The term "Triple Sec" stands for a category of clear, orange-flavored liqueur containing between 20% to 40% of alcohol. It's made from peels of bitter and sweet oranges steeped in alcohol made from sugar beet, and are then re-distilled. The taste of Triple Sec liqueurs is dry, clean, and fresh, with a distinct zesty orange flavor.
The liqueurs play a key role in many classic cocktail recipes like the Margarita, Cosmopolitan, Long Island Ice Tea, and Sidecar. The most recognizable brands producing Triple Sec are Cointreau, Combier, and De Kuyper.
We compiled everything there's to know about these orange liqueurs: The differences from other liqueurs, their taste, the ingredients, and how to use them in a cocktail.
What is Triple Sec
Triple Sec is an orange-flavored liqueur. It once was a popular French digestif and is now a generic term for a liqueur made from orange peels and a sugar beet spirit base.
As the name suggests, Triple Sec is a drier style of orange liqueurs. In French "sec" means dry, so the term "Triple Sec" literally translates to "triple dry".
The liqueur is colorless and usually contains between 20% and 40% ABV. The flavor of Triple Sec is intensely zesty, orangy, and citric.
Cointreau vs. Triple Sec
Cointreau is a distinct type of Triple Sec that is drier and has a smoother and more complex taste in comparison to standard Triple Sec. You can easily substitute any Triple Sec for Cointreau in any cocktail or drink recipe.
Here's a brief table comparing Cointreau vs. Triple Sec:
|type||Specific brand of Triple Sec||Category of orange liqueurs|
|ABV||40%||20% to 40%|
|Taste||Drier and more intense orange flavor with a slightly bitter note||Sweet orange flavor|
|Price per 750ml bottle||$30||$10 to $15|
|When to use||Best in cocktails but also great when served straight up as digestif||Budget-friendly alternative|
Cointreau is a premium Triple Sec that has a more refined and better-balanced taste. It's higher in alcohol than average Triple Sec products and the better option in cocktails. If you don't have Cointreau at hand, cheaper Triple Sec brands are budget-friendly alternatives.
What does Triple Sec taste like?
The taste of Triple Sec is sweet, slightly bitter, zesty, citrusy, and has an intense orange flavor. The taste differs from brand to brand. Cointreau is drier and crisper, Combier is sweeter with more sweet orange notes, and DeKuyper is somewhere in the middle.
History of Triple Sec
The history of Triple Sec is closely tied to that of Curaçao. (Here's a comparison of the two.)
The Dutch also took their liqueur back with them to Europe, where it rose in popularity during the 17th and 18th centuries. Of course, it also caught the attention of the French, and they wanted to create their version.
More precisely, husband and wife Jean-Baptiste and Josephine Combier from Saumur claim to have had the idea to make their own orange liqueur.
Allegedly in the back of their sweets shop in Saumur, they tried to create a liqueur based on orange essential oils that would be as true to the orange fruit as possible.
And even though it took them years to perfect their product, in the end, they succeeded and crafted the first Triple Sec liqueur.
How is Triple Sec made?
Jean-Baptiste and Josephine Combier made their original Triple Sec with Haitian bitter oranges and a sweeter variety from Valencia in Spain. They sun-dried the peels of the fruits and infused their base spirit for at least 48h with these peels before distilling their liqueur from them.
Today, things haven't changed overly much. Triple Sec is still made by infusing a base spirit with flavors and essential oils from oranges. That base spirit often is derived from sugar beet because of its natural flavor.
To get the maximum out of the fruit, they get harvested when still green because that's when they are at their aromatic peak.
The famous orange liqueur is then distilled from the more bitter, green peels full of essential oils.
Naturally -to balance the bitterness- there's also quite some sugar involved: about 25gr per 100 ml, depending on the brand.
Why is it named Triple Sec?
And, finally, back to the question: why Triple Sec? The name seems illogical and far away from the ingredients used in the product. And that's right. However, most likely, the term refers to the production method and not to the ingredients.
Triple Sec is usually distilled three times in copper pots to guarantee its quality. And the translation of the French word Sec means dry, which could reference the distillation.
So Triple Sec probably did mean distilled three times and was intended to be a quality seal more than anything else.
Oranges for Triple Sec
The type of oranges used for Triple Sec is not defined. And the popular brands don't reveal all the varieties they are using. But a traditional variety most certainly part of many orange liqueurs is the Seville orange.
Here are some of the orange types that are used for making Triple Sec:
- Curaçao orange
- Seville orange
- Valencia orange
But there's one thing that's more important than the actual type:
As mentioned before, oranges for Triple Sec get harvested when their skin is still green. Since the liqueur is made from the peel and not the fruit flesh, the orange skin needs to have as much flavor and aroma as possible.
Yet, when oranges ripen, the essential oils seep through the skin into the fruit flesh. And once it's inside the pulp, it's lost for the producers of Triple Sec.
How to use Triple Sec?
Triple Sec is best when used in cocktails or as a digestif after a great meal. I briefly mentioned the two ultimate cocktail classics, the Margarita and the Cosmopolitan. But there are more traditional drink recipes that ask for the orange liqueur, like the Corpse Reviver No. 2, the White Lady, or the Between the Sheets.
For a better overview, check out this list of cocktails with Triple Sec.
The most popular Triple Sec brands are Combier and Cointreau. Other popular brands are Grand Marnier, DeKuyper, and Bols. -With Grand Marnier being close but not the same as a Triple Sec.
Jean-Baptiste and Josephine Combier, the likely inventors of Triple Sec, opened their candy shop in Samour in 1834, and this company is still in business today.
When the Combiers' Triple Sec became such a big hit, they decided to devote their work 100% to liqueurs and turned their shop into the Combier Distillery. The Distillery in the French Loire Valley still sells its Triple Sec very successfully - along with many other liqueurs and Absinthe.
But already in the late 1800s, Combier got some serious competition from no other than Cointreau -probably the best-known Triple Sec brand today.