Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Gran(d)-Off: Grand Marnier vs. Gran Gala vs. Gran Torres vs. Harlequin vs. La Belle Orange vs. Tuaca

I love knock-offs. As a member of the Napster generation I find in myself no real passion for intellectual property rights, and this carries through in my long-time love of cynical copies of established products. I cannot in good conscience spend money on licensed cereal when Frosted Mini-Spooners are to be found just down the aisle; I'm convinced that, if my dystopian future-city is being destroyed by crime, Robert Cop 3 will do just fine in protecting it (and on a budget, at that); and, if I were to ever direct a B-rate action movie, I'd immediately cast Treat Motherfucking Williams. It's just a weird aesthetic thing I have.

Then again, the reason why most people ever buy knock-offs is because it's cheaper. This is a reasonable point: after all, those of us in the Napster generation will also be paying off college debt well into our sixties, so we have to cut corners somewhere.

And yet, for some reason, for the most part we don't buy knock-offs. We ignore generic Acetaminophen (usually with an appealingly bland name, like Nice Value) and buy Tylenol. We snub the Hyundai Genesis and buy a Lexus GS or an E-class. We skip the Naxos recording of the Mahler 8 and buy the one off Sony Classical. Why?

Surely not because the original is better. Sometimes it is, of course, but not enough to explain the tendency.

Nor do I think it's about conspicuous consumption. To be sure, there's something inescapably petit-bourgeois - or worse, cultish - about buying something entirely for the prestige of the brand, and those who'll shell out for German cars or for whatever happens to have "Apple" stamped on it should be called on their shit. But while this explanation makes sense for cars and clothes and accessories (and to a certain extent a laptop or a mp3 player is an accessory), it doesn't make much sense for (say) root beer. We buy A&W, not Shasta, and not because we want to impress our friends.

In the end, I think we tend to buy "originals" because we often don't know any better - or, more to the point, we think we don't. Stuck in a store, trying to decide between two sorts of instant pancake mix, I buy the one I've heard of. Why? Because, while the other one may work just fine, I can't be sure about it. And so I will go on kicking an extra dollar or so to the bigger brand each time, not because it's necessarily better but because I don't want to take a chance on something that I don't consider under my ken. This state of affairs will continue until something changes.

So what changes? How does the change happen? A friend who's tried the cheaper pancake mix talks to me about it; I see it reviewed with approval online, or in a consumer magazine; in investigating, I find that both mixes share a supplier and are substantially the same thing. Let us call this kind of thing an doxic event. A doxic event is an equalization of my knowledge, or (more importantly) an equalization of the perception of my knowledge. I may (strictly speaking) have still had no real experience of the thing, but I gain a sense of familiarity with it regardess. I feel safe buying it. In any case, with both boxes of mix operating on more or less the same level, I am far freer to choose for the other option. And the internet, it seems to me, has a very special power to produce doxic events - it does so, for example, through reviews like this one.

But that's enough philosophy for one review. Assuming a kind of doxic equality among brands and excepting special circumstances and my own bizarre aesthetics, I would say this. When the real thing is substantially better, then it's worth buying. On the other hand, if a cheaper copy works just as well - and especially if it's better - well, why wouldn't you buy the knock off and pocket the extra green? Put it towards those student loans, why don't you.

And that leads me nicely to the topic of brandy-based orange liqueurs and the Gran(d)s.

Grand Marnier's been one of the granddaddies of orangey booze goodness for a long damn time. If you ever make yourself, for example, a high-class margarita, the liqueur that goes into it is probably either Marnier or Cointreau. Cointreau is something like curacao on meth (I like it a lot, but it's not really comparable to anything in this test). Grand Marnier, in contrast, is XO cognac infused with "the essence of wild tropical oranges," dialing back its rival's zest and brimstone assault in favor of something a little more sippable. The standard opinion on these two seems to go: you buy Cointreau to have a saber of firey orange and sugar to cut through your drinks, but you buy Marnier if you also regularly like to sip your liqueurs unmixed. For the latter's style, in general, is the perfect exclamation point to a fine night - many have been warmed for their walks home with a shot of Marnier over rocks.

