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Difference Between Curaçao, Triple Sec & Orange Liqueur Explained

It is almost impossible to define Orange Liqueur without getting into a heated discussion. Like many things in the bartender world, not much is set in stone and almost everything is up for discussion. To make things clear, we decided to break it all down in one article. This article is what we, Senior liqueur, believe to be true after research. Facts are not easily found, so if anybody has interesting and reliable sources we can use, please let us know.

The simple explanation

Explaining Orange Liqueur can be as easy or as complicated as you want, but we will start with the short and easy version.

If you search for a cocktail recipe with an orange sweetener, you will find the following terms:

  • Triple Sec
  • Curaçao liqueur
  • Orange liqueur
  • Cointreau

All these are interchangeable in the recipe. Of course, they will give a different taste, but they serve the same purpose. Usually, Curaçaos and Triple Secs are based on sugar cane alcohol. Grand Marnier is also an orange liqueur, but made with brandy. This will heavily influence the taste of your cocktail so watch out.

Basically, we are talking about Orange Liqueur as a group name. These are liqueurs, where citrus orange peels are being used as a base ingredient in the distillation process. Between the different brands, there are differences in types of oranges used, the combination of different oranges, what kind of alcohol is used, and of course all the other ingredients (sugar, herbs etc.) that ultimately comprise a recipe for an orange liqueur.

Where it all started

Where it all started

We believe that the Dutch trading companies made orange liqueur popular in the 17th century. They found fruits and herbs all over the world during their voyages, and used some to make etheric oils. But one was special: the Laraha orange, which was only found on the Caribbean island of Curaçao (Dutch Antilles). They gave the orange a Latin name that includes the Latin name for Curaçao: “Citrus Aurantium Currassuviensis”. They decided to make orange liqueur with the extract and the Curaçao liqueur was born. Bols claims they used the Laraha at that time, or at least, an extract based on the Laraha. It is unknown if they also invented the name Curaçao liqueur but they sure helped making it popular. Bols does not use the Laraha anymore in their production process.

Cointreau (since 1875) claims to have invented the name Triple Sec, based on the 3 different types of oranges they use. However, Jean Baptiste Combier also claims to have invented the term Triple Sec (triple distilled). But we’ll leave that battle to them.

Marketing drives Curaçao to Triple Sec

When looking at the history of Cointreau labels, they first named it Triple Sec Cointreau. Some years later, they added another term to the label: Curaçao Blanc. We believe that, at that time, the term Curaçao Liqueur was so popular, that Cointreau wanted to take advantage of that success. On later Cointreau labels, they again removed the term Curaçao. Supposedly, because Cointreau wanted to distance itself from the many cheap Curaçao liqueurs on the market.

In the years after, Triple Sec became the standard in the industry which ‘dethroned’ the term Curaçao liqueur.

In 1896, Senior started producing Curaçao liqueur with the Laraha orange peel. Up until the early 21st century, Senior only communicated with Curaçao Liqueur. But as the name Triple Sec became the industry standard and a product name, we now communicate with Curaçao Triple Sec. This is mainly to make it easier for consumers to understand what the product is, the same as Cointreau did in their beginning.

So, basically, the differences in names are primarily marketing driven.

To summarize:

  • Cointreau is an orange Liqueur, a Curaçao Liqueur and a Triple Sec. But, they do not use the Laraha so they are not a genuine Curaçao liqueur
  • Senior liqueur is an orange liqueur, using the Laraha, making it a genuine Curaçao liqueur. It can be used as a Triple Sec as it serves the same purpose in a cocktail recipe

Café Royal Cocktail Book
The best source we can find to support the explanation above is a cocktail book from 1937 called Café Royal Cocktail Book. In the back, they have a list of definitions:

  • Curaçao: A sweet digestive liqueur made wine or grain spirit-sugar and orange peel. It was first made by the Dutch, who used as a flavoring agent the Citrus Aurantium Curassuviensis, a bitter orange first discovered in Curaçao, a Dutch West India Island. Colors, red, white, blue, green and orange
  • Triple Sec: A description of white Curaçaos used for a number of brands of Curaçaos
  • Orange liqueur: Made both in France and Holland, a sweet liqueur flavored with orange
  • Cointreau: The trebly distilled colorless orange liqueur

What about Blue Curaçao and Dry Orange?

What about Blue Curaçao and Dry Orange?

Blue Curaçao is an ordinary Curaçao liqueur, colored Blue. However, sometimes the Blue version has a lower alcohol percentage as its main function is coloring. You can use Blue Curaçao to substitute a Triple Sec in a cocktail recipe. Of course, this will have a large impact on the color.

Dry Orange Curaçao is another Curaçao variation, which usually has a deeper orange taste, is less sweet and has a dry finish. A Dry Orange Curaçao can even be brandy based. So, using this will have a larger impact on the taste of your cocktail, just like a Grand Marnier would.

We hope this article provides some clarity. There are a lot of different perspectives, but in the end, it’s all about your preference which orange liqueur you want to use in your cocktail recipe.