Words by: Simon Difford
Triple Sec refers to a style of orange flavoured liqueur which is clear and typically between 20 and 40% alc./vol., although better quality examples are usually between 38 and 42% alc./vol.. Triple sec liqueurs tend to be clean, strongly zesty orange and more straightforward in flavour than other styles of orange liqueur.
Triple sec liqueurs are usually based on neutral spirit made from sugar beet due to its neutrality when compared to spirit made from grain, wine or sugar cane. Dried orange peel is steeped in the neutral alcohol and then redistilled. The resulting highly concentrated orange flavoured spirit is blended with more neutral spirit, water and powdered beet sugar.
Orange peels steeping in neutral spirit. The oranges are picked at their aromatic peak whilst still green. If allowed to ripen, essential oils in the skin would start to be drawn into the fruit. It is the powerful essential oils in the skin which flavour triple sec.
'Sec' is French for dry so 'triple sec' literally means 'triple dry', perhaps a reference to the triple distillation of the base alcohol, so originally indicating a high quality liqueur, and the flavour being provided by the skins of bitter [dry] rather than sweet oranges. However, Cointreau claim to have originated the term triple sec and say it is a reference to the three types of peel used in their liqueur: dried bitter peels, dried sweet peels and fresh sweet peels. And that 'sec' relates to the fact that Cointreau had a lower sugar content as the brand's higher quality spirit required less sugar compared to competitors that used more sugar to soften their rough spirits.
As the Francophile name suggests, triple sec liqueurs originated in France with Combier claiming Jean-Baptiste Combier made the first as early as 1834 at his distillery in Saumur, France, with the best-known triple sec brand, Cointreau following in 1875 when Edouard Cointreau took over the distillery his father Edouard-Jean Cointreau had established in Angers, France with his brother Adolphe in 1849. While the French created the triple sec liqueur style they were not the first to distil orange peels to make an orange liqueur. That honour goes to the Dutch.
The Vereenigde Oost-indisch Compagnie (VOC), the Dutch East India Company was established in 1602. The Dutch West India Company (WIC) followed soon after, and despite being a small nation, the Dutch quickly became the world's leading traders with the port of Rotterdam remaining Europe's largest to this day. Distilling in Europe's Low Countries was commonplace by the mid-1500s, so understandably it was the Dutch who first re-distilled the exotic dried orange peels being shipped from places such as the Island of Curaçao where The Dutch West India Company founded the Island's capital of Willemstad on the banks of an inlet which afforded a natural harbour. Hence Dutch orange curaçao liqueurs, originally made using the Laraha oranges are grown on the island (a mutated Valencia orange) pre-date French triple secs by a couple of hundred years. Indeed Cointreau was originally named 'Curaçao Triple Sec Cointreau'.
Triple sec liqueurs tend to be more powerfully zesty orange in flavour than the relatively subtle Dutch orange curaçaos. Triple secs are also more one-dimensional in flavour whereas curaçaos usually have additional herbs and spices, particularly coriander. Triple secs are clear, whereas orange curaçao liqueurs are orange or even blue.
Cointreau is the world's best-known triple sec and while constituently excellent so are other more affordable brands such as De Kuyper's Triple Sec (I'm talking about the Dutch product produced by the De Kuyper family rather than the stuff available in the US which is owned and produced by Beam Suntory). While on the subject of favourite brands I'd also like to take the opportunity to mention Agave Sec, a sugar free triple sec sweetened with agave syrup designed to make margaritas which I helped our friends at Giffard create.
Although Cointreau removed the name triple sec from its labels sometime between the wars, its dominance of the category has led to many other brands of triple sec being presented in similarly squat square bottles, or brown bottles, or a combination of Cointreau's two most distinctive features.
Triple sec liqueurs can be enjoyed neat over ice but they are more usually served mixed, particularly in cocktails. These are great examples of how triple sec's powerful clean zesty character helps flavour a cocktail:
Between the Sheets (Wondrich's recipe)
We've over 300 more cocktail recipes using triple sec here on Difford's Guide.