Now, that sounds great, and it is. But here's the problem: Grand Marnier is a Brand, and that means a bottle will run you well over three Hamiltons. At that price point you're deep into single malt scotch territory, which is not a good place for a liqueur to be. And not just that: $33 is two bottles of Sailor Jerry's, three bottles of Sobieski, four six-packs of a good oktoberfest. All of which is a hell of an opportunity cost. People will continue to buy it, of course - it's a Brand, after all. But the price raises the question, Is it worth it?

Enter today's knock-offs, Grans Gala and Torres. Both these guys cost about $20, and you've probably seen them lurking on the shelf just below Marnier - the Carolans to its Bailey's, the Kamoras to its Kahlua. Heck, maybe you've even been tempted to buy one. Probably, though, you didn't, on the grounds that Marnier was a known quantity and the interlopers looked sketchy. Nevertheless, there they remain, waiting for the adventures of someone curious or poor enough.

So what are Gran Gala and Gran Torres, anyways? Well, they're not French, for one thing: Gala is Italian and made by Stock (yes, the vermouth guys), while Torres is Spanish and made by a company with possibly the most broken website in the entire world. Gran Gala's bottle is a shameless rip-off of Marnier's ribbon-and-seal look, while that of the Gran Torres (or just "Torres" here) is much more generic - just a green glass bottle with ORANGE in huge cursive letters on the front. Gala makes no claims to being anything but "Italy's answer to Grand Marnier," "a blend of VSOP brandy infused with the choicest oranges from around the world" (I particularly like the word "choicest" there). I like Gran Gala's attitude: it knows it's a knock-off, and doesn't pretend to a long proud tradition behind it. Torres, in contrast... well... "In Spain, in the 19th century, Jaime Torres recovered a secret recipe for an ancestral liqueur that had reached the Antilles islands during Columbus' travels." C-O-L-U-M-B-U-S!!! Now THAT is a tradition. Nya nya, Grand Marnier, we were making our orange booze while you guys were still under the Ancien Régime. Anyways, it also claims a whole hodgepodge of ingredients that's too long to list here, but which sound absolutely delicious.

I've now poured my rocks glasses with the three liqueurs. Gran Torres is the lightest of the three in color, a very gentle gold, while the Marnier is a few shades down the line. The Gran Gala is WAY darker, bordering on a rusty red. If you handed it to me and said it was whiskey I'd probably believe you, if it weren't for the smell. And good LORD, the smells of these things. Taking a closer whiff, Grand Marnier smells like - well, like orange juice cognac, really. There's a slight edge from the alcohol, of course, but overall it scents the smoothest of the three. Gran Gala smells like a tangerine on fire. It's harsher than a birthday breakup, although it's not necessarily unpleasant. The Torres, in contrast to the other two, doesn't smell like pulp so much as zest, mixed with some indeterminite other scents. Is that cinnamon back there, maybe some mint? Whatever it is, it's very nice indeed, despite being nearly as firey as the Gala.

Okay, down the hatch.

First, the Marnier. Sweet, and more sweet. It's more complex than its scent would let on, but not by much. After a touch of cognac cloves on the front end, it's just sugary orange for a long, long time. Way too much sweetness for my taste (and I'm a sweet tooth if there ever was one), although I can't quite call it cloying. It's as if someone dropped a packet of sweet n low in my bottle before they shipped the thing. At the very end I get a hint of a burn, followed by just a touch of orange acid. Generally though, Marnier is not the bottle for people who dig some sour in their orange liqueur: this stuff is comfort food, it's candy. It strikes me as the sort of thing that most of the 20-something office girls I have known would absolutely swear by. It's quite smooth for an 80-proof quasi-cognac too - something I chalk up to the age of the stuff - but in my case even this works against it. The age of the cognac base keeps the stuff from being too hot, but as a result it ends up something much worse: it's boring. Sweet, smooth, easy to drink, and probably pretty good in the right cocktail, but there's just no sparkle.

