Cointreau bottle

Cointreau – A French Orange-Flavored Liqueur

If you ever had a Margarita, Cosmopolitan, or a Long Island Ice Tea, very likely Cointreau was part of your drink. The popular French Liqueur is one of the most-used cocktail ingredients and is mandatory in every home bar.

The world of Mixology wouldn’t be the same without Cointreau. It’s one of the most used ingredients and part of many classic cocktail recipes. But besides the name, many people don’t know too much about the orange-flavored Liqueur from France.

When talking about Cointreau, terms like Triple Sec, Curacao, or Orange Liqueur often pop up. But as much as one might be familiar with these names, many people don’t know how they are connected. So it’s time to solve this mystery and explain a little more about this somewhat disregarded liqueur.

What is Cointreau?

In a nutshell, Cointreau is a type of Triple Sec. It’s a strong, intense orange-flavored, and colorless liqueur from France. Traditionally Cointreau is an aperitif or also digestif, something you drink neat before or after a meal. It’s supposed to either prepare your stomach for a meal or signaling the end of it. But these days, Cointreau is more famous for its use in cocktails.

In 1849, the brothers Adolphe and Eduoard-Jean Cointreau created their first liqueur and thus established the brand Cointreau. However, that first one wasn’t the famous Orange Liqueur, but the cherry called Liqueur Guignolet. In fact, the first bottle of Cointreau saw the light more than 25 years later.

The liqueur made of orange peels and alcohol from sugar beets is quite strong. With 80 proof, translating to 40% ABV, Cointreau has the equal proof Vodka has in the US.

So now Cointreau is roughly covered, but I suspect the term Triple Sec is still hard to grasp. So let’s clear things up.

A type of Triple Sec

So Cointreau is a Triple Sec, and Triple Sec is…? Simply put, Triple Sec is a type of liqueur. It’s an orange-flavored liqueur originating in France that usually contains between 15% and 40% Alcohol By Volume (ABV). It consists of sun-dried bitter and sweet orange peels that get macerated for at least 24 hours before being distilled. And a Triple Sec needs to be distilled three times, a so-called triple distillation process.

“Sec” is a French term translating to “dry”, but it’s also the word for “distilled”. So the Triple Sec category literally means triple-distilled. The resulting Triple Sec is dry and colorless.

So now we know how Cointreau and Triple Sec are related. But Orange Curaçao seems to be the same thing. What’s the difference?


Curaçao got its name from the Caribbean island of Curaçao, part of the ABC islands. Once colonized by the Dutch, the island is still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. But before the Dutch took over, the Spanish found the island and brought Spanish Oranges with them. Due to the hot and dry climate on Curaçao, the oranges didn’t turn out as expected. They were almost inedible because they tasted way too bitter.

Once the Dutch discovered how fragrant those fruits were, they started experimenting. Eventually, by macerating the peels in Brandy, the orange-flavored liqueur called “curaçao” was created. While this sounds similar and tastes similar to Cointreau and other Triple Secs, there is a significant difference. On a side note, the famous blue-colored “Blue Curaçao” also tastes similar, it’s just a regular curaçao tinted blue.

Curaçao liqueur has to be made with brandy or sugarcane spirits to create a sweeter product with a darker color. Triple Sec, on the other hand, is made of neutral grain or sugar beet spirits. The result is dryer and, as mentioned before, colorless.

In terms of flavor, both types are similar, and you can substitute one for another.

Cointreau cocktails

Cointreau is part of many, many different cocktails. Some of them are so famous that I am sure everyone has heard of them. Drinks like the Margarita, Mai Tai, Cosmopolitan, or the Long Island Ice Tea all contain Cointreau. And a complete list would be a lot longer.

And the reason for this is simple. Cointreau brings a lot of things to your cocktails: It is bitter, sweet, fresh, citrusy, and also contains quite some alcohol. A perfect ingredient to balance drinks, especially when combined with another citrus component like lemon or lime juice.

I personally love Cointreau. It’s not cheap, but in most recipes asking for either a Triple Sec or a curaçao, Cointreau works exceptionally well. And also, I do not need to stock up on five bottles of Orange Liqueur. Therefore, in my opinion, Cointreau is an essential cocktail ingredient for every home bar.

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