A Curaçao for the Common Cocktail

Orange You Glad We Wrote about Liqueurs?

A Grand Marnier nightcap, served warm in a brandy snifter at Velvet Tango Room. 

The Sunflower, a take on the Corpse Reviver No. 2 that stars equal parts gin, Cointreau, St-Germain, and lemon juice, expertly prepared with an absinthe rinse at Mahall's Lanes in Lakewood. 

A glowing green margarita with a chemically sweet aftertaste that causes short-term memory loss at Mi Pueblo in University Circle.

What do these three very different drinks from three very different places have in common? For better or worse, they all are made possible by the existence of orange-flavored liqueurs. 

As they did with countless other fruits, herbs and spices during the height of the spice trade, the Dutch preserved peels from the Lahara orange from the Caribbean island of Curaçao in a liqueur for safe passage back to Europe. Though the exact specifications of the recipe are unknown, the original orange-flavored liqueur was most likely made with a base of pot-stilled brandy or unaged rum. Today, orange liqueurs made in the Dutch tradition are known as curaçaos.

Commonly taken as a digestif or added to cocktails for balance, Grand Marnier is the most popular curaçao of the bunch. Made from cognac, bitter orange peels, coriander and other spices, this golden brown liqueur has a strongly alcoholic nose and coats the tongue like cough syrup. Try adding a quarter ounce to your next Manhattan and thank us later.  

And then there's the low end of the spectrum—quite literally the bottom shelf—where you'll find orange, red, brown, and blue-dyed curaçaos. "Curaçao came from the Caribbean, and when you think of the Caribbean you want fancy-free colorful drinks," explains Molly McSweeney, bartender at the new Ken Stewart's East Bank. "They were created to provide color and flash to a cocktail," she adds, a reminder that we drink first with our eyes.

Triple sec was introduced by France's Combier distillery in the 1830s and though it was conceived as a drier alternative to curaçao, it has since come to describe almost any orange-flavored liqueur made with an unaged spirit—from the overly sweet dyed-green kind you can buy at the supermarket to high-quality clear liqueurs like Cointreau. Anymore, it is an utterly meaningless designation and should be ignored. "Most triple secs are made with alcohol distilled from sugar beets and go light on the bitter orange peel," McSweeney notes. "That's why so many of them are overly sweet and oftentimes harsh."

Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao is a perfectly balanced counterpoint to Grand Marnier and Cointreau, and it is McSweeney's favorite of the bunch. Blended with unaged brandy and aged cognac, it has neither the dessert cocktail roundness of Grand Marnier or the astringency of Cointreau, making it as ideal for sipping neat as it is for use in cocktails that call for orange-flavored liqueur. "I like to be able to taste the alcohol in a drink," McSweeney said. "Pierre Ferrand is drier than Grand Marnier and Cointreau, but doesn't sacrifice balance at the expense of sweetness."

The same cannot be said about the margarita I had at Mi Pueblo, however. Without nuclear triple sec to ruin it, it would have been a salt-rimmed glass with blanco tequila and lime juice, which, now that I think about it, would have been an improvement.

Recipe: The Sunflower

• ¾ oz Hendricks Gin

• ¾ oz lemon juice

• ¾ oz St-Germain

• ¾ oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao

• 1 splash of Lucid absinthe

Rinse* a chilled champagne coupe or martini glass with absinthe. Shake the remaining ingredients in a cocktail shaker with a few handfuls of ice. Strain into the glass, garnish with a lemon twist and serve.

* Add a splash of absinthe to the glass, turning it slowly to coat the insides. Discard remainder.

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