What's the Difference Between Orange Curacao and Triple Sec?
February 21, 2011
There are no legal differences between triple sec and Curacao, only a few practical and many historical differences. In summary:
- Both triple sec and Curacao are orange-flavored liqueurs, and today’s triple secs are typically clear, while curacao is either clear or sold in a variety of colors, including blue.
- Curacao liqueur is not required to come from the island of Curacao nor use Curacao-grown oranges, and according to US law, both triple sec and curacao are simply defined as “orange flavored liqueur/cordial.”
- Some orange liqueurs including Grand Marnier use an aged brandy base, while most use a neutral spirit base.
In short, today there are no hard and fast differences between curacao and triple sec (other than curacao is sometimes colored), and bartenders should use what is best for a particular drink. But the history of how orange liqueur came to be known by these different names is interesting.
From the Caribbean to the Netherlands
"Curacao" liqueur refers to a liqueur with flavoring from oranges that grow on the island of Curacao, off the coast of Venezuela. These oranges are known as bitter oranges or Laraha oranges, with the botanical name Citrus aurantium var. curassuviensis.
These are a variety of sweet Seville oranges that changed in the arid island climate and are reputed to taste awful on their own, but the sun-dried peels of them are prized in making liqueur compared with traditional sweet oranges. Today, bitter oranges are still used in many liqueurs and some gins, though these are most often sourced from other regions including Haiti and Spain.
However the Senior & Co. company, based on Curacao since 1896, still produces curacao (in a variety of colors) made on the island with the island’s oranges. It claims to be the only brand that uses the island’s oranges.
The island of Curacao has been a Dutch island since the 1600s, and was a center of trading and commerce for The Netherlands. The dried peels of the island’s oranges made their way back to Holland where they were infused, distilled, and sweetened. The Dutch Bols company, which dates back to 1575, states that their first liqueurs were cumin, cardamom, and orange, though they don’t specify that the oranges in the first liqueur came from Curacao just yet.
The base spirit for orange liqueurs changed many times over the years. According to Bols historian Ton Vermeulen, the earliest records of distillation in the Netherlands dating to the 1300s detail distilling grapes. The northerly climate isn’t conducive to grape-growing however, and by the end of the 16th century many distillers used distilled molasses (sugar from colonies was often refined back in the home countries, with distillable molasses as a secondary product). In the 1700s the Bols company has records of both grain alcohol and the molasses-based “sugar brandy” being used as base spirits. Grape brandy was seen as more refined, and according to Vermeulen, the “owner of Bols around 1820 would prefer to use [grape] brandy and if it was too expensive would use grain alcohol instead.”
Column distillation that spread after 1830 allowed for any fermentable matter to be distilled to near neutrality and make a suitable base for liqueurs. The Netherlands and most of Europe switched to using neutral sugar beet-based spirit in the second half of the 19th century, after Napoleon heavily promoted the sugar beet industry in France. Today neutral sugar beet spirit is the base of Cointreau.
France and Triple Sec
The most famous and well-respected orange liqueurs on the market today, Grand Marnier and Cointreau, don’t come from Curacao or from the Netherlands, but from France, and it seems to be in France where Curacao liqueur evolved into triple sec liqueur.
Cointreau initially produced a product called “curacao,” and then a “curacao triple sec” and then a “triple sec." According to Alfred Cointreau, the product labelling (and it seems the sweetness levels and possibly accent flavors) evolved over the years:
- Curacao ordinaire
- Curacao Fin
- Curacao sur fin
- Curacao Triple-Sec
Cointreau cites 1875 as the creation date of its orange liqueur, which is made with both bitter and sweet orange peels. Grand Marnier cites 1880 for its blend of cognac and orange peels. Both of these brands now shy away from the words “Curacao” and “triple sec,” on their labels.
The brand Combier claims 1835 as its creation date, with “sun-dried orange peels from the West Indies, local spices from the south of France, alcohol from France’s northwest, and secret ingredients from the Loire Valley – a formula that became the world’s first triple sec: Combier Liqueur d’Orange.”
