Like many things tasty, the origins of the so-called triple sec style of orange liqueurs can get complex. Both Cointreau and Grand Marnier are 19th century variations of an original curacao-flavored spirit that originated on the eponymous island, using native bitter oranges to add flavor. Cointreau, technically a triple sec spirit because it uses both sweet and bitter orange flavors with a base neutral spirit, began operations in 1849. Invented and perfected by Édouard Cointreau, the exacting blend of orange flavors was in response to customers’ interest in the citrus fruit, which at the time was a rare commodity in Europe.
Grand Marnier, technically an orange liqueur and closer to the original curacao spirit because only Caribbean bitter orange flavors are used, was introduced to the drinking public in 1880. The brainchild of then owner Louis-Alexandre Marnier, who married into the Lapostolle distillery family, the Grand Marnier product went one step further from the curacao beginnings and based its liqueur on fine French cognac brandy as its core.
With Cointreau, a mixture of bitter and sweet orange peels is steeped in the base spirit overnight before the mixture is twice distilled. With Grand Marnier, however, distilled essence of bitter orange and sugar are added to the aged and blended cognac base. And these subtle differences create the basis of differentiation for two admittedly superb bottles.
Since Grand Marnier uses cognac as its spirit base, there is an element of aging to the overall flavor profile. A recent Grand Marnier Louis-Alexandre special edition leverages the magic of cognac distilling and aging to up the ante on sophisticated flavor. A blend of VSOP cognacs from only the finest growing areas in France’s Cognac region and precise aging in either Tronçais or Limousin oak casks is required for the Louis-Alexandre spirit. This approach amplifies not only its orange tones, but also its vanilla and oak flavors that arrive from the cognac aging process. This version of Grand Marnier offers a richer flavor than other alternatives, and is best experienced on the rocks.
Cointreau takes the prize for a more authentic recipe to original triple sec spirits. While the base spirit is less refined than cognac (usually a form of beet sugar alcohol), the process Cointreau uses and its dedication to sweet and bitter flavors produces a very clean and intense profile that, especially in its core offering, is ideal for cocktails. While Cointreau claims to be an essential ingredient of the “original margarita” (the very origins of the margarita are highly disputed by liquor historians, by the way), here’s a refined recipe for a cocktail that puts Cointreau’s special qualities front and center.
1 oz. Cointreau
2 oz. Rémy Martin VSOP cognac
3⁄4 oz. fresh orange juice
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, shake with ice and strain into a martini or coupe glass.