Of all the bottles, this one was the most difficult decision to make. Not because orange liqueur was a late round draft pick. Actually, it was one of the easiest choices, as its place in the cocktail chemistry set has long been secured. No, the hard choice was which of three fabulous orange liqueurs to pick.
Two of the choices are household names: Grand Marnier and Cointreau. Odds are you have one of them sitting around the kitchen. The third bottle is Gran Torres, a Spanish variation for which I have a particular fondness. Marnier and Torres are cognac-based. Cointreau is a triple sec (far-removed from the cheap Bols stuff). The difference? The cognac ones are creamier, and the triple sec is cleaner. The problem of selecting a single winner arises from other factors, however — all three are simply brilliant.
In his canonical cocktail history, Imbibe, David Wondrich errs in favor of Grand Marnier being more reminiscent of what would have been available in the 19th Century. That was my initial leaning as well, chiefly because it’s what I had on hand when I conceived this blog and took the above-the-title picture (see it front-and-center, up above). Gran Torres, however, has always been my house orange liqueur for a reason I’ll explain in a minute. I just simply didn’t have any on-hand when I needed it. Then, there was Cointreau. Did I really need three bottles of nearly-interchangable liquor? No, absolutely not. Of course, that didn’t stop me. A week into the blog — and Bottle No. 6 gaining on me fast — it was time for a good, old taste test.
The results were clear: Grand Marnier is the creamiest. Cointreau, the cleanest (taste it neat, and exactly what that means will be perfectly clear). And, Gran Torres tastes pretty much like a 50/50 blend of the other two — far from a bad thing. With three unmarked glasses in front of them, the others in the house picked Gran Torres as the overall favorite.
Here, I’ll repeat something I’ve said all along: drink what you like. When it comes to Bottle No. 6, any of the three will do, and if you have one on-hand already, all the better. My choice is Gran Torres. Why? Good question with an important answer.
Along with my first kiss and my first bicycle, I remember the cocktail that was the first flagstone on the garden path that lead me, well, here. It wasn’t anything exotic, unique, or recovered from lore. It was just a margarita. It was, however, the perfect margarita. 1.5oz Herradura Silver tequila, 1.0oz Gran Torres, 0.5oz Lime Juice, 1tsp Sugar — shaken and strained (and enjoyed in multiples at Frontera Grill, Chicago). Simple and elegant, it introduced me to Gran Torres, which along with Herradura Silver, are staples of my bar at home. More importantly, however, it got me thinking about cocktails. And, several years later, here we are.
Something simple and well-made is the key to every classic cocktail and every drink we’ll be exploring here. It’s also why all three orange liqueurs mentioned here are so perfect. I could go on for paragraphs on why I loved them, but I’ll instead employ just two words: taste them. You’ll see. In the end, use the one you like or the one you have, and if you have more than one on-hand, go with whatever the drink recipe specifies. Then, experiment the next time and try one of the others. Soon enough, you’ll have your own signature twist on an old classic. And, really, that’s the fun in all of this.
One final note to this is that Gran Torres has become increasingly hard to find in traditional liquor stores, and the Beverage and More chain seems to have discontinued it altogether (its page on the Torres website is also down, so something may be amiss).
Esoterica: Mandarine oranges were introduced to Europe in the late 18th Century. They grew particularly well on the island of Corsica, birthplace of Napoléon Bonaparte. So, when Antoine-François de Fourcroy, imperial physician, decided to create a liqueur to honor the Emperor, he macerated the oranges in cognac and created Mandarine Napoléon. Predating all of the liqueurs mentioned above, it became the Emperor’s favorite liqueur and continues to be made by the de Fourcroy family today.