But to what are the “triple” and “sec” referring?” The “sec” is French for “dry,” and the “triple” could point to several things.
Alexandre Gabriel, president of Cognac Ferrand, says that in conjunction with cocktail historian David Wondrich, they researched the history of triple sec and curacao and found a listing from a 1768 Dutch-French dictionary that described an infusion (without redistillation) of Curacao oranges in probably-grain spirit, but by 1808 recipes appear for redistillation of the oranges in spirit.
Gabriel’s theory is that the triple refers to three separate distillations or macerations with oranges. His Dry Curacao product is described as, “a traditional French ‘triple sec’ – three separate distillations of spices and the ‘sec’ or bitter, peels of Curacao oranges blended with brandy and Ferrand Cognac.”
By Gabriel’s definition, the ‘sec’ refers to the drier-tasting (due to bitterness) oranges from Curacao, independent of the sugar content of the liqueur. A contrary opinion comes from Andrew Willett of the blog Elemental Mixology, who makes a convincing argument that the ‘triple sec’ is a level of dryness from sugar on a scale from extra-sec, triple-sec, sec, and doux (‘sweet’).
Willett also proposes that the ‘triple’ could indicate three types of oranges: many French brands call for both bitter and sweet oranges in the recipe, plus some add an orange hydrosol (water-based orange distillate). That an early product from Grand Marnier was called Curacao Marnier Triple Orange could help support this argument. Willett concludes in another post that a “Curacao triple sec” is “Curaçao liqueur that is both triple-orange and sec.”
So “Curacao triple-sec” may refer to three distillates that include Curacao oranges, three types of oranges including Curacao in a very dry liqueur, or just a specific level of dryness from sugar of a Curacao liqueur. As mentioned, these differences and definitions are not meaningful today.
Curacao comes in many colors, but coloring of the liqueur is more traditional than one might imagine. It dates back at least to the early 1900s (when the liqueur was colored with barks) and some cocktail books including the Café Royal Cocktail Book from 1937 specify using brown, white, blue, red, and even green Curacao in various recipes.
Today, bartenders might consider each part of the liqueur in deciding which brand is appropriate for a particular cocktail: the orange flavor, the base spirit, the proof of the liqueur, and yes, the color. There’s a whole rainbow to choose from when choosing an orange liqueur.
Below Here is the Original Post that I updated with the above information. Please ignore it! It's just here for legacy purposes.
I tried to answer that question as best as I could in my recent post for FineCooking.com.
Four hundred years ago, the Dutch were some of the world’s greatest traders and, not coincidentally, great distillers. They’d preserve the spices, herbs, and fruit brought home on ships in flavored liqueurs and other spirits. Curacao was one of those liqueurs, flavored with bitter orange peels from the island of the same name. At the time, the liqueur would have had a heavy, pot-distilled brandy as its base.
Then the French came along (a couple hundred years later) and invented triple sec. The “sec” meaning “dry,” or less sweetened than the Dutch liqueur. The origin of the “triple” is still up for debate, but the two leading schools of thought are “triple distillation” versus “three times as orangey”. Triple sec was also clear, whereas curacaos were dark in color.
Today, triple secs are usually still clear (made from a base of neutral spirits), whereas curacaos may start that way and be colored orange, blue, and even red. Cointreau is probably the most recognized brand of orange liqueur in the triple sec style, and Grand Marnier, despite being French, is more in line with the Dutch curacao style as it has an aged brandy base.
Nerds: Do you think that's an accurate summation?
The full post is here, and it includes a recipe for the White Lady cocktail.
I was always under the impression that the original curaçao was in fact made on the island of Curaçao, where the special Laraha (mutated Valencia) oranges are grown. This would make brandy an unlikely source of the alcohol. More likely the original base would have been rum, easily obtained from neighboring islands (Curaçao is a very dry island and cane does not grow there).
Also: if you believe the history put forth by the Senior family, who claim to have invented the stuff (and who still make it on the island), it wasn't formulated until the 19th century.
