Curacao Triple Sec
Curacao Triple Sec is a particularly dry extract of orange liqueur made from the peel of a certain type of sour-orange. Triple Sec has at least a 5% higher alcohol content than the well-known Blue Curacao and Curacao Orange. Triple sec may be drunk neat as a digestif or on the rocks, but nowadays is mostly used in making cocktails.
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.
Clear orange liqueurs (and the brightly colored ones also) tend to work with light spirits like vodka, gin, and white rum, whereas brandy-based liqueurs work better with aged spirits like dark rum, cognac, and whisky. In a pinch you can substitute one for the other, but it doesn’t always work.
There are many low-priced brands of orange liqueur available that may be labeled as triple sec or curacao, or neither. The really cheap ones will ruin your cocktail, and since most drinks only call for a fraction of an ounce of the stuff, I think it’s best to upgrade the orange.
Triple sec was invented in 1834 by Jean-Baptiste Combier. A Combier brand of triple sec is still made today, using oranges from Haiti that are distilled in 100-year-old copper stills. Nineteenth-century bar guides sometimes called it “white curaçao” (see below for more on curaçao liqueur).
All brands of triple sec are distilled from the dried peel of Caribbean oranges. The higher-priced brands use brandy or cognac as a base. Many brands are colorless, but some of the ones you will find have an orange color.
Today triple sec tends to be 60 proof (30% alcohol by volume). The brands that you will find in your local liquor mart tend to be Bols, DeKuyper, and Hiram Walker. Bols has a higher alcohol content, 42%, and sometimes is drunk straight up or on the rocks.
Triple sec has a decidedly OJ-like smell when you sniff it, and it tastes a bit like an orange gumdrop: very sweet and orangey, although not overpowering. The sweetness makes a big contribution to sweet drinks such as cosmos and margaritas. If you are making a sweet dessert orange sauce, consider using triple sec to give your dessert a little unexpected kick.