As Labor Day arrives and with it the unofficial end of summer, it's almost time to put the white linen pants back in the closet and stick the grill in the garage for another eight months or so. And what better way to mark the end of summer than with a pitcher of margaritas? The margarita is a light, refreshing and potent cocktail that can cool down the most sweltering days and tame the most savage thirst. Of course, margaritas are delicious year-round, but something about them says "summer" to me, even when I'm drinking one in February. One thing I particularly love about margaritas is how easy they are to make -- all you need is fresh-squeezed lime juice, the tequila of your choice, and triple sec.
When I mention that third ingredient to friends, I get a lot of "Huh?"s and "What's that?"s. Well, triple sec also goes by the name of curaçao. What's the difference between curaçao and triple sec? After intensive research, I can tell you definitively that... I'm not sure. What I do know is that both curaçao and triple sec are orange liqueur, a vital and under-appreciated ingredient in one of the world's most popular cocktails.
Which triple sec you use in your margs should not be taken lightly, any more than your choice of tequila. My ideal margarita recipe is three parts tequila to two parts triple sec to one part lime juice. That means triple sec is fully one-third of of the drink. A good triple sec will temper the sourness of the lime juice and smooth out the fire of the tequila, while at the same time adding its own depth and complexity to the drink. A bad one will add little more than sugar and some kind of (usually artificial-tasting) orange flavor.
There are literally dozens of orange liqueurs on the market, be they triple secs or curaçaos or otherwise named. Here are a few of my favorites, all of which make a fine margarita and are also tasty for sipping on their own.
COINTREAU (80 proof, or 40% alcohol by volume). For decades, Cointreau was to orange liqueurs what Kleenex is to facial tissues -- the most recognized brand in its field. It's still often referred to by name in cocktail recipes. But now that it's facing stiff competition from old rivals and upstarts alike, how does it hold up? Well, it's still pretty damn good. It's got a beautiful sweet aroma of candied orange peel, and a heavy, forceful flavor that can stand up to the other ingredients in a 'rita. It starts off sweet, but as it coats the tongue, the bitterness of the orange peel is unfurled, along with burnt sugar undertones and a little spicy kick. It finishes off long and lingering, with moderate alcoholic heat. Cointreau is a class act all the way, and you could do a hell of a lot worse by your margarita.
COMBIER (80 proof) & ROYAL COMBIER (76 proof). Combier is the world's oldest triple sec, and it's still going strong 176 years after Jean-Baptiste Combier first whipped up a batch in a small village in France. Combier is also currently the hippest triple sec among in-the-know bartenders and amateur mixologists, and with good reason -- Combier (the original recipe) and Royal Combier have distinct flavor profiles, but they both make a damn good margarita. L'Original Combier, as it's now known, has a luscious and beautiful caramel/orange peel nose that's not overpowering but not subtle either. On first blush, it's almost candy sweet, but it really opens up with a nice balance of fruit, bitter orange peel and spice. It's got a thick mouth feel. Yes, it's sweet, but sipped neat it's addictive and in a marg, it hits all the right notes. Royal Combier takes the original Combier recipe and blends it with cognac and spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, making it a more complex and less exclusively orangey liqueur than L'Original. The cognac subdues the brightness of the orange and also adds a bit more alcoholic burn. It's like a trombone compared to a trumpet - a little heavier, but it swings in its own groovy way. And like its sibling, Royal Combier is great in a margarita. In fact, the darker flavors make this perfect for an autumnal 'rita... or two. (Do I hear three?)
SOLERNO (80 proof). Solerno is actually a blood orange liqueur, made in Sicily from Italian blood oranges and lemons. Solerno has been my go-to brand all summer; maybe it's because of the gorgeous bottle? But you could stick this stuff in a Tupperware container and it would still taste great. It's got a light, fruity scent, and the flavor is also comparatively light, with more of a citrus vibe than orange specifically -- which I believe comes from the lemons. It tastes very fresh, with a light alcoholic burn at the finish and a slight sour aftertaste. I thought a liqueur this light would get overwhelmed in a margarita, but Solerno holds its own, really blending beautifully with the lime juice and rounding out even harsher tequilas. It's also my favorite orange liqueur for sipping, hands-down.
