Cointreau Explained - A Guide to the French Orange Liqueur

By Timo Torner / Last updated on May 22, 2023

If you ever had a Margarita, Cosmopolitan, or a Long Island Ice Tea, it's very likely Cointreau had been part of it. The French Liqueur is one of the most-used cocktail ingredients and is compulsory in every home bar.
Cointreau Orange Liqueur Explained

The world of mixology wouldn't be the same without Cointreau. It's a clear liqueur infused with the peels of oranges. And it also is one of the most frequently used ingredients and part of many classic cocktail recipes.

Yet, apart from the name, most people don't know too much about the orange-flavored Liqueur from France.

What is Cointreau?

In a nutshell, Cointreau (pronounced "kwaan-troh") is a specific type of Triple Sec. It's a strong, intense orange-flavored, and colorless liqueur from France. The powerful orange aroma comes from the essential oils in the peel of premature oranges.

The base alcohol has a neutral flavor and is obtained from sugar beets. With 80 proof, translating to 40% ABV, Cointreau has the equal-proof Vodka in the US.

It's a premium product and typically the preferred choice when using Triple Sec. However, there's a large selection of substitutes for Cointreau.

Quick Facts

  • Produced by: Rémy Cointreau 
  • WebsiteWebsite
  • Origin: Saint-Barthélemy-d'Anjou, France
  • Released: 1857
  • ABV: 40% (80 proof)
  • Price: $32 
  • Calories per shot (1.5 oz): 109 calories
  • Color: Clear & transparent
  • Scent: Zesty orange, slightly bitter
  • Taste: Bitter orange, sweet, sour, fresh, and floral
  • Best served: On the rocks or in cocktails

How does Cointreau taste?

Cointreau has a bitter-sweet orange flavor with a remarkably intensive zesty and fresh citrus aroma. Because it is so low in sugar and heavy in alcohol, the liqueur is surprisingly alcoholic and dry.

Nothing comparable existed when Cointreau's Triple Sec hit the market in the mid-1800s. Due to their meticulous production process, they created a product three times more concentrated in flavor than any other orange liqueur at the time. 

The best ways to drink Cointreau

Cointreau is best when served chilled. Either on the rocks as a digestif, in a light aperitif cocktail, or in classic cocktails like a Margarita or Sidecar. 

In rare cases, it is also served neat. However, the aroma and taste of the liqueur in this case is particularly intense. If this is too much for you, you can also add ice cubes afterward to mute the flavors.

In cocktails and mixed drinks, Cointreau functions as a flavor amplifier adding balance, depth, and freshness while bringing out the flavors of the other ingredients.

How it is made

Cointreau uses the green peel of premature sweet and bitter oranges for their Triple Sec. After carefully selecting the oranges, they hand-peel and dry those peels in the sun for three to five days. 

The brand explains that doing this process by hand is crucial because the thickness and shape of the peels play an important role in the production of their orange liqueur. -They must dry evenly until they all reach a moisture content of 11%.

Once the peels are dry enough, Cointreau's master distiller ensures that the ratio of sweet to dry peels is perfect. Needless to say, the exact composition and recipe are a secret.

Neutral alcohol, the peels, sugar, and water then go together in the pot of a column copper still. In there, the peels rehydrate again for a few hours before the mash gets distilled three times. After a quality check, the finished product is filled into the iconic orange, rectangular bottle.

Shelf life of Cointreau

Due to its high alcohol content, Cointreau won't turn bad. However, aroma and flavors will fade over time. Opened bottles will last for approximately two years and unopened bottles for around five years or up to ten years. The exact shelf life is hard to predict as this always depends on how the bottle is stored and many other circumstances that make it impossible to give a general answer to this question.

History of Cointreau

In 1857, the Cointreau brothers made their first orange liqueur named Cointreau. Back then, Cointreau was an aperitif or digestif, something you drink neat before or after a meal. But these days, Cointreau is more famous for its use in cocktails.

In 1849, the brothers Adolphe and Edouard-Jean Cointreau created their first liqueur and established the brand and distillery Cointreau

However, that first one wasn't the famous orange liqueur but a cherry liqueur called Guignolet. They expanded and produced liqueur from all kinds of fruit

Still, it took until 1875, when the son of Edouard joined the company, that this product got more attention. And after improving on working on the recipe for ten more years, the first bottle of Cointreau Triple Sec saw the light of day.

Cointreau vs. Grand Marnier

Cointreau vs. Grand Marnier

One of the most common alternatives to Cointreau is Grand Marnier cordon rouge. The biggest difference between the two orange liqueurs is that Cointreau is a true Triple Sec and Grand Marnier is a blend of Cognac and orange liqueur.

Flavorwise, Cointreau is fresher, brighter, and more intense, whereas Grand Marnier has a richer yet more mellow flavor profile. Check out how Cointreau compares to Grand Marnier in our in-depth article about the differences of these two orange liqueurs.

Cointreau vs. Triple Sec

Cointreau is a premium product within the category of Triple Sec liqueurs. Triple Sec is a generic term for an orange-flavored liqueur that usually contains between 15% and 40% ABV. It's made with sun-dried bitter and sweet orange peels that get macerated for at least 24 hours before being distilled. 

Also, Triple Sec needs to get 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 literally means triple-distilled.

If you want to know more about this category of orange liqueur in general, you can read about Triple Sec here.

Cointreau vs. Curaçao

Curaçao and Triple Sec are closely related. Curaçao is, in fact, the forerunner of Triple Sec and, therefore, of Cointreau. So, the French version was inspired by the orange liqueur invented by the Dutch. In terms of flavor, both types are similar but not the same. Still, you can substitute one for the other. If you want to know more about the differences and similarities, read this comparison of Triple Sec and Curaçao.

Curaçao got its name from the Caribbean island of Curaçao, part of the ABC islands. Spanish sailors found the island and brought oranges with them because they wanted to make use of the Caribbean sun.

Fast forward a little, the Dutch East Indian Company took possession of Curaçao and, of course, the oranges. They quickly discovered that the fruits were way too bitter and inedible. 

However, the oranges were intensely fragrant, and the Dutch started making liqueur with the peels from the fruits. This liqueur is Curaçao, with its most popular representative being Blue Curaçao.

Cointreau cocktails

Cointreau is part of countless drinks. Many of them are among the most popular cocktails of our time. Drinks like the MargaritaMai TaiCosmopolitan, or the Long Island Ice Tea all contain the orange-flavored liqueur.

And the reason for this is simple. Cointreau brings a lot of things to your cocktails: It is bitter, sweet, fresh, citrusy, and 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 it works exceptionally well in mixed drinks. It certainly is an essential cocktail ingredient for every home bar. 

Now, if you want more inspiration, here's a list of our favorite cocktails made with Cointreau.


Cointreau is a premium Triple Sec brand and one of the most-used Triple Sec in cocktails. Due to its high alcohol content and low amount of sugar, it has an intense and rather dry flavor profile. It's best when served chilled as an aperitif, digestif, or part of a cocktail.

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