A celebrated cocktail ingredient that is featured in many recipes since the early 20th century, triple sec is often shrouded in mystery.
In this guide, you will learn everything you need to know about triple sec:
- What Is Triple Sec?
- Triple Sec History
- How Triple Sec Is Made
- What Does Triple Sec Taste Like?
- How To Drink Triple Sec
- Does Triple Sec Go Bad
- Similar Drinks & Substitutes
- Is Triple Sec Gluten-Free?
Use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read it all.
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What Is Triple Sec?
Triple Sec is a clear liqueur made from orange peels. It is typically used in cocktails thanks to its relatively neutral flavour profile. Although triple sec is regarded as a variety of liqueurs, it was originally an offshoot of Dutch Curaçao as you’ll learn later in this guide.
Is Triple Sec Alcohol?
Triple sec is indeed an alcoholic beverage that is made by combining distilled beet alcohol and orange peels. As a liqueur, its strength can technically vary between 15% and 40% ABV. However, most brands produce triple sec in the higher end of this range.
Due to the quantity of oils extracted from the orange peels, triple sec may turn cloudy when diluted with water. This process is known as the “ouzo effect” and happens because oil terpenes are transparent when suspended in an alcohol solution above 30% ABV.
Therefore, products that advertise themselves as triple sec and are below 30% ABV may be cloudy or coloured to mask any haziness.
Cointreau Vs Triple Sec
Although often credited as one of the first and most successful triple sec liqueurs, a bottle of Cointreau has no mention of it on the label. When it was first created by Edouard Cointreau in 1875, it’s often believed that he had even coined the term himself.
However, as other triple sec brands began to emerge, the family made the decision to differentiate itself by dropping any mention of it in the early 20th century.
Therefore, Cointreau is indeed an authentic triple sec but it chooses not to adopt the name for purely marketing reasons. This choice is somewhat similar to Disaronno, which refers to itself as “Originale” rather than “amaretto“.
Triple Sec History
In 1499, the Spanish colonised Curaçao, a lesser Antilles Caribbean island where they introduced bitter Seville oranges. These eventually bred to produce the native laraha orange.
When the Dutch West Indies Company took possession of the island in 1634, it found that the oranges were inedible but featured particularly aromatic peels.
Since the Amsterdam-based Bols distillery company required spices for its distilled spirits, it had shares in both the Dutch West and East Indian Companies. The distillery’s founder, Lucas Bols, then found a way to extract the oils from the bitter orange.
As they were otherwise useless, it resulted in a cheap but flavoursome ingredient for his beverages. The oil was then sent back to Amsterdam where it was then used to make what would eventually become known as Curaçao liqueur.
Triple sec is arguably a derivative of Curaçao liqueur. Its creation is often credited to the French Combier distillery in 1834. Meanwhile, the beverage became famous through Cointreau’s version that was launched in 1875.
When different distillers presented their versions at the 1878 Exposition Universelle, they often referred to it as “Curaço Triple Sec”. Eventually, the Dutch-influenced part of the name was dropped. However, it’s uncertain as to why it’s called “triple sec” in the first place.
Some producers claim that it’s because Combier’s original recipe used three different varieties of orange peel and that it was drier than Curaçao. Meanwhile, it’s also believed that it’s because the alcohol was triple distilled.
Today, Curaçao differentiates itself by its distinctive blue colour whereas triple sec is generally clear. While it’s sometimes presumed that Curaçao was always blue, it has been suggested that it was a change made in response to triple sec’s growing popularity.
How To Make Triple Sec
The production of triple sec is similar to gin but with dried orange peels rather than juniper berries. A combination of sweet and bitter dried orange peels are steeped in distilled alcohol so that their oils infuse.
These oranges were picked and peeled while still green to ensure that they still contained the optimal amount of oil. As an orange ripens, the skin’s oils usually sink into the flesh.
Producers typically opt for steeping the ingredients in beet alcohol as it’s the most neutral base. However, grain alcohol is possible, too. Once the alcohol has drawn out sufficient oils, it is redistilled.