Posted by: Mr Manhattan | February 21, 2011 at 10:27 AM
I'm pretty sure Cointreau uses unaged brandy as its base, not a neutral spirit.
Posted by: Anon. | February 21, 2011 at 10:39 AM
Cointreau uses sugar beet spirit as its base, but in Argentina and Brazil uses sugar cane base spirit. I met with the brand ambassador a couple months ago and he helped with much of this history.
Posted by: Camper English | February 21, 2011 at 10:52 AM
I read somewhere (on egullet, I believe) that Cointreau uses a neutral spirit base, but when I've asserted that fact, a few people have disagreed with me (one of whom was a spirits buyer/expert at Astor Wine and Spirits). Something tells me those non-believers just hold the product in such high esteem that they want to believe its constituent parts are of greater value than reality would suggest. Though, beet vodka is nothing to thumb one's nose at. And Cointreau is still, in my opinion, one of the best (if not the best) triple secs out there. Way to set the world straight, Camper.
Posted by: Sam | February 21, 2011 at 12:58 PM
What do you suggest for when old recipes call for orange curacao? Cointreau seems inappropriate to my mind, but Grand Marnier can be quite heavy. Marie Brizzard makes an orange curcao, but I haven't had the opportunity to taste it.
Posted by: Evan | February 21, 2011 at 02:28 PM
I haven't done the brand comparison- go here for that:
Making this up in my head, I'd say trying curacao style with aged spirits, triple sec style with white spirits.
People do seem to like Marie Brizzard products generally, as well as the Combier. Both of them make both styles.
Posted by: Camper English | February 21, 2011 at 02:33 PM
For a rather old fashioned Orange Liqueur, I really like the Clement Creole Shrubb.
Works very well when Curacao is called for.
Posted by: erik_ellestad | February 21, 2011 at 10:09 PM
Ted Haigh told me this a few years ago: "Curacao is not triple sec. Cointreau is a triple sec. "triple sec" is a term meaning triple refined. That may or may not mean Curacao oranges. Curacaos are outside of that boundary. Curacaos are more orangey minus additional brandy flavoring and also may or may not mean Curacao oranges. Triple secs are much milder, more ah, refined in flavor. Curacao requires no particular still, column or pot. Only Grand Marnier insists on a base. Most Curacaos are neutral spirits too. Most (especially domestic) triple secs are neutral spirits. Cointreau has a marvelous balance. What does this mean? It means base isn't everything. We've seen horrible liqueurs with fancy bases. Moral: assume no uniformity. Assume no certainty of quality base on base alone. And Curacao oranges are rare. Read between the lines."
Posted by: Blair Frodelius | February 22, 2011 at 04:51 AM
Thanks to the intro from Tommy Klus, we are Combier fans in Portland!
Posted by: Sara Menard | February 22, 2011 at 06:05 AM
I've been told by a number of mixologists in New York City and San Francisco that the best way to differentiate the 2 is triple sec is neutral base spirit, with orange peels added for flavoring, while curacaos are either rum, or brandy based, with orange peels added and often times spices and herbs are thrown in as well.
I'm a huge Grand Marnier fan but I have done some research on Combier vs Cointreau since they seem to head up the Triple Sec category at this time.
I know that Cointreau is the most recognized name but looking at the dates Combier appears to be the creator of the category, having created their recipe in 1832. Cointreau is located 20 miles down the road from Combier and created their version of triple sec, in 1875..hmmm. Did patent rights exist in the 19th century;)
Both lovely products but Combier has a brighter more natural orange flavor, whereas Cointreau is a bit aspirin tasting. Guess that's what happens when you mass produce anything.
Ok, back to trying to create my own bitters.
Posted by: Andrew P. | February 22, 2011 at 06:08 AM
Based on what I've read at Oh Gosh! and other places, triple sec and curacao seem to lack clear-cut definitions. I tend to believe that the triple sec label was a marketing device to stand out from poor quality orange liqueurs labeled curacao. Giffard labels one of their products Curacao Triple Sec, as further evidence of the confusion.
