Cointreau - A French Orange-Flavored Liqueur

By Timo Torner / Last updated on March 21, 2023

If you ever had a Margarita, Cosmopolitan, or a Long Island Ice Tea, 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 bottle

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?

When talking about Cointreau, terms like Triple Sec, Curaçao, 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.

In a nutshell, Cointreau is a 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 has in the US.

How does Cointreau taste?

Cointreau has a bitter-sweet flavor with a remarkably intensive orange aroma. It is low in sugar and high in alcohol. Therefore, some find it surprisingly boozy and dry.

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

Today, of course, there's a large selection of substitutes for Cointreau.

How is Cointreau 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. 

Triple Sec Oranges

Cointreau 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.

History of Cointreau

Traditionally, Cointreau is 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. 

In 1857, the Cointreau brothers made their first orange liqueur. 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 and Triple Sec

Cointreau is a Triple Sec, and Triple Sec is…? 

Simply put, 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 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.

Sounds pretty much like Triple Sec, doesn't it? That is because 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.

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 Cointreau.

Mai Tai Cocktail

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 Triple Sec cocktails.

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