Taste Test: Orange Liqueurs For Cocktails
All photos by Brian Petro.
The murky history of cocktail lore contains hints and suggestions about the origins of many staples of the modern bar. Among those tales you find the story of orange liqueur. The Spanish first brought Seville oranges to an island off the coast of Venezuela in the early 16th century. Seville oranges were already on the bitter side; their peels were used in many products; but the flesh was not popular for eating. The peel could be found in everything from British marmalade to dietary supplements, and the juice had been in use in marinades and sauces around the globe.
When the Spanish planted the Seville orange on the isle of Curaçao, the bitterness increased. The green Lahara fruits that evolved out of the Seville orange were inedible. However, the oils in its peel were delicious and fragrant. The Dutch claim to be the first country to harvest the fruits and soak them in a neutral spirit to capture the flavor of the oil. The Spanish make the same claim. Both of them then added enough sugar to make the final product drinkable, and the first curaçao liqueur was born.
Over time the product evolved into two distinct categories: curaçao and triple sec. Curaçao is the traditionally made version from the small island. It can be mixed with a brandy or other neutral grain spirit. Triple sec is the drier, French version of the liqueur. It uses less sugar than traditional curaçao, which is where the “sec” comes from. There is no good reason given for where “triple” came from, other than possible marketing.
This is where Grandeza comes into the picture. Grandeza was born when their founder, Bernie Garcia, “conceived an innovative idea for an upside-down orange liqueur sidecar bottle that could be perched on the rim of a glass.” It would add just the right amount of that orange sweetness to a Margarita, the cocktail for which they crafted the liqueur. They did the research and developed a product that kept the bold orange flavor, using agave nectar as the sweetener for the liqueur. This adds rich caramel and vanilla notes, with more warmth and depth on the palate. When you taste it for the first time, all of those flavors jump right out at you.
In terms of orange liqueurs, it leans more towards the curaçao side of the equation than the triple sec. My taste testers and I tried Grandeza alongside Cointreau and Grand Marnier, two of the better known orange liqueurs on the market. On the nose, Grandeza hits you hard with orange. But it is not the sweet scent of the fruit; it is that lingering beauty of the oil as you express it over a cocktail. There is some promise of the sweetness here, with faint traces of the caramel and vanilla coming through. It's big and assertive, reminiscent of orange candy. One tester even described it as "creamsicle-esque." Cointreau was much softer. It still offered the orange scent, but this time more of the fruit than the peel. There are other floral notes that peek through, but there was not as much complexity as the Grandeza offered. It was sweet and smooth. Within the confines of our taste test, Grand Marnier was the closest to the Grandeza. It has the same bright pop of orange with a little floral nod, then slid into a brandy finish. While the brandy finish was pleasant, it pulled away from that intense orange flavor.
Of course, the real tests come when you start to put them into cocktails. How does it mix into two classics that use orange liqueur, the Margarita and the Sidecar? The Margarita was selected for reasons that will become apparent later in the article. We made one version of the cocktail with Grandeza, and the other with Cointreau, using the same measurements for each cocktail. The recipe that was used is the classic, no frills version:
- 2 oz./60 mL tequila (your choice, traditionally made with blanco expressions)
- 1 oz./30 mL orange liqueur
- .75 oz./22 mL lime juice
Glass: Margarita, cocktail or double rocks glass if serving on the rocks
Garnish: Salted rim (use coarse salt) and lime wedge, with an extra wedge for rimming the glass
First, run one of the wedges of lime around the rim of the glass. Next, roll the moist rim in coarse salt on a plate. You do not want to press too hard and cake the salt on - a nice dusting will do. Set the glass aside, and pour all of the ingredients into a shaker over ice. Shake hard for twenty to thirty seconds, then strain the mixture into the prepared glass. Garnish with the lime wedge and serve.
The flavor profiles between the two are very, very different. The Cointreau delivered the textbook flavor profile of a Margarita - sweet and tart, balanced on the edge of a light earthy back. In the Grandeza version, the assertiveness of the agave-based orange liqueur pushes itself to the front, emphasizing the citrus profile of the cocktail. The earthy flavors of the tequila come through as well, playing nicely with the orange bite. It offers very little of the sweetness of the traditional Margarita. This could give an enterprising bartender a little more room to play with - a bigger, bolder añejo perhaps or a smokier mezcal - when preparing one. So in choosing which liqueur to use, decide whether to go for one with a rounded, traditional palate or one that allows more of the tequila accents to come through.
Garnish: orange twist
Pour all of the ingredients into a shaker over ice. Shake hard for twenty to thirty seconds, then strain the mixture into the glass. Express the orange twist over the cocktail, add to the glass, then serve.
While there is still a big pop of orange with the Grandeza in this version of the cocktail, the natural sweetness of the brandy holds it in check. The vanilla warmth comes through a bit more, and the whole experience is livened up. In contrast, Grand Marnier brings out more of the inherent brandy textures as a compliment and less of the orange. So it depends on whether you prefer your Sidecar to taste more of orange or to enhance the quality of the brandy you're using.
When using it in cocktails, consider adding a 3:2 Grandeza-to-sweetener ratio if you want to pull back the citrus burst. Agave nectar works best, since it will keep those warm rich vanillas and caramels in the cocktail. Other options just cut the brightness, but do not do much to keep those secondary notes. There were a few small side experiments, and the one where we discovered the beauty of a little added sweetness was in an Old Fashioned. Yes, there is no orange liqueur in a traditional Old Fashioned, but hear me out. There is a semblance of citrus flavor, a sweetening agent, and bourbon. A few drops of bitters, and you have yourself a cocktail. Start experimenting in small amounts, and you end up with…
Grand Old Fashioned
- 2 oz./60 mL bourbon (use any kind that makes you feel warm inside)
- .75 oz./22 mL Grandeza orange liqueur
- .5 oz./15 mL agave nectar
- 2-3 ds. Angostura bitters
- 2-3 ds. Peychaud bitters
Glass: Old Fashioned
Pour all of the ingredients into a mixing glass over ice. Stir for twenty to thirty seconds, until the mixture is well chilled. Strain the contents into the Old Fashioned glass over fresh ice, then garnish with the cherry.
This went over incredibly well with the taste testers. Considering the natural warmth of bourbon, everything within the Grandeza was working with it. The added agave nectar keeps the orange liqueur in check while the bitters add back some depth. This would be delightful by a roaring fire in the fall.
Grandeza has developed a product that puts orange liqueurs in a different light. It stays within the history and traditions of the category while flipping the whole thing on its head - literally. Instead of the orange taking a back seat to the sweet brandy or sugar notes, it steps right to the front. It is the expression of the oil in a mixable form. People keep more than one brand of base spirits on their back bar for different uses - maybe it's time orange liqueurs stood there in different hues of flavor too.