From Phylloxera to Triple Sec
This event, of course, is the phylloxera plague that wiped out grape production on the European mainland for decades to come. No grapes means no brandy, and no brandy means no brandy-based Curacao. We can assume that the Dutch were just fine. They had plenty of sugar cane distillates to pivot to, but supply chains moved even more slowly back then, so the pest outbreak caused a major disruption nonetheless.
This is where Triple Sec enters the picture. It was said to have been invented back in the 1830s (when Curacao was still popular) by the Combier family, who owned a distillery in Saumur, France (about 200 miles Southwest of Paris). Like many European liqueurs, there’s a little bit of hocus pocus and smoke and mirrors surrounding why it’s called Triple Sec. Some say it’s because the product was originally triple distilled, which would kind of make sense. “Sec” literally means “dry,” and the more times you distill something, the less water it contains. Other origin stories allude to the possibility that the Combier family used three different types of dried orange peel in their maceration. And still other explanations point to the fact that triple sec has (in general) less sugar than traditional Curacao formulations. So that last explanation would be calling it “dry” in the same way that a wine can be “dry,” meaning “less residual sugar.”
These new Triple Secs were created in a similar manner to Curacao, except the peels were macerated in a neutral sugar beet spirit (the predominant spirit made in the immediate wake of Phylloxera) then distilled, and fortified with sugar also derived from the sugar beet. Unlike dark, sweet Curacaos, these products were lighter and more ethereal in flavor and appearance, but they still packed a huge punch of orange flavor.
In 1875 – at the height of the Phylloxera crisis, Cointreau created its iconic brand of Triple Sec, using a method we can only assume was very similar to the one pioneered by Combier. Until the introduction of Maison Ferrand’s Dry Curacao in 2011 (which was actually developed in partnership with Dave Wondrich), Cointreau was pretty much the gold standard for what a clear orange liqueur is and should be. So if you encounter – at any point – a cocktail recipe that calls for Triple Sec, go ahead and assume that Cointreau is going to be an exemplary representative of the category.
A Felicitous Partnership
5 years after the launch of Cointreau in 1875, a new player entered the picture and its name was Grand Marnier, a mashup comprised of the surname of the family responsible for inventing it and a timeless suggestion from a helpful friend. The family were the Marnier-Lapostolles, who ran a distilling operation in a town called Neauphle-le-Château just west of Paris, and the friend was César Ritz, the Swiss Hotelier responsible for creating what we now know as the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain.
After tinkering with a large stock of Cognac acquired by his father-in-law, Eugène Lapostolle, Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle decided that it would benefit from the addition of a rare orange extract from the Caribbean (in all likelihood, the very same flavorant used in Orange Curacao). Some fine old Cognac, some orange extract, and a little bit of sugar to marry it all together…et voila! A star is born.
But to be a star, you need to do more than walk the walk. You need to talk the talk, and you need to dress the part.
In 1880, “La Belle Epoque” was really kicking into high gear in Paris, ushering in a cultural golden age that featured a ton of fashionable trends and innovations. One linguistic fad was to call everything “petite,” which literally means “small,” but is often informally taken to mean “cute” or “charming.” So you didn’t just have a dog, you owned a “petit chien,” and you didn’t just read the daily newspaper, you read either, Le Petit Journal, or Le Petit Parisien. Those were the actual, official names of the publications, not just nicknames.
From Petite to Grand Marnier
So amidst all this cutesy petite-ness, one day, Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle poured a dram of his orange-infused, sweetened Cognac concoction for his good friend, César Ritz, and the latter decided that it would be smart to buck convention, to go against the grain, and call this delicious nectar, “Grand Marnier,” a name that was loud and proud, big and bold, in a world where many seemed ready to kick back against the stifling “petiteness” of the bourgeoisie.
So now we’ve got a spirit that talks the talk AND walks the walk…but how would it dress the part? Well, that’s where the tradition of the Cognac region comes in. If you look at a bottle of Grand Marnier, you’ll notice that it resembles the traditional alembic (or “Charentais”) still design used by French brandy distillers. This, of course, is no coincidence. The bottle was designed to look strikingly different – to stand out from the herd – and the whole ensemble is adorned with a red ribbon (or “cordon rouge”) affixed to the bottle with a wax stamp. For this reason, the term “cordon rouge” very quickly became synonymous with Grand Marnier’s signature product.
But it wasn’t just Grand Marnier who benefitted from its relationship with César Ritz. The hotel magnate famously partnered with Georges Auguste Escoffier, one of the most famous and influential French chefs of all time. The liqueur was very quickly adopted by their respective food and beverage programs, also featuring in one of Escoffier’s most iconic recipes: Crêpes Suzette.
Orange Liqueur, In Summary
Taken as a group, the trio of Orange Curacao, Triple Sec, and Grand Marnier are the three orange liqueurs that best define the category of “orange-sweetened sours” that eventually evolved into the Margarita. Curacao focuses on the intensity and uniqueness of the bitter orange flavor, Triple Sec operates by trying to convey all the orange flavor of Curacao, but without nearly as much sugar, and Grand Marnier is predicated on the notion that extravagance and boldness can bring any beverage experience to the next level.
Orange liqueurs in general, and bottles like Cointreau and Grand Marnier in particular, were a huge part of beverage culture in continental Europe and beyond by the early 20th century, when Americans began quaffing “sunrise tequilas” at Mexican resorts, as we mentioned at the conclusion of Part I. But while all this experimentation with “new-style” and “old-style” daisies was happening in the new world, a new conflict was about to break out in Europe. I mean, yeah, there was some little squabble about an archduke assassination that got a few people bent out of shape, but the conflict I’m referring to is one that would push bartenders to not merely combine spirits, acids, and orange liqueurs, but also to seriously consider and ruthlessly defend the ratios they used in the cocktail shaker.