orange liqueur in glass with sliced oranges on dark wooden table

Orange Liqueur: All the Juicy Details

Orange liqueur is an ingredient that pops up in many cocktail recipes, but it may not be a spirit you’re particularly familiar with. What can be even more perplexing is that there are a lot of variations between different kinds of orange liqueur, and each can give a different character to the drinks you’re shaking.

If you want to learn mixology or expand your knowledge and usage of orange liqueur, we have some tips for you. We’ll take you through the drink’s storied history and help you figure out which type of orange liqueur will work best for whatever you have in mind.

Orange Liqueur: An Introduction

Orange liqueur is a sweet orange spirit. It can start with a neutral liquor, like vodka, or something with a little more flavor, like brandy. The base spirit is infused with orange after distillation and sweetened. Some orange liqueurs will be enriched with other flavorful ingredients as well. In fact, it shares some similarities with African sweet liquors like sorel liquor.

Most commercial orange liqueurs will fall into three basic categories. If you’ve ever read a recipe and wondered if it’s calling for a specific brand of liqueur or a style, this section is for you. Most orange liqueurs will fall into one of two categories: triple sec or Curaçao. However, there are also brandy-based orange liqueurs that, while being broadly part of the Curaçao family, have a different character and different use cases, making them distinct from other Curaçao orange liqueurs.

What Is the Alcohol Content of Orange Liqueur?

Orange liqueurs can range from about 20% alcohol to 40%.  Brandy-based orange liqueurs, like Grand Marnier, tend to be at the upper end of that range. Cointreau triple sec is also around 40% alcohol, but some triple sec can be significantly lower.

What Is the History of Orange Liqueur?

Curaçao was the earliest form of orange liqueur to be produced and sold worldwide.  Named after the island where it was developed, the spirit dates back to the 17th century and came about as a way to use the bitter oranges grown on the island. Dutch colonialists are credited as being the first to put the orange peels to use as a flavoring for alcohol. Additional herbs and spices were added along with the bitter orange peel to create a unique and well-rounded flavor profile.

In the 19th century, triple sec came onto the scene in France. A triple sec orange liqueur is often clear and has a drier taste than a Curaçao. In fact, the word “sec” means dry in French, and the mix contains less sugar than other varieties of orange liqueur. Triple sec has a pure orange flavor, and other flavors are not typically added. Cointreau, one of the most well-known triple sec brands, began producing its orange liqueur in the 1850s.

In the late 19th century, Grand Marnier began to be produced in France, making a commercial cognac and orange Curaçao that is still popular today. 

Where Is Orange Liqueur From?

Orange liqueur has a long international history. It starts with oranges too bitter to be eaten on the island of Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela, and travels to Europe. Curaçao is the original home of orange liqueur, which is produced on a commercial scale, which is why that style of orange liqueur is named for the island.

The French also have a love affair with this orange-infused spirit and developed some of the most popular brands still found in bars today.

When Was Orange Liqueur Created?

The earliest records of Curaçao come from the 17th century, making this a fairly old style of liqueur. Simpler and drier triple sec orange liqueur came later, in the first half of the 19th century.

What Types of Orange Liqueur Are There?

Nowadays, Curaçao orange liqueur usually comes in two colors: blue or orange. Blue Curaçao is popular for creating visually distinctive drinks and is sweeter than its orange counterpart. A few brands also sell clear Curaçao, which is also drier. The color doesn’t change the flavor but adds a fun visual element to mixed drinks.

Triple Sec is a simpler version of orange liqueur with no additional flavors. It’s meant to be mixed, not consumed straight.

Brandy-based orange liqueur uses cognac as a base rather than a neutral alcohol. Cognac is a form of brandy, which is a distilled grape-based liquor. Barrel-aged and twice-distilled, cognac is considered one of the finest varieties of brandy. Orange and other flavors are added to the cognac after this process. Unlike triple sec and Curaçao, which are rarely consumed alone, Grand Marinier is often consumed neat as a digestif, though it can be had on the rocks or mixed in some circumstances.

Occasionally, you can find rum-based orange liqueurs as well. These are closer to the Curaçao style of spirit, with complex and spicy flavors. However, the most well-known orange rum, Clemont Liqueur Creole, originates in Martinique.

What Ingredients Are in Orange Liqueur?

Most orange liqueurs use a neutral grain alcohol as their base. Curaçao combines that neural liquor with bitter orange peel, herbs, spices, and cane sugar. The blend of spices varies as each brand has its own proprietary blend.

Triple sec combines a neutral alcohol with orange peel and sugar with no additional flavors. Some brands use beet sugar, which gives Cointreau its distinctive red color.

Brands of orange liqueur like Grand Marnier combine cognac with an orange-infused neutral spirit and sugar. Some brandy-based liqueurs add the orange directly to the cognac.

How Much Does Orange Liqueur Usually Cost?

If you’re stocking your home bar, you can get a simple triple sec for as low as $10-$15 if you’re just looking to add a little citrus flavor to mixed drinks. Similarly, a bottle of blue Curaçao can be purchased for less than $20. There are higher-quality options that will cost more,  of course.

Grand Marnier can be purchased for around $25 a bottle, but their special reserve blends can easily cost hundreds of dollars.

