Spirits & Liqueurs Liqueur

What the #$@! Do I Do with This? Cointreau: What It Is and How to Use It.

Go beyond the Cosmo.

Cointreau bottle illustration

Liquor.com / Laura Sant

You bought a spirit or liqueur because a cocktail recipe called for a very minute amount. Now you’re stuck with the remaining 9/10ths of the bottle and what to do with it. No worries. Bartenders weigh in with tips and recipes for getting every last drop out of an underutilized ingredient so it doesn’t gather dust on your bar cart.

It is a key ingredient in some of the world’s most beloved cocktails yet often gets unfairly mixed up with other orange-flavored bottles. We’re talking about Cointreau, the French liqueur that dates back to 1849 and is indispensable in both a Cosmopolitan and a Sidecar and often makes an appearance in Margaritas, as well. But its profile is not exactly what it appears.

“People don’t understand that Cointreau is dry and think it makes a Margarita sweet, but that’s just not the case,” says Ivy Mix, the head bartender and co-owner of Leyenda in New York City and author of “Spirits of Latin America.” “Cointreau brings such necessary depth and freshness to the mix; it has body and some sweetness but is more robust due to its proof.” She believes it best marries with the earthy qualities found in agave spirits, where its orange notes also brighten the citrus juices often found in tequila- and mezcal-based cocktails

Cointreau’s production method is what gives it its heady yet relatively dry character, according to Dominic Alling, the brand ambassador for the spirit. It’s distilled with a blend of sweet and bitter orange peels and retains a high level of essential oils, resulting in an aromatic spirit that doesn’t require much additional sugar. “Cointreau brings ingredients in a cocktail together for a more elevated, balanced drink,” he says. 

Amanda Carto, the bar manager of Nickel City in Austin, Texas, says that Cointreau “is inventive and playful, while providing an important flavor to your cocktail experience.” It lends an extra boost to drinks incorporating jams or fruit purées, and its tinge of orange works well with herbs or spices in drinks. She thinks Cointreau’s neutral beet sugar distillate plays well with lighter spirits such as vodka, gin and unaged or lightly aged tequila or rum. 

The backbar at Nightmoves in Brooklyn is small, with just one type of alcohol in each category. Cointreau fills the orange liqueur niche. It’s also used as a stabilizer in the bar’s citrus solution, in which it’s mixed with acid, cane syrup and water and used for the bar’s forced carbonated draft cocktails such as the Sparkling Cosmopolitan. “One misconception is that all orange liqueurs are the same, and thus they’re interchangeable,” says bar director Orlando Franklin McCray. Not so. “The liqueur that you use has a huge impact on the balance of your cocktail.” 

  • Upper Cut

    Upper Cut cocktail

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    “Cointreau has the benefit of being 40% ABV, so it can really carry a cocktail and be the star of the show,” says Mix. “Try using it as the base and using your more traditional base spirits as the modifier.” She uses nearly twice as much Cointreau as cachaça in this citrusy cocktail.

    Get the recipe.

  • High Tide

    High Tide cocktail

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    “Cointreau plays well with so many base spirits [yet] people forget about its versatility outside of the Margarita,” Carto says of the brand that dates back to 1849. “You see Cointreau called out as an ingredient in several classic cocktail books throughout time.” It’s also used in modern creations such as this one, which evokes a whiskey highball/Whiskey Sour mashup that gets a touch of earthiness from green tea syrup.

    Get the recipe.

  • Black Mole Margarita

    Black Mole Margarita

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    “Cointreau is one of the more versatile liqueurs [and] we use it with every spirit at Nightmoves,” says McCray. “It works great in our draft cocktails.” At the bar, this Margarita twist is dispensed via forced carbonation, which can be replicated at home using a SodaStream or iSi charger. In this version, it’s shaken, served over ice and topped with soda water for a similar effect.

    Get the recipe.