In the beginning, when still you were apprenticing at entertaining, you showed that your apartment parties were a cut above the standard fridge-packed-with-canned-beer affair by purchasing vodka (to supplement the centerpiece of your occasion, a fridge filled with canned beer). Maybe it was a round-shouldered bottle of Absolut, maybe it was a plastic tank of Popov, but probably the liquor you put out was vodka, a little something for the ladies and non-beer-swilling fellas to mix with juice and soda. Maybe also there was a comfortably priced bottle of whiskey or some other sipping liquor for your guests to slam, like a liquid blunt instrument.
In the fullness of time, your tastes developed, as did (one hopes) your solvency, and those standard beer bashes evolved. You started setting up a basic bar, or at least started setting out an array of liquor bottles, none of them made from polyethylene terephthalate. You perhaps followed the standard advice on assembling a home bar with brandy, gin, rum, tequila, whiskey, and vodka, or you developed your liquor cabinet by concentrating on one drink or spirit that floated your boat and expanding from there. Like a bonafide grown-up, you bought and refrigerated some vermouth. You’ve come a long way, ladies and laddies.
Now what? Beyond the basics, what one bottle will elevate your occasion to a full-fledged—or, OK, like, at least three-quarters-fledged—cocktail party? Which one liqueur will serve you best? What’ll it be, bub?
Orange liqueur is the red-letter bottle.
Speaking of orange liqueur, we are speaking of such sweet concoctions as triple sec and curaçao, but we are not talking about the budget-level triple secs at the bottom of the back of the dive bar. (We shall not even acknowledge blue curaçao, a fluid most famous for adding an azure idiocy to spring-break drinks and for resembling Windex in more ways than one.) No, we are speaking of a building block of such classics as the margarita, the Sidecar, and the White Lady. The basic formula for those shaken drinks—liquor + orange liqueur + lemon or lime juice—translates so that you may build a successful simple sour around any liquor in the world. Moreover, a mere few dashes will fancy up a basic stirred drink like the old-fashioned or the Manhattan. Indeed, by definition, a “fancy cocktail” is one with curaçao in it.
But of the classic coterie of orange liqueurs, which is the best for the casual or occasional home mixologist? I am inclined to put in a good word for Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, which is both novel (launched last year) and venerable (based on a 19th-century recipe). It’s not expensive (savvy shoppers shouldn't have to pay the $32.99 list price), but it’s bottled so handsomely as to seem quite suave indeed, and these qualities further recommend it as a hostess gift.
To understand the nuances among your other options, consult the chart on page 305 of The Drunken Botanist. Here, author Amy Stewart reminds us that all-purpose Cointreau—popular with mixologists and ecdysiasts alike—gets its oomph from distilled sugar beets and its va-va-voom of flavor from sweet and bitter orange peel, while the more complex Combier—the world’s first triple sec—is flavored with bitter Haitian and sweet Valencia oranges. Grand Marnier, meanwhile, is based on cognac and fun with crepes. It’s so rich with vanilla and spice that some restaurants offer it as an after-dinner drink, and you may count yourself suave by offering it as a post-prandial libation. Caveat: The only person I’ve ever seen drink Grand Marnier neat is Peter O’Toole, and you do not want to be serving a drink to anybody who drinks like Peter O’Toole. Too much property damage. We’re trying to have a civilized drink here.