At a restaurant or bar, you would never order straight Curaçao or triple sec, but many cocktails feature their zesty flavors. Depending on the location and how complicated the drinks are, the price may vary, but you should budget about $15 per cocktail in most cases.

What Is the Best Way to Enjoy Orange Liqueur?

Orange Liqueur is best used to evoke freshness and brightness. This makes it great with lighter dishes such as fish or salad. Orange cognac liqueurs tend to have a deeper character with caramelized notes from the aging process. This adds a smoky richness that is excellent to enjoy with spicy foods and fattier meats.

Curaçao and triple sec can lend their flavors to many cocktails, from sophisticated classics to beachy treats. 

While tequila is the star of the show in a margarita, orange liqueur is the secret ingredient that makes it taste beachy and refreshing. Triple sec style orange liquor is commonly used to give a fresh and intense citrus burst.

A summer favorite, the Mai Tai combines rum with Curaçao style orange liqueur. Usually, it’s orange Curaçao that’s added to the cocktail, along with lime juice and orgeat. Orgreat is an almond syrup made with either rose or orange blossom water that helps give a Mai Tai its unique flavor.

 A sidecar is a simple classic cocktail that inspired many subsequent cocktails and evokes a mid-century sense of glamor. Traditionally, it combines cognac, orange liqueur, and lime juice and is usually served in a glass with a sugared rim. Curaçao-style orange liqueur is commonly used in a sidecar, but since it’s already a cognac drink, you could double down on it with your favorite orange cognac, such as Grand Marnier.

How to Choose a Good Orange Liqueur

Some cocktail recipes will specifically call for the style of orange liqueur that will best suit the recipe, so we recommend that you research which style of orange liqueur is best suited to your intended use. 

It’s important to understand the different flavor notes of the spirits in your liquor cabinet, so if you have the opportunity to taste test a few before committing to buying, we recommend it. Of course, you can’t always taste a variety of spirits before committing, so there are a few things to look out for.

It’s good to choose a brand that’s transparent about how their liqueur is made. Their website should give you information about the kind of ingredients used in the product, and the company should have a good reputation. Do a little research and read some reviews to check the quality, especially if you’re not very experienced.

If you love the drinks at a particular bar or restaurant, don’t be shy about asking which brand of orange liqueur they put in your favorite cocktail.

Where Can You Find  Orange Liqueur?

Thanks to the versatility of orange liqueur and how commonly it’s called for in cocktail recipes, every liquor store should carry at least a few options. A good liquor store should have some options for Curaçao and triple sec liqueur.

At bars and restaurants that have a menu for mixed drinks, there will usually be orange liqueur on the shelf. You’ll probably find triple sec if the restaurant specializes in simpler, classic cocktails. Bar specializing in more tropical-style drinks will have Curaçao. Bars with comprehensive cocktail menus should have both and offer orange cognac as well.

What Are Popular Alternatives to Orange Liqueur?

If you don’t like orange or simply want to change things up, there are some other citrus liqueurs you can use as a substitute for a cocktail recipe.

Limoncello is a very popular Italian liqueur. It’s a sweetened lemon-infused liqueur that’s often sipped neat after a meal. You can use limoncello in place of orange liqueur to impart a sweet lemon zest flavor to any drink.

For something more unique, try a yuzu liqueur. Several brands of this Japanese-style liqueur have become available in the US in recent years. Yuzu is a tart and aromatic fruit that grows in East Asia. It has a flavor similar to grapefruit, and its peel is used to flavor many foods and drinks in the region. 

This citrus variant is perfect for spicing up your favorite old cocktail recipes. Don't want to have sweet liquor at all? Perhaps it's time to consider something with a spicy flavor like Knobel whiskey.

Orange Liqueur FAQs

We hope to clear up any questions you still may have about orange liqueur.

Can You Drink Orange Liqueur on the Rocks?

The only orange liqueur we recommend drinking on the rocks (or neat) is a brandy-based orange cognac. This is the only orange liqueur that’s designed to stand on its own. The other varieties tend to be too sweet or too one-note to make for a pleasant drinking experience.

Is Aperol and Orange Liqueur?

Aperol is another famous orange alcohol, but it’s not a liqueur. This spirit falls into the aperitivo category. It’s a bitter style of alcohol infused with herbs that are supposed to whet your appetite before a meal and help you digest better. Besides the bitter flavor, making them quite different than a sweet liqueur, aperitivos also tend to be lower in alcohol. Aperol only contains 11% alcohol.

Can You Make Your Own Orange Liqueur?

Orange liqueurs are quite simple, particularly the triple sec variety. You can try DIYing your own with some vodka, orange peels, and sugar. There are several recipes available online to help you flex your skills and have bragging rights at your next cocktail party. 

Imagine saying, “ The orange liqueur? Thanks, I made it myself.”

Aren’t You Glad You Tried Orange Liqueur?

two glasses of orange liqueur with orange peel and slices on dark wooden table

If you’re a citrus lover, you should do yourself a favor and add orange liqueur to your at-home bar. There are many varieties of orange liqueur, so with a little exploration, you can find one that suits your taste. It will level up your cocktail-making skills once you know how to best utilize the different styles of orange liqueur on the market today.

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