Published September 1, 2006. From Cook's Illustrated.
For cooking, do you need to spend big bucks for the prestige brands, or will something cheaper work just as well? What about for mixed drinks?
The suave Suzette sauce derives her elegance, at least in part, from the dynamic duo of cognac and orange liqueur. When making crêpes Suzette, should you shell out big bucks for a name brand or will something cheaper, like triple sec or Curaçao, work just fine? And does the same choice serve as the best blend in a mixed drink like sangría and margaritas?
To find out, we started by tasting different brands of the two relatively inexpensive orange liqueurs, triple sec and Curaçao. Sweet, clear triple sec is, like most flavored cordials, a generic, vodka-based spirit. It is a simple mixture of vodka, artificial orange flavors, and fructose (a form of sugar found in fruits) flavored with the peels of both sweet and bitter oranges (and sometimes lemons, too). We tasted eight brands.
Curaçao is flavored only with the peel of bitter oranges, specifically those native to the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Manufacturers may tint their Curaçao blue, green, orange, or amber, but color does not affect the flavor. We tasted two brands.
Orange-infused cognac is well known to most home cooks as Grand Marnier, but there are other brands, which are usually less expensive. Oranges of various types are harvested, pulped, and laid out to dry and ferment in the sun, which preserves the pungent oils in the skins. This orange essence is combined with cognac, a brandy made from grapes and aged in oak barrels. We tasted Grand Marnier and six lesser-known orange-infused cognacs.
The other prestigious name in orange liqueurs is Cointreau, made by combining the peels of bitter Caribbean and sweet Spanish and Brazilian oranges with neutral spirits, cane sugar, and water. This mixture is distilled in steam-heated copper stills and filtered of any impurities before bottling. The result is a clear orange liqueur that is higher in alcohol and drier in flavor than the contemporary spirits.
First we sampled each straight up and then in sangría and margaritas. For these mixed drinks we found a winner. Then we turned to cooking. We tasted three winners of our straight tasting against the two premium choices in crêpes Suzette. Our conclusion? Although the high-priced liqueurs might be better for sipping, for cooking we found that the cheaper choices were just fine.