Though it tends to conjure up images of drinks that fall, quite literally, under a tropical blue umbrella, Curaçao, in its clear, less ostentatious form, has long been used as a modifier, bridging flavors in classic drinks like the Mai Tai and the Margarita. But defining Curaçao—and distinguishing it from other, similarly flavored liqueurs—is another matter entirely; as a category, its boundaries are historically unclear.
Apples and Oranges
Put bluntly, “Curaçao is an umbrella term for orange liqueurs,” including Triple Sec, says cocktail historian David Wondrich, explaining that bottlings tend to range both in sweetness and in bitterness. It’s a fact that’s caused plenty of disagreement, even among bartenders, on how to define the liqueur on a broader level. Whereas Caña Rum Bar’s Erbin Garcia suggests that Curaçao is typically on the sweeter end of the spectrum of orange liqueurs, BlackTail’s Jesse Vida prizes it for its depth and nuance. Erik Adkins of The Slanted Door, meanwhile, admits that it can be difficult to differentiate between brands as they’re used in cocktails. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there, or half information,” explains Wondrich, citing historic variation between recipes as cause for today’s widespread confusion.
Much of that has to do with regulation—or lack thereof. Originally created on the island of Curaçao in the 19th century, the liqueur is actually the successful byproduct of a failed endeavor: By the time the island colony was ceded to the Dutch in 1811, the sweet, Valencia oranges, originally planted by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, had become inedible and bitter—the trees being ill-suited to the island’s tropical climate and arid soil. The fruit peels, however, made a perfect base for the island’s namesake Curaçao, which would grow rapidly in popularity over the coming decades.
By century’s end, because there were no laws designating where or how Curaçao could be produced, an outcropping of new, orange liqueurs had appeared across Europe that would fall under that same umbrella—Grand Marnier, Mandarine Napoléon and Cointreau, among them—some of them sweeter in flavor. Add to that the Dutch penchant for coloring their liqueurs (“It’s no coincidence that blue Curaçao comes from . . . a Dutch colony,” explains Wondrich—blue versions began popping up in the 1930s and red variations as early as the 1890s) and it’s no surprise that Curaçao has become somewhat of a blanket term.
Most recently, Wondrich’s own Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao arrived on the market, the product of a project that he embarked upon a few years ago with Alexandre Gabriel, owner of Maison Ferrand. This 19th century-style spiced Curaçao, built on a Cognac base, is labeled as dry in a nod to its tart flavor. “The sugar [content] is a little lower,” explains Wondrich, comparing the liqueur to other bottles on the market, adding that its characteristic bitterness—a calling card of original island-distilled Curaçaos as opposed to those distilled in Europe—yields a perceived dryness on the palate.
While the choice of which Curaçao to use in drinks is largely a matter of personal preference, bartender’s agree on its value as a modifier. “It plays a strong role in connecting other flavors—Best Supporting Actor, if you will,” explains Vida. Wondrich agrees, noting that it plays an indispensable, yet subtle, role in drinks like the Pegu Club. “You don’t really know it’s there, but it adds richness,” he says.
Fittingly, at Caña Rum Bar in LA, Garcia calls on the liqueur as a staple for their list of classic cocktails, stirring it into his take on the El Presidente, among others. By upping the ratio of spirit to liqueur—combining two ounces of Ron Barcelo rum with equal parts Curaçao and dry vermouth—and replacing the traditional dash of grenadine with three drops of housemade pomegranate syrup, he offers a more balanced take on the 1920s Cuban original. Adkins, meanwhile, riffs on Jerry Thomas’s Improved Holland Gin Cocktail, in which he blends Curaçao (in this case, Grand Marnier) with genever, gum syrup and orange bitters, and serves it, nontraditionally, on the rocks.
With such variance between bottlings, it’s no surprise that some bartenders, Vida among them, call on not one but two varieties of Curaçao in their drink recipes. Though he asserts that it works well with both light and dark spirits (Curaçao is peppered throughout BlackTail’s Havana-inspired menu), Vida opts for a combination of rum and brandy in his Alexander, to which he adds a quarter ounce of Wondrich’s Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao alongside three quarters of an ounce of the sweeter Mandarine Napoléon liqueur. Finished with a float of cream and grated nutmeg, it’s a winterized drink that showcases the liqueur’s tremendous versatility—despite its sometimes hazy definition.