The best cocktails are often the most basic ones — two- or three-ingredient classics that are complex in flavor yet simple to execute. The Martini and Manhattan certainly fall into this category, but so does the Margarita, a straightforward classic that is usually made with just three ingredients—tequila, lime juice and orange liqueur.
Of course, there are variations to consider when making this drink. Perhaps you want to use a reposado tequila instead of a blanco, or maybe even swap out tequila for mezcal for a smoky version. But it’s the orange liqueur component that stirs up the most debate, with some firmly in the triple sec camp and others who swear by Cointreau.
Now, some bartenders forsake the use of orange liqueur completely, preferring to make Tommy’s Margarita, which is said to have originated at Tommy’s Mexican in San Francisco in the 1990s. In this version, agave syrup is used to sweeten the cocktail, giving it a flavor profile more focused on lime and agave notes.
Four Modern Riffs on the Tequila SunriseBartenders share their unique recipes for the beloved cocktail, with substitutions like blue curaçao, pineapple juice and tamarind syrup
But the Margarita that most of us are familiar with is usually made with some type of orange liqueur (some even use Grand Marnier, but that Cognac liqueur is another story). Technically, Cointreau is a type of triple sec. The triple sec category overall refers to orange liqueur from France produced by combining neutral grain spirit with sugar for sweetness and orange peels for flavor. Triple sec is usually low ABV (somewhere around 30 percent), while Cointreau is higher at 80 proof. There are a few craft triple secs to try, but the most common are those cheap bottles from brands like DeKuyper, Hiram Walker and Bols. Cointreau is basically a fancier version of triple sec made at a distillery in Saint-Barthélemy-d’Anjou, France, that has been around since 1885. The brand claims that it’s one-third of the “Original Margarita,” which it says was created in 1948 by Texan Margarita Sames (hence, the name) while on vacation in Mexico.
We asked a bunch of bartenders which they prefer to use in a margarita, and Cointreau seems to be much more popular among these industry professionals. There is a price difference between the two, with generic triple sec averaging around $10-$20 and Cointreau hovering around the $30-$40 mark.
One champion of the humble triple sec is Cristhian Rodriguez, beverage director at ElNico in Brooklyn. “Triple sec all the way!” he said. “I like to blend two different varieties, resulting in a balanced flavor profile for Margaritas. We use equal parts Combier, a French triple sec, and Pierre Ferrand, a dry curacao. This makes a versatile Margarita mix that plays well with different takes on the classic cocktail.”
Jeff Savage, head bartender at Botanist Bar at the Fairmont Pacific in Vancouver, acknowledges the price differential between the two choices and believes there is a place for both. “I’m hard-pressed to say definitively what is best in a Margarita, as in my experience it changes so much depending on the tequila used and where the citrus is coming from,” he said. “That being said, I’ll choose Cointreau. There are so many different options for triple sec, but on the whole, I do appreciate how much orange flavor is packed into Cointreau versus the sweetness it presents.”
That seems to be the general consensus among the bartenders and beverage experts we spoke to – triple sec will do just fine, but Cointreau is the better option and tends to be a higher quality spirit. “The category of triple sec has come to be associated with lesser quality orange-flavored liqueurs,” said Resa Mueller of R&D in Philadelphia. “Cointreau maintains a high standard with a bright flavor profile that doesn’t rely too heavily on sugar and allows the orange to shine through while also maintaining a high proof.”
According to mixologist and founder of The Cocktail Guru, Jonathan Pogash, using Cointreau isn’t just about flavor but also the history and story behind it. “It creates the ability to strengthen that hospitality and storytelling relationship bartenders have with guests,” he said. But if he had to choose a triple sec, it would be either Marie Brizard or Combier (and he’s also a fan of Pierre Ferrand’s Dry Curacao).
“I firmly believe that Cointreau is a much better addition to a Margarita because this is the old and classic version of the recipe,” said Roberto Santibañez, chef at Mexican restaurant Fonda in Brooklyn. Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez, co-owner of SUPERBUENO in New York City, appreciates Cointreau’s higher 40 percent ABV versus the 15 to 20 percent of some triple secs. But he also appreciates that sometimes you want something more affordable. “Triple sec is the more approachable version when it comes to price point, so it’s good to use if you want to keep costs low,” he said. “But Cointreau is worth the investment as it has a roundness that helps in building cocktails and stands up to more flavors for great Margaritas and more.”
Jesse Vida, operating partner at Cat Bite Club in Singapore, also likes Cointreau’s higher alcohol content. “Drinks should not only have a balance of ingredients but should also have mouthfeel,” he said. “Cointreau is 40 percent ABV and helps in the weight of the drink, and in addition to citrus it has an herbaceous, floral, and earthy taste to it that works well with agave.”
Finally, Patty Dennison, head bartender at Grand Army Bar in Brooklyn, says that the consistency of Cointreau just can’t be beat. “The best part about it is you always know what you are going to get,” she said. “The bright orange flavor and level of sugar are consistently the same to make a balanced Margarita. The issue with playing around with different triple secs is that the sugar content can vary, as they can be drier or sweeter, and you may need to add more or less to the beverage to get what you need from the product.”
The bottom line is that both regular old triple sec or fancy-pants Cointreau can be used to make a good Margarita, particularly if you have high-quality tequila and fresh limes on hand and are using the right proportions. But the experts’ choice seems to be definitive—Cointreau is a classic for a reason, and you should consider having a bottle on hand to use the next time you want to mix up a batch of Margaritas.
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