Next, the Gran Gala. Wow, today's show is brought to you by the letter HEAT and the number FIRE. It's not exactly Wild Turkey 101, but as a child of bourbon I feel very much at home here. There's definitely more going on in the Gala than in the Marnier, for better or worse. It's still quite sweet, but a lot of it's been dialed back in favor of an almost lemony sourness. Towards the end a strange, almost chemical astringency pops in - I'm not sure what it is or whether I like it, but it's interesting. This demonic citrus taste holds on for awhile, is momentarily overcome by the alcohol explosion, reasserts itself, then fades off into a very pleasant sweet and sour orange aftertaste. Well, this is exactly the kind of orange liqueur I would have expected from the country that brought us the Lamborghini Countach. My office girl friends, I'm afraid, are not going to like this one. No, they're going to run for the hills the moment they see it coming 'round the corner, its gigantic mediterranian testes swinging about in the wind. Their loss. For drinking neat I think I slightly prefer this over the Marnier, but I could see a reasonable person going the other direction: it's a question of sugary elegance versus stomping-mad passion, Faure versus Verdi.

Finally, the Gran Torres. Holy lord, I love this stuff. There's way more initial spice on the front end than the other two (which don't give you much of anything before the sweetness bites). It tingles all the way down, in fact, which I'm chalking up to its mad ingredients list. The star player here is orange zest, as the smell suggested, but unlike the other two's close focus on sweet or sour orange pulp there's a heck of a lot more going on here. Cinnamon again, cardamom, black pepper, mint leaves... I could go on. There's just a flurry of flavors in this thing. The sugar's even more subdued than in the Gala, which (for me) makes it easier to take. At the end there's a lot of heat, almost as much as the Gala, while the rest of the flavors and the general tingliness hang on until the next sip. Man, what a hyperactive drink. As far as drinking neat goes, the Gran Torres beats the other two hands down. It's like rereading a really great novel: I'm finding new things with every mouthful, whereas the Marnier and the Gala are out of ideas around sip two or three. On the other hand, with the flavors this diffuse I worry about how it'd come out in a cocktail. The Torres' mystery and subtlety, as well as it plays in a snifter, might simply be muffled if all one needs is a cosmopolitan for a cute date.

Speaking of mixing, I suppose I should probably try these things out in some drinks; they may be relatively high class, but they're liqueurs after all. Time for me to break out the lemons and tequila, then.

Now, he margaritas I'll be mixing are going to be stronger on the liqueur than I typically make them. Normally I use about a 8:3:2 ratio of tequila to orange liqueur and lemon juce, but here I'm using 3:2:1 (i.e. about 33% liqueur); the hope is that this will allow the stuff to come to the forefront a bit more. I'll be drinking the 'ritas in the same order as before: Marnier, Gala, and finally Torres. For the record, I'm expecting that first two will be very different but about equally good, and that the Torres will fall a bit flat.

And here we go.

With the Margamarnier I was looking forward to a fairly sweet drink, with the Marnier's sugar being balanced off against the lemon. It ended up being unlike anything I was expecting. Most of the Marnier's presence is in the smell, which remains dominated by the sugary tropical oranges I scented before. When mixed, though, the sweetness of the stuff just doesn't come through as I was expecting; there's a little bit of sweet orange right up front and starting to move back, but the rest of the taste is dominated by the lemon juice (and at 1/6 of the mix, there's not even that much lemon in this!). I wasn't looking for the assertiveness of a Cointreau here, but I was expecting the Grand Marnier to show its character far more than this. Disappointing.

After the Margamarnier I was ready for anything, but the Margalarita is pretty much exactly how you'd expect it to be - with the exception of the smell. The tangerines I'd scented out before have completely disappeared, in favor of a kind of bland margarita odor. Actually drinking the stuff, though, things improve by a lot. Unlike with the Margamarnier, the Gala is very present in this. It's very, very sweet, for one thing. This really comes off as the sweetest of the three drinks by a decent margin, and I suspect it'd be worryingly easy to down about a dozen of these in a sitting. Even better, now that it's in a drink that strange astringency I tasted before starts to make sense. It breaks out of the general sugar-and-lemon taste like a clarion call, and adds a nice little extra thrill to the mix. On the whole, this is a damn good (not spectacular) margarita. If only I could do something about that smell...

