The Untold Truth Of Triple Sec

If you drink margaritas, cosmopolitans, or sidecars, you need a good bottle of triple sec in your life. Triple sec lends a citrusy sweetness to many of your favorite drinks, and it's a versatile liqueur to have on hand in any home bar. Made from orange peels and sugar beets, triple sec is a clear spirit that contains about 20 – 40% alcohol by volume, depending on the brand. Though it's not usually drunk on its own, triple sec can be a tasty alternative to stronger spirits like whiskey or vodka. 

Triple sec has been around since the 1800s, when it was first created in France. Since then, it has become a staple in bars all over the world and on the shelves of liquor and grocery stores. There are all kinds of triple sec brands, from the popular Combier to generic versions. The next time you're browsing the aisles, we recommend picking up a bottle to add to your liquor cabinet — before you know it, you'll be mixing up margaritas like a pro!

There are different kinds of triple sec

Though triple sec is used in many different popular cocktails, it usually serves a supporting role, letting its own idiosyncratic identity fade into the background. As a result, many people don't actually know what triple sec is. This tasty liqueur is traditionally made using the peels of Curaçao oranges.

According to Delighted Cooking, Spanish orange farmers bred Curaçao oranges by accident in an attempt to produce Valencia oranges. Curaçaos turned out bitter and nearly inedible, until someone came up with the idea of using them to make booze.

These days, due to the popularity of triple sec, most brands don't even use Curaçao oranges; instead, they replace this specialty ingredient with other orange breeds. In fact, Curaçao Liqueur is the only distributor that sells triple sec made from the original bitter orange. But although the recipe has changed over the years, the difference in flavor is largely undetectable. Other popular triple sec brands include Cointreau, Combier, and De Kuyper.

It is used in many popular cocktails

As Fine Dining Lovers explains, triple sec can be sipped by itself, but it's best used to complement other spirits in various cocktails. Because of its unique taste and its combination of sweetness and acidity, it's the perfect addition to all kinds of drinks. If you think you've never had triple sec, you probably just didn't realize it was the secret ingredient in your favorite bar's margarita. 

A cosmopolitan, per Fine Dining Lovers, is made using just four ingredients: vodka, lime juice, cranberry juice, and triple sec. A margarita requires only three: lime juice, tequila, and triple sec. If you're in the mood for something a little stronger, a classic Long Island iced tea also makes use of triple sec, along with a glut of stronger spirits. The triple sec boosts this boozy cocktail's citrus flavor. Another cocktail that benefits from the citrusy taste of triple sec is a sangria; while sangrias are often made using sugary juices or pre-made mixes, A Couple Cooks suggests trying triple sec to add a more subtle, but delicious, flavor boost.

It was created in 1834

For almost 200 years, triple sec has been produced around the globe. This tasty liqueur was first created in 1834 by a Frenchman named Jean-Baptiste Combier and his wife (via Bar None Drinks). The couple owned and operated a candy shop in Saumur, France where they spent their days making and tasting different confections. To improve their chocolates, they often injected them with flavored liqueurs.

As the Combier website explains, after successfully selling their chocolates for a while, the liqueurs the Combiers used began to become even more popular than the confections themselves. People wanted to buy the liqueur on its own, and one in particular was especially popular — a citrusy one made using dried orange peels imported from the West Indies. 

In 1848, Jean-Baptiste Combier left the confection business to open a distillery so he could focus primarily on making and selling liqueurs. The distillery ended up being an overwhelming success, and the Combier brand remains a primary distributor of triple sec around the world to this day.

Why is it called triple sec?

Triple sec is a common ingredient in many cocktails, but the name itself is somewhat baffling. According to Bar None Drinks, the name comes from the drink's French origins: "sec" is the French word for dry. Triple sec originally was made using citrus from Haiti, but it was created and processed in the Loire Valley of France by confectioner Jean-Baptiste Combier. Though you might assume the name refers to the state of the orange peels when the alcohol is processed, in this case "sec" is actually translated as "distilled." Therefore, this liqueur is named for its production method: to make triple sec, the alcohol must be distilled three times to enhance flavor and quality. Distributors use large copper pots for this process, which helps to refine the liqueur's subtly sweet orange flavor. Three distillations concentrates the flavor of triple sec, according to Cook's Info, making it pungent without becoming overwhelming.

It's made using the peels of oranges

Like most alcohols, making triple sec is a complicated process. According to Steve the Bartender, orange peels are only one of the main ingredients in this popular liqueur. The spirit also uses sugar beets, which creates a neutral base, as opposed to more flavorful ingredients such as rye, corn, or sugar cane. When the base liquor has been created, dried orange peels are added. While Curaçao oranges are traditional, a variety of oranges are used for triple sec, and usually a mix of sweet and bitter fruits make the best liqueur. These oranges are picked when they reach their peak aroma, which is often before they turn orange. 

When the orange flavor has become concentrated by steeping in the spirit and then being distilled, sugar and water are added to the mixture so as to keep the orange taste from becoming overpowering.

It contains around 40% alcohol by volume

Triple sec is used mainly as an addition to other spirits and liqueurs to make well-balanced cocktails. Like most liqueurs, triple sec has a lower alcohol content than regular spirits like whiskey, vodka, or gin. As Clique explains, most liqueurs are sweeter and less strong than classic liquors, a result of the dilution process that differentiates the two. Triple sec usually contains about 20 – 40% alcohol/volume, depending on the brand you purchase. As Difford's Guide explains, higher quality triple sec will fall somewhere in the higher end of this range. You'll want to look for something around 38 – 42% alcohol/volume if you're aiming for high quality triple sec.

Drinking triple sec straight is a good option if you're looking for a less boozy drink — triple sec on the rocks or neat has an alcohol content somewhere between a glass of wine and a shot of whiskey.

In a pinch, other liqueurs can take the place of real triple sec

Triple sec can be a valuable addition to any home bar; it's great in all kinds of cocktails and can even be sipped on its own. But if you happen to run out of triple sec, or you can't find it at your local liquor store, don't worry — you've got options.

One of the best triple sec substitutes is Grand Mariner. The flavors are so similar to triple sec, you likely won't be able to tell the difference, especially when the liqueur is mixed into a margarita or a cosmo. According to The Kitchen Community, Grand Mariner is a bit less sweet than regular triple sec, so it can be a good option for cocktail drinkers who don't have a sweet tooth. 

For an even less sweet option, The Kitchen Community recommends using brandy as a triple sec substitute. While this may result in the loss of some of that fresh orange taste, the brandy will provide a unique depth of flavor to cocktails that might otherwise be on the sweeter side.

The best triple sec brands of the year

Not all triple sec bottles are created equal, and if you want to truly improve your cocktail game, you'll want to invest in the best the market has to offer. Triple sec is a key ingredient in many drinks, and if you want those cocktails to taste as delicious as they do at your favorite bar, you'll need quality ingredients.

"Growing up in Mexico, I wasn't a huge fan of triple sec," Yatsumi Yuso Ruiz, a Denver-based bartender told "I really thought it ruined Margaritas, but Cointreau definitely changed my mind and now I use it for my home margs." Cointreau is a great variety of triple sec whose flavor is distinct without being overpowering.

Named after the creator of the original triple sec, it's no surprise that Combier is a top shelf liqueur. With its bittersweet citrus flavor, it pairs perfectly with margaritas. "Combier was the first triple sec ever made," Miami bartender Carlos Lopez told "Enough said."