Splurges You Can't Afford to Skip

Versatile orange liqueurs can add sweet, sour and bitter elements at the same time.
Versatile orange liqueurs can add sweet, sour and bitter elements at the same time. (By Lynn Brownlie)
By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Not too long ago, I watched someone who referred to himself as a "vodka aficionado" pour his premium $40 bottle of Hangar One into a glass along with a pink packaged mix from Williams-Sonoma. Then he plopped in a couple of ice cubes. That, he declared, was "a real Cosmopolitan."

Not long after that, I saw a guy at a chain Mexican restaurant make a big show -- in front of his girlfriend -- by demanding Patron Silver (at more than $50 a bottle) for his drink. The bartender poured the premium tequila into a shaker. To that, the bartender added a day-glo-green mix from a plastic bottle and served it to the customer without shaking it. The customer took a sip, turned to his girlfriend and said, "See? They make the best margaritas here."

It's nice to seem like a big shot, but why bother blowing money on premium spirits if you're not going to pair them with ingredients of equal quality?

Beyond its artificiality, the biggest problem with a packaged mix for a margarita or Cosmopolitan is that bartenders who use one tend to omit an essential ingredient: orange liqueur, such as triple sec, Cointreau or Grand Marnier. To review, a classic margarita has three ingredients: tequila, lime juice and some type of orange liqueur. A classic Cosmospolitan has four ingredients: vodka, cranberry juice, lime juice and some type of orange liqueur. So a packaged mix is basically saving you what? The time and effort of mixing two ingredients instead of three or four? Wow. How will you spend all your newfound extra time?

I realize there's nothing particularly sexy about orange liqueurs. But they are essential. Which is why I believe that, along with vermouth, orange liqueurs are among the most misunderstood and misused cocktail ingredients. A well-made cocktail calls for a balance of sweet, sour and bitter, and a good triple sec adds a hint of all three.

"Citrus liqueurs are indispensable in both classic and modern cocktail making," says Duggan McDonnell, owner of Cantina Bebidas in San Francisco and an absolute master of the margarita.

The basic orange liqueurs used in mixing are triple sec and curacao, made from bitter orange peels from the Caribbean. Both are colorless, low-proof and made from neutral spirits; triple sec is simply an extra-dry version of curacao.

Grand Marnier (at more than 500,000 cases) and Cointreau (more than 250,000 cases) are the best-selling name-brand orange liqueurs in the United States. Cointreau, though made from a secret, proprietary recipe, is basically a top-shelf triple sec that is 80 proof instead of 30 proof. Grand Marnier, also an 80-proof liqueur made from a secret recipe, uses cognac rather than neutral spirits as its base.

There is endless debate between fans of Grand Marnier and Cointreau. But over and over, when I compare the two in margaritas and Cosmos, I find that Cointreau is superior. Grand Marnier is nice enough and worth sipping on its own, but I don't think it mixes as well -- though the one classic drink in which it does shine is a sidecar (with cognac and lemon juice).

Todd Thrasher, drinks master at Restaurant Eve and PX, also recently tasted snifters of Cointreau, Grand Marnier and De Kuyper Triple Sec. Thrasher's conclusion: "I would not interchange any of these three liquors in any recipes, as they all have a very different flavor profile. But I also feel that taste is subjective."

Thrasher insists on using Cointreau in a margarita. "I just think the taste is cleaner," he writes in an e-mail. "Grand Marnier has too much going on and takes away from the tequila."

Triple sec, Cointreau and Grand Marnier aren't the only orange liqueurs on the market. Some friends and I recently tested several brands in margaritas and Cosmopolitans.

We began with a brandy-based orange liqueur, Gran Gala, which calls itself "Italy's answer to Grand Marnier" and boasts of having beaten Grand Marnier in a margarita taste test put on by the Beverage Tasting Institute. With all due respect to the Beverage Tasting Institute, Gran Gala does not make a truly great margarita. Or Cosmopolitan.

I did, however, find Bauchant Napoleon Liqueur, a cognac-based Grand Marnier competitor, to be superb. I enjoyed sipping it alone, and its subtle, natural-orange flavor made a wonderful Cosmopolitan. I liked it better than Grand Marnier and -- at about $10 cheaper -- I recommend seeking it out.

Two other orange liqueurs also caught my interest: Patron Citronage, which is tequila-based, and Rhum Clément's Creole Shrubb, which is rum-based. Patron, no surprise, works well in a margarita but less well in a Cosmo. Creole Shrubb was just the opposite, and I enjoyed sipping that one by itself as well.

For sure, all of the name-brand orange liqueurs are relatively expensive, with Cointreau and Grand Marnier topping out at about $40. But because you're using them mainly to mix in small quantities, a bottle will last a long time. My advice, as always, is to spend your money here and then buy a good, reasonably priced tequila or vodka.

It might not make you look like a big shot. But your drinks will be better.

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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