This triple sec liqueur is made from distillates of sweet and bitter oranges by Giffard & Cie, a fourth generation family-owned and run liqueur producer in France’s Loire Valley. Clean and fresh orange zest with lemon juice and faint orange flower water.
Part of Giffard’s ‘Premium’ liqueur range, this triple sec liqueur is flavoured with a blend of sweet and bitter curaçao orange distillates. Pungent fresh sweet and bitter oranges, grapefruit, lemon, lime and candied citrus. Superbly clean.
This triple sec liqueur is made from distillates of sweet and bitter oranges by Giffard & Cie, a fourth generation family-owned and run liqueur producer in France’s Loire Valley. Bitter lemon, fresh and candied orange zest.
The distilling firm of Cointreau was founded in 1849 by two brothers Adolphe and Edouard-Jean Cointreau, who were confectioners in Angers. The liqueur we know today was created by Edouard Cointreau, the son of Edouard-Jean, and first marketed in 1871. Fresh and zesty mandarin orange zest with a touch of naval orange oil and a faint waxy overtone. Deeper notes of preserved lemon and a touch of spiced honey.
Unlike other liqueur makers who buy third-party produced essence, since summer 2013 and the launch of their new label and bottle, De Kuyper distil the oranges which flavour this triple sec in neutral spirit using modern copper pot stills in their 100 year old canal-side distillery. Clean, naval and mandarin orange zest with cardamon.
Made from the distillation of dried orange peel from the Caribbean island of Curacao and produced in Northern Italy. The price-reflective stock bottle with its uninspiring label doesn’t give much away other than where it is made but does sport a good typo for those with 20-20 vision. Initially light orange blossom quickly turns waxed orange peel, houseplant leaf and an aroma akin to orange scented furniture polish.
Famous for its liqueurs and flavoured syrups, Georges Monin founded his eponymously named company in 1912. He was successful and quickly expanded, starting to distribute his liqueurs internationally in 1930. Today the company is still family owned and run, now by the third generation Olivier Monin. Light orange aromas with faint acetone.
Each year Lejay Lagoute source orange peel from Haiti and after tasting different samples and test distillations they buy the peel which they distil using a small pot still with reflux chamber to make this triple sec (which has 400 grams sugar/litre) and their other orange liqueurs. Pungent freshly squeezed orange juice and orange zest oils with slight freshly cut green grass. Very clean.
Confectioners Jean-Baptiste Combier and his wife created what is claimed to be the first orange liqueur of this style in 1834. Combier Triple Sec is still made using sun-dried orange skins from Saint-Raphaël, Haiti steeped in alcohol for 24 hours and distilled in 100-year-old copper-pot stills. Superbly clean fragrant orange blossom and bitter orange zest with preserved oranges, cooked lemons and waxy notes of orange scented candle. Faint notes of brazil nut shells.
Curaçao Orange liqueurs are among the oldest of Bols liqueur recipes and Bols Triple Sec is made with Curaçao orange peel distillates combined with a blend of other citrus fruit distillates. Pleasant pungent aromas of natural fresh lemons and oranges, with slices of orange pith and sherbet. Very clean.
Cordon Jaune, literally ‘yellow ribbon’, Grand Marnier is only sold in a few European countries. Yellow Label Grand Marnier is packaged in the familiar Grand Marnier pot still-shaped bottle but finished with yellow highlights to the label, along with yellow ribbon and wax seal. Clean, fresh, zesty orange.
Merlet Triple Sec is an orange flavoured liqueur made by macerating oranges and other citrus fruits in alcohol and then distilling before hydrating and sweetening with sugar. Clean rich orange zest and freshly squeezed orange juice with lemon zest.
This orange liqueur was developed for use in Margaritas and is made using organically grown sweet oranges from Jamaica and bittersweet oranges from Haiti. The peels of these oranges are macerated in neutral spirit and the resulting flavoured orange spirit sweetened with sugar.