Grand Marnier secrets: how the liqueur is made

Plus: Sweet liqueurs to try at home


I am not a sweets person. Stinky cheese or crème brûlée isn’t a difficult choice for me. Same thing with chips versus chocolates. 

But I most certainly am a booze person, so it’s kind of embarrassing to admit that my experience with liqueurs (spirit-based drinks with cavity-boring amounts of residual sugar) has been limited to mixed cocktails, sipping (or slamming) amari and occasionally staining my maw green with Chartreuse. (I refuse to elaborate on my delirious late-night flings with RumChata.)

Until I was lucky enough to see for myself, I had next to no clue how Grand Marnier, one of the world’s most recognizable liqueurs and a product stocked at every single bar I’ve ever worked behind, was made. Apart from the fact that oranges and Cognac were contained in the familiar squat bottle wrapped in red ribbon and sealed with wax, I had no clue what was going on.

Grand Marnier, for those who’ve never visited a bar or peeked into their grandmother’s sideboard, is a famous French triple-sec. That term literally (and entirely ironically) means triple-dry, but connotes orange liqueur.

Before citrus even enters the equation, Marnier-Lapostolle works with 450 contract distillers across the Cognac region and a handful of professional distilleries to source its eau de vie, which, like all cognac, is distilled primarily from Ugni Blanc, the most widely planted white grape in a country overflowing with vineyards. Ugni Blanc is like the ugly duckling of varieties: it makes a gross wine that, once distilled and matured, becomes a gorgeous eau de vie.

Regional law states that eau de vie can only be distilled between November and March before the age of refrigeration, these were the months when warm weather didn’t threaten to spoil the wine before it made it to the still. During the winter months, distilleries in Cognac run more or less 24/7. The eau de vie is double-distilled in specific Alambic Charentais stills, all copper with elegant onion-shaped tops. 

The heads and tails (the first and last runs of spirit that don’t make the distiller’s cut) are used to macerate kilos upon kilos of bitter green orange peel from Haiti. (Oranges too acidic for consumption are hand peeled and sun dried before making the journey to France, where they scent entire warehouses.) After maceration, the orange essence is redistilled before it’s married with a blend of base cognacs.

Apart from grapes and oranges, Grand Marnier draws its flavour from French oak barrels. The warm, exotic spice tones of the wood complement the spirit’s inherent fruitiness. A lot of sugar is also added – like, a lot – but I’ll spare you the figures for the sake of your blissfully ignorant enjoyment. 

And how does one drink Grand Marnier? Topped with Champagne or with coffee. Neat aprés dinner. Should you find yourself in the company of generous, tasteful individuals and the opportunity arises, let some Grand Marnier 1880 ($399.95/750 ml, Vintages 415091) wet your lips and glide down your throat. Made from a blend of XO cognacs from Grande Champagne (home of the most desirable vineyards in the region), it’s utterly plush yet drier than most Grand Marnier expressions, packed with candied orange, baking spices, oak and roasted hay. Magnifique!

Get sweet on liqueur

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Becherovka Original Liqueur

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Why This spicy herbal Czech liqueur dates back to the early 1800s, when it was first poured as a stomach tonic. Too many schnitzels? Throw some Becherovka at the problem. Its best modern application is in cocktails.

Price $28.95/750 ml

Availability Vintages 603456

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Chartreuse Green 

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Why The only liqueur more cultish than Fernet-Branca (if you really want to impress a bartender, try to score a bottle of super-strength Elixir Vegetal), Chartreuse is still made by French monks in the hills of Voiron. The secret recipe, which calls for a blend of 130 botanicals, is kept by a duo of Carthusian brothers who also oversee the aging process. Tastes indescribable, but here goes: a deep-forest fairy garden showered with sucre.

Price $33.45/375 ml

Availability LCBO 37333

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Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur 

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Why Investing in a bottle of maraschino will pay off for eons. A teaspoon at a time should do, unless you have a daiquiri obsession of Hemingway proportions or host a routine cocktail hour starring Last Words, the drink that features a hefty Chartreuse pour. As my pal and fellow booze geek Adam McDowell recently pointed out, it’s also delicious drizzled over fruit salad Italian-style. 

Price $26.80/750 ml

Availability Vintages 57448

What we’re drinking tonight

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Laphroaig 15 Year Old

This now-discontinued bottling from one of Islay’s legacy distillers might be the furthest thing from a liqueur, which is exactly what some of us need right now. Not to deny its voluptuous allure – Laphroaig 15 is rich, malty and fruit-soaked – but its in-your-face iodine and super-smokey profile is just what the doctor ordered if you’re not in the mood for super sweet. It’s almost gone for good: buy it now or kick yourself forever.

Price $184.95/750 ml

Availability LCBO 434126

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