I tend to discount the difference between calls for curacao and triple sec in drink recipes, using Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Luxardo Triplum, and Clement Creole Shrubb for their different flavor profiles.
Posted by: Nick | February 22, 2011 at 06:39 AM
from the DrinkUpNY website: "In the first half of the 19th century, the "triple sec" name indicated a liqueur obtained from the distilled dried peels of three types of citrus fruits."
three types of dried citrus -> triple (3) sec (dry)
Posted by: alex | February 22, 2011 at 10:58 AM
That`s a thoery, yes. Proven, no.
Posted by: camper | February 22, 2011 at 04:37 PM
Well, crap, I'm still confused. :)
Posted by: Chad | February 23, 2011 at 07:35 AM
I think Grand Marnier works great in richer classic cocktails calling for Curacao such as the Bosom Caresser. For other cocktails that are citrusy or crisper martini-like cocktails a blend of 3 parts Bols or Senior Curacao(neutral based, light flavored curacaos) and 1 part Grand Marnier that's been mildly infused with coriander and bitter orange peel works great. (I like to infuse 1 750ml bottle grand marnier with an ounce each of coriander and bitter peel for 2 minutes using two Co2 canisters in an ISI charger, otherwise traditional infusing may possibly give off dingy flavors) As far as I know, Curacao should be brandy based like Grand Marnier however it should also have coriander distilled into it as well as more bitter orange peel than what exists in any commercial product today, hence the call for dashes of curacao in classic cocktail books. And Grand Marnier is often too heavy as is Marie Brizard Curacao. I have found this to add a lot of complexity to cocktails like the Mai Tai or Pegu Club. The fresh bite of coriander and the bitterness of the bitter orange peel seems to put everything into really good balance. I know this still doesn't make a traditional curacao because curcacao should only have DISTILLED botanicals, not infused and should be all brandy based but when no commercial products will do, you do what you have to do. We use this method at Naga and it doesn't break the bank at all considering it 75% Bols (but a lot tastier), but just requires a little added effort. If you happen to use the white senior curacao instead of Bols you're finished product will also be free of HFCS and artificial colors because it will actually get a nice orange color from the infused Grand Marnier. Traditionally curacaos were colored using the bark of some native tree of the island of Curacao, not artificially like Blue Curacao. If you don't want to go through these efforts Bols is probably the most mixable but Clement Creole Shrub is a nice alternative in some applications. And for Triple Secs... Cointreau or Combier, don't go cheap in this department.
Posted by: Evan Martin | February 23, 2011 at 01:51 PM
I have always had a similar theory to Evan Martin's statement, "however it should also have coriander distilled into it as well as more bitter orange peel than what exists in any commercial product today, hence the call for dashes of curacao in classic cocktail books."
I will also add I once asked a gentleman who worked for Bols about Curacao, and he had tasted vintage Curacao and the big difference for him was the level of sweetness. He said the Curacao produced by Bols in the 19th Century (and before) was far, far sweeter than any liqueur a company would market today.
Also, as far as I can tell, the Curacao actually produced on the island of Curacao has never been anything other than a footnote to what is produced in France and Holland. Take whatever you read from the Senior company with a grain of salt.
Posted by: erik_ellestad | February 23, 2011 at 02:19 PM
Thank you for all these comments!
Posted by: Camper English | February 25, 2011 at 11:57 AM
I was googling and find your article. Thank you for explanation about the difference between these two drinks.
Posted by: AcaZ | March 23, 2012 at 12:37 PM
Thanks, Evan. Very helpful. Without intending to highjack the conversation, I would be interested in your prefered Maitai recipie. A perfect Maitai has eluded me. Very frustrating.
