Build-A-Bar: Orange Liqueur

I used to get squirrelly whenever the subject turned to liqueurs. To me, they were the province of poorly conceived '70s vodka drinks, rec rooms, and key parties. Every time I heard the word, I envisioned a world not unlike Rick Moody's terribly depressing novel The Ice Storm. Not wanting a dead Elijah Wood on my hands, I avoided the stuff. Makes sense, right?

I honestly don't really know how I came to that misguided conclusion, but suffice it to say I no longer fear hard liquor's sweeter cousins. As with all ingredients, it's important to come to an understanding of liqueurs, and to use them judiciously. Their tendency toward strident, saturated flavors and significant sweetness can easily overwhelm a cocktail. Used properly, they are the backbone of many excellent drinks, and find their way into the kitchen in myriad ways, as well.

Orange liqueur is a particularly useful member of the family, playing a prominent role in many drinks and quite possibly more foods. Crêpes Suzette would be impossible without it. Soufflés and pretty much anything involving chocolate may be greatly improved with a splash. My wife is fond of brushing it lightly on pound cake before constructing a traditional English trifle.

In cocktails, it can add citrusy notes without adding acid, bring sweetness while still providing balancing alcohol, and even add a slight touch of bitterness to counter other sweet flavors.

I happened to have Grand Marnier on hand, but there are quite a few delicious variants, employing different base spirits, different types of fruit, and different flavor profiles as a result.

Grand Marnier is cognac-based, and it shows. At first, it's all bitter orange, with a keen and clear edge. Soon, though, the rounded, deep sweetness of the spirit comes in, just a bit hot. It finishes cleanly and with much less apparent sugar than you might imagine. I wouldn't drink it neat often, but it's certainly a pleasant sip.

I've been spending the week helping out my grandparents while my folks are out of town, and decided to shake up some margaritas, largely because of my grandfather. I've looked up to my grandfather immensely since as far back as I can remember. A kind but stern, barrel-chested renaissance man of sorts, my grandfather has always impressed me as the sort of man I want to be. Once, as legend has it, he retro-fitted his old Studebaker to run on either gas or diesel, to improve his life on the road as a traveling salesman. He quotes Chaucer and John Wayne, rattles off semi-dirty limericks and corny puns with equal pleasure, and lost several fingers in machine shop accidents while working as an engineer; when I was seven, he told me he'd had to cut them off to avoid going out with a bomb over Germany. He doesn't drink much, but is partial to tequila. He says other spirits don't sit well with him. Drinking with this man is a pleasure, and I wanted to oblige.

I will say that Grand Marnier might not be the best specific choice for this cocktail, as the orange flavor can take a slight backseat to the darker notes of cognac, but it did the job admirably. My grandfather declared it to be one of the better ones he'd had, grinning broadly and wondering aloud about when exactly he'd last had the drink. Consumed with fajitas grilled in the backyard, they tasted just about perfect, especially considering the company.


  • 1.5 oz. Tequila
  • 1 oz. Lime Juice
  • .75 oz. Orange Liqueur
  • Barspoon Agave Nectar

Shake all ingredients with ice, strain into the glass of your choice. My grandfather wanted a salted rim, and I obliged. I prefer an unsalted rim, but I do occasionally like to garnish with a lime wedge. This version of a margarita may be a bit more tart than most; my wife likes a lot of lime, and I've grown accustomed to making them that way. Feel free to sub in mezcal for the tequila, as I did in mine, for a smoky and subversive twist on the classic. Three quarters of the way through his drink, my grandfather was regaling me with a devilish version of Little Brown Jug. I think he had a good time. I know I did.

As I thought about what to do with orange liqueur, my mind drifted to bergamot. A sour and bitter orange, bergamot is one of the chief flavoring components of Earl Grey tea. When I was younger, I frequently breakfasted on a cup of Earl Gray, laced with plenty of milk and sugar, alongside a slice of toast with butter and orange marmalade. The combination seemed like a natural, and I went for it.

Taking the lazy way out, I opted to turn Earl Grey into a simple syrup. Three tea bags (my parents had Twinning's) went into a pot with a cup of water. It steeped at just below a simmer for about 20 minutes before I removed the tea bags and whisked in a cup of sugar. When it was cooled and ready for use, I decided to continue with the British theme that was developing, and join my Earl Grey syrup and orange liqueur with gin. My father, another man I hope to emulate, is a bit of an Anglophile, and I'm sure he would approve. He's also a big fan of Winston Churchill who, I'm quite certain, was fond of both gin and Earl Grey, and who quite possibly rivaled my grandfather in wit and my father in steadfastness. In their spirit, I concocted The Last Lion.

The Last Lion

  • 1 oz. Orange Liqueur
  • 1 oz. Gin
  • .5 oz. Lemon Juice (scant)
  • Barspoon Earl Grey Simple Syrup

Shake, strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a flamed lemon peel. At first, you think it's going to be too sweet. It almost is, but the lemon and bitter bergamot pull it back. It is aromatic and evocative of citrus on many levels. The tea flavor shines through, though I wish I'd made the syrup a bit more extracted and concentrated. The orange and cognac notes give a subtle roundness to the drink, while the gin offers some bracing botanicals. I'm eager to try this again with a stronger Earl Grey component, and am confident that it will make a fine cold weather drink.

Take my advice and, if you haven't already, shake off whatever stigma you've ascribed to liqueurs. As long as you consume in moderation, talk to your kids, and keep your car keys in your pocket where they belong, no tragedies will befall you as a result. You might even discover a new favorite. Besides, when was the last time Houston had an ice storm?

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