When I was a bartender many years ago, I didn’t work at the sort of establishment that boasted a signature cocktail list. The term “mixologist” hadn’t even been born yet. I was slinging drinks in a loud nightclub, where I was expected to show cleavage and, occasionally, mix a drink right in a customer’s mouth as I stood on the bar like it was a stage.
I did, however, have a signature drink: it was a called a Bazooka Joe and it tasted precisely like the bubble gum enclosed with little cartoon wrappers for which it was named. It incorporated Blue Curaçao, banana liqueur and milk. I know, the worst. The result was a creamy neon blue liquid and, in many cases, similarly hued vomit sometime later.
Today, you might find Curaçao in a finely made Mai Tai or a sickly-sweet chlorine-colored Windex shooter, depending on what sort of bar you stumble into. The cocktail renaissance – especially the tiki revival – has the liqueur in hot demand. The problem with trying to recreate 50- or 100-year-old recipes that call for Curaçao is that today’s version of the liqueur is nothing like what was used in those original recipes.
Over a conversation with the cocktail historian and author David Wondrich, Alexandre Gabriel, the president of Cognac Pierre Ferrand, got to thinking that maybe he needed to make a new Curaçao — one that’s based on old Curaçao. “Bartenders are always looking for ‘real’ Curaçao,” Wondrich had assured him. Of course, before Curaçao (the liqueur) came Curaçao (the island). A little background is needed.
Discovered by Christopher Columbus’ lieutenant in the 15th century, Curaçao was, until very recently, the largest island in the Dutch Antilles. When it was still under Spanish rule, colonists brought with them the sweet Valencia oranges they grew back home. In the hot, dry climate of the island, however, the fruit turned out bitter and practically inedible. The groves were left to grow wild for decades until someone had the good sense to sun dry the peels and let them soak in some booze. And, thus, the liqueur was born. It wasn’t until the Dutch company Bols developed its own version of Curaçao and colored it blue that the liqueur became associated with its color.
The French got a taste for the bitter orange liqueur sometime in the 19th century. There were dozens of recipes for what came to be known as triple sec, including Combier, Cointreau and Grand Marnier. The latter is a different animal by basing its formula on true Cognac instead of neutral grain alcohol. Cognac Ferrand’s new Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao Ancienne Méthode was created in this spirit as well.
“We found maybe 50 different recipes,” said Gabriel over a nip of his Curaçao recently. “It’s delicious in coffee,” he added, duly spiking his cup.
After about a year of experimentation and research in close collaboration with Wondrich, a recipe was reached. It consists of Ferrand’s acclaimed Cognac, blended with unaged brandy, lightly toasted cane sugar, and the dried peels of Curaçao bitter oranges, as well as other ingredients, like sweet orange and lemon, grilled almonds and prunes. The result is a complex, bittersweet elixir designed to brighten a drink with a single dash (most classic recipes call for less than an ounce). The biggest surprise for those who are under the impression that Curaçao should be the color of toilet bowl cleaner: Ferrand’s is glowing amber. As far from Smurftastic as you want it to be.
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