Posted by: Eric Otterson | July 20, 2012 at 10:43 AM
I tend to build around the classic recipe of 2 oz rum, 3/4 lime, 3/4 curacao, tsp orgeat. I like Appleton rum or another dark rum with a splash of funky rum like Banks. I'm not settled on which orange liqueur is best. But for orgeat I like Small Hand Foods (hard to get) or BG Reynolds http://okolemaluna.com/products-page/syrups-categories/orgeat
Posted by: Camper English | July 22, 2012 at 10:43 AM
And to further muck the waters up, what about Pierre Ferrand's Triple Sec Dry Curaco's liqueur? I saw this post and thought my question would be answered but now even more confused...
then there's Salerno...
planned on adding Combier and PF Triple Sec Curaco to our base
What's a Wild Cocktailian to do?
Posted by: [email protected] | July 23, 2013 at 01:52 PM
I say that anything with a base of aged cognac gets called "curacao", even though that means it is probably made in France. So despite Ferrand putting all the words on the label, I'm calling that one curacao.
Solerno is easy: "blood orange liqueur." DONE.
I'm just making this stuff up, but it's based on history so I've got backup :)
Posted by: Camper English | July 23, 2013 at 01:59 PM
Try reading this post for a little more information on the subject: http://elementalmixology.wordpress.com/2014/09/12/curacao-liqueurs/
Posted by: awillett5465 | September 15, 2014 at 06:25 PM
Semi-related question: where can one acquire a bottle of good white Curaçao? I have never been able to find at multiple retail BevMo's nor their website, and even Google/Bing shopping seems to focus on unrelated items like clothing and books. Does anyone know an online shop that carries a decent brand? Or a retail shop in the SF Bay Area?
Posted by: oohgodyeah | October 17, 2014 at 08:04 PM
Well by these definitions there really isn't a white curaçao; or rather, white curaçao is triple sec. Cointreau = triple sec. Grand Marnier = curaçao.
Posted by: Camper English | October 19, 2014 at 05:06 PM
Who cares? It all has the same effect.......delightful!
Posted by: Mike Buck | May 14, 2015 at 03:21 PM
"SEC" translated from French to English means "Dry."
However one chooses to translate any relative INTERPRETATIONS from there, needs to define WHY THEY CHOSE "SEC" as their marketing word of choice.
Posted by: Sophia41 | October 05, 2015 at 01:20 PM
Excellent post and rationale!
Posted by: Sophia | October 05, 2015 at 01:22 PM
White rum. Orange curacao. Orgeat. Pineapple juice.
Orange juice and Dark rum
Posted by: Sophia41 | October 05, 2015 at 01:25 PM
I want to recreate a cocktail that is citrus based. It starts with patron silver tequila with lime juice and a splash of dry sparkling white wine and I need to add triple sec. The pic of cocktail is of a pale colour so it seems to be light and fruity so I don't use cointreau etc as too heavy on taste and obviously no curacao as it's coloured right? So which do I go for? Help please!!!
Posted by: Alison Jones | February 23, 2016 at 04:45 PM
Cointreau is orangey, but I wouldn't say 'heavy' unless you're concerned about the sugar content. Most curacaos these days are colored, so I'd skip those.
Posted by: Camper English | February 24, 2016 at 08:28 PM
Hiram Walker is?
Posted by: Aaron | June 22, 2016 at 07:07 PM
Original trader Vic's (creator of the maitai) mai-tai:
1oz Jamaican or Martinique rum
1oz dark rum
1oz FRESH squeezed lime juice
1/2oz orange curacao
1/4oz simple syrup
Garnish with FRESH mint.
Posted by: Robert | October 17, 2016 at 06:04 PM
Cointreau is a great standard of triple sec, but when you go to some of the smaller houses like Lejay (original creators of Cassis for the Kir Royale) or Cartron. Then you are in the upper echelon of triple secs.
But the output of these examples is nothing compared to Cointreau, so I concede they are consistently a high standard.
Posted by: Damaine Hinds | September 01, 2017 at 11:07 PM
None mentions the pierre ferrand cognac based curacao. Really good it this One is the only one i have seing with just 3 ingredients and dry = triple sec :/
Posted by: Pontus | April 27, 2020 at 12:45 PM