Since the distillate is often very highly concentrated, it is often blended with another neutral spirit to render it more balanced. Afterwards, it is hydrated to the corrected strength and then slightly sweetened with either powdered beet sugar or simple syrup.
What Does Triple Sec Taste Like?
Triple sec is almost always clear with a particularly oily appearance. Unlike Curaçao, triple sec only uses orange peels rather than any additional herbs and spices. Therefore, triple sec has a distinctively citrus flavour.
While you can expect some fruity notes, the citrus characteristic leans more towards a herbaceous quality. As a result, it’s somewhat reminiscent of neroli and orange blossom.
Today, triple sec is only mildly bitter and contains a greater quantity of sugar than when it was first produced. Indeed, it’s sticky and syrupy both to the touch and in terms of its texture on the palate. However, although it’s somewhat sweet, it’s not particularly cloying.
How To Drink Triple Sec
Although triple sec can be enjoyed neat or on the rocks, it’s a usually simple beverage that is arguably somewhat one-dimensional. Therefore, it’s pleasant enough to enjoy as a digestif but won’t offer the same complexity and potential enjoyment as other alcoholic spirits.
However, triple sec quickly became a popular cocktail ingredient by the turn of the 20th century as it provides a citrus blast to any concoction. As a result, it’s often featured in some of the most iconic cocktails of the period.
In our guide to the best triple sec cocktails, we break down our recommendations of some of the most celebrated recipes that you can try.
Does Triple Sec Go Bad?
As triple sec contains a high concentration of alcohol, it acts as a preservative that stops it from going bad. Indeed, the Dutch and its neighbouring countries would often steep fruit, herbs, and spices in alcohol to prevent them from spoiling in the first place.
Although triple sec will unlikely ever expire, it may oxidise and lose its quality if it has been opened over a long period of time. While it will never taste foul or go off, its bright flavours may begin to dull. Nevertheless, this is a process that would take years rather than months.
Similar Drinks & Triple Sec Substitutes
As an orange-flavoured liqueur, there are alternatives to triple sec if you don’t have one close to hand. Firstly, most Curaçao may be blue but it’s still quite similar to triple sec. That being said, be mindful that other herbs and spices are also macerated with the oranges, which can result in a richer flavour.
Meanwhile, if you don’t have access to Curaçao either or you’re cooking and don’t want to use alcohol, consider orange extract or orange blossom water. Of the two, the latter will have a more similar flavour to triple sec.
If you are still using alcohol, you can combine orange blossom water and neutral alcohol like vodka. While it’ll never be exactly the same as triple sec, it’ll be pretty close.
Finally, Grand Marnier is another alternative and we go into greater detail on their similarities and differences below.
Is Grand Marnier Triple Sec?
While often associated with the liqueur variety, Grand Marnier is not technically a triple sec. Instead, it’s an orange-flavoured cognac liqueur that was first created in 1880. Interestingly, though, Grand Marnier did briefly produce a triple sec called Cordon Jaune until the brand was acquired by Campari in 2017.
Cognac is made by distilling wine, referred to as an eau-de-vie, which is then aged for multiple years in oak barrels. If you want to learn about how cognac itself is made in detail, head to our dedicated guide.
As cognac is made using copper pot stills, it produces heads and tails, which are discarded. Grand Marnier is produced by steeping bitter orange peels in these heads and tails like triple sec. It is then redistilled as well before being blended with other base cognacs.
Grand Marnier is then barrel-aged like cognac for a number of years. As a result, it has a darker colour but also a greater level of complexity. For this reason, it is more commonly enjoyed neat or on the rocks compared to triple sec. It’s also a common ingredient for pancakes and other French pastries as well as cocktails!
Is Triple Sec Gluten-Free?
As mentioned earlier in this guide, triple sec is typically produced using beet alcohol. Therefore, it should be considered safe if you have celiac’s disease or a sensitivity to the protein.
Otherwise, even triple sec derived from grain alcohol should be fine as it has been distilled multiple times. However, there have occasionally been reports of discomfort. Nevertheless, these are likely due to other ingredients in a cocktail.
Meanwhile, a 1 Oz (15 ml) shot of triple sec should feature around 100 calories with about 11 grams of carbohydrates.
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