GRAND MARNIER (80 proof). One of these liqueurs is not like the other, and just from looking at them it's easy to tell which. All of the above-mentioned triple secs are distilled using neutral spirits (Royal Combier does add cognac later on), which gives them a clear appearance. Grand Marnier, on the other hand, uses a blend of cognacs and aged in French oak casks, giving it a golden amber color. On the nose, Grand Marnier is very rich and dense, much more like a brandy than a liqueur. On the tongue, the candied orange peel/marmalade flavor opens up into lots of spice, and a pleasant alcoholic burn. You can really taste the sugars in this one, as well as the winey elements of the cognacs. In a nutshell, this stuff is delicious, and it makes for a unique margarita as well. If Royal Combier is perfect for an autumnal marg, then Grand Marnier is perfect for when you need a margarita fix in the dead of winter. Margaritas by the fire... now that's an idea I can get behind.
There are plenty of other orange liqueurs/triple secs currently making waves which I either haven't tried or haven't got much to say about. Among the most noteworthy are Gran Gala ("Italy's answer to Grand Marnier"), Patron Citronge (made by the folks who make Patron tequila) and Leopold Bros. American Orange Liqueur. If you're on a tight budget, there are plenty of cheap triple secs out there, most notably Bols. You get what you pay for -- it's not nearly as complex or refined as the orange liqueurs I've mentioned above -- but it's very popular and widely used in less hoity-toity bars. Think of Bols as the Budweiser of triple secs.
TEQUILA: I was going to lay off this area completely, because there are so many great tequilas and there's so much to say about each one. But I felt compelled to mention Tequila Avion Silver, which is, bar none (so far), the best blanco, or unaged, tequila I've ever had. Avion is making a big splash because it's been prominently featured in the plot line of Entourage this season. Whether or not you've ever seen the show (I haven't), you should believe the hype about this tequila. I find that blanco tequilas are best for using in mixed drinks like margaritas, where their bouyant flavor shines through, rather than sipping neat, when they can be a little harsh and/or overly sweet. But Avion is gorgeous, dry and super-smooth with prominent grassy notes, almost like a reposado. It's great for sipping or in a margarita. If you see it in your local liquor store (I believe right now it's only available in New York, New Jersey and California), buy a bottle immediately.
DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME. While I was digging up all my orange liqueurs, I also came across a bottle of Orangerie, an orange-infused Scotch whisky from the good folks at Compass Box. It makes for a damn good sipping whisky on its own -- the dry, light Scotch blends beautifully with the bitter orange zest. So I figured, hell, why not try it in a margarita in place of triple sec? Alas, the experiment failed; if tequila and Scotch can mingle harmoniously in a cocktail, it's not a margarita. But Orangerie has its place -- preferably in a glass, neat or with an ice cube, and unsullied by tequila or lime juice.
LIME JUICE & MARGARITA MISCELLANY: All you need to remember about lime juice is this -- if you're using bottled lime juice (like Rose's) instead of fresh-squeezed, you are committing a federal crime against Cocktail Nation, not to mention making a lousy margarita. Salting the rim of the glass is optional, depending on your taste. Glasses should ideally be chilled before use. And margaritas, since they combine spirits with fruit juice, should always be shaken, not stirred.
Love triple sec but you're convinced that the margarita is a shorts-and-T-shirt drink exclusively? Well, I disagree, but... for a great cooler weather cocktail, try a Sidecar. It replaces tequila and lime juice with brandy (cognac) and lemon juice, and salt for the rim of the glass with sugar. The traditional recipe calls for equal parts cognac, triple sec and lemon juice, shaken and strained into a cocktail glass. I prefer to lower the lemon juice quotient and up the cognac so it's the same ratio as a margarita -- three parts cognac, two parts triple sec, one part lemon juice. You've got all fall to tinker with it as you please.
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