abv: 35%
Fruitlab Organic Orange Liqueur (USA; Greenbar Distillery, Los Angeles, CA); $30, 90 points. Look for a honey hue and bright, mild orange aroma. The palate is light and easy-sipping, with hints of brown sugar and honey and nuanced orange flesh and ginger on the finish. The producer says its differentiator is that it’s made with zest from fresh California oranges, not just dried peels. abv: 20%
BroVo Orange Curaçao Liqueur (USA; BroVo Spirits, Woodinville, WA); $30, 89 points. Overall, this is a relatively dry and lean take on orange liqueur, with the citrus dialed way down. A mild cinnamon fragrance is echoed on the palate, alongside vanilla, chamomile tea and cedar, with fleeting honeyed sweetness and a spiced exit that hints at bergamot. abv: 35%
Gator Bite Satsuma & Rum Liqueur (USA; Louisiana Spirits, Lacassine, LA); $17, 89 points. Expect a bright orange hue and sweet aroma reminiscent of tangerines or clementines. The palate is relatively thin and light compared to the bold aroma, finishing with orange-pith bitterness and a hint of clove. Infused with Satsuma oranges. Best Buy. abv: 30%
GranGala Triple Orange Liqueur (Canada; Sazerac, Chicago, IL); $20, 89 points. Look for a topaz hue with orange highlights and candied fruit and maple aromas. The palate is viscous and deeply sweet, and surprises with a red fruit note. A hint of bitterness also plays around the edges. Made with Italian VSOP brandy. Recommended for mixing. Best Buy. abv: 40%