Finally, there's the Margatorres. The smell is - well, it's basically Gran Torres and margarita. Which isn't the greatest scent in the world, but it still comes off better than the Margalarita. Drinking it, my first impression is how well the orange peel taste harmonizes with the lemon. The varieties of sourness are the stars of the show here. This thing isn't quite as sweet as the Margalarita, but drinkability-wise it'd still be very easy to make a night of it. On the downside: though the orange peel taste is great, the liqueur loses quite a bit of its style in its move to a mixer - just as I feared. None of the really subtle stuff that I was picking up before shows up in the Margatorres, and that's a damn shame. Overall, there's way less to separate these three in a mix than in the sipping contest. I think the Gran Gala produces the best margarita of the bunch, despite its sucky nose, but to be honest I'm not bowled over with the performance of any of these guys.

So, this concludes the drinking I'll be doing tonight. Let me first repeat the question from before. Grand Marnier - is it worth it? Answer: well, no, not really. For those who prefer their liqueurs smoother and sweeter, with price being no object, it's surely the way to go. But me, I just couldn't force myself to get excited about it: both in a rocks glass and in a margarita, it's underwhelming. On the other hand, in the nights that I've had these three when I've downed a beer or two and I've just wanted an ounce of something pleasant to cash me out for the night, I've found myself going for the Marnier almost as often as the Torres. It's simply better at that palatte-cleansing task than the Gran Gala. And though the bourbonhead in me doesn't want to admit it, in the end this makes it a better sipper than the Italian stallion. And heck, I'll give it this as well: it has by far the best bottle design.

So the original isn't demonstrably superior, and that means the cheaper knock-offs win it. They are, happily, just as good or better. The Gran Gala wins the mixing contest by a nose, while the Gran Torres is by far the most exciting to sip neat. So, how do you choose between the knock-offs, then? Well, if you're only going to be mating this stuff with tequila, then... actually, you should just buy some Cointreau, really. But Gran Gala is the best of the choices here, if that's your thing. Otherwise, for God's sake buy the Gran Torres. It's not bad in a mix, and it'll take me years to sort through all the favors of the stuff.

And with that I wrap up. The conquistador is the surprise winner here, and not by a small margin. If only all knock-offs were this good, we'd have no need for originals.

Grand Marnier
Grade: B+
Summary: A sweet, very smooth, but overpriced and ultimately somewhat dull brandy-based orange liqueur.

Gran Gala
Grade: B+
Summary: More sour and much more firey than the Marnier, this liqueur is the (relative) best of the three for mixing.

Gran Torres
Grade: A
Summary: Also a good mixer, but far more interesting sipped neat. Holds more secrets than J. Edgar Hoover.


ADDENDUM, Jan. 18 2010:

So it's now about two months after my initial Gran(d)-Off comparison of various brandy-based orange liqueurs. I concluded that Grand Marnier was the smoothest, Gran Gala was (by a nose) the best for mixing, and Torres was the most interesting for sipping and the best booze all-round. I was never fully satisfied with the results, though, for two reasons. First, those three bottles by no means exhausted the sheer mass of the liqueurs of this sort on the market. The main impetus to go back to this comparison and add some more shit was discovering two (2) new bottles - Harlequin and La Belle Orange - during my trip east for the holidays, and also buying a fifth of Tuaca in a moment of weakness. I now have six bottles of this stuff to work through (pity me); more importantly, it means I may have to reassess the standings from before. Second, I was less than satisfied with my choice of cocktail from the last time, namely, the margarita. I have since discovered, through some experimentation, that this is just not a good drink for investigating these liqueurs. A typical margarita needs something direct, highly orangey, and very sweet - it needs triple sec, in other words, not something that gives away brute strength for brandy subtlety. As far as classic cocktails go, sidecars tend to work much, much better with these liqueurs, so that's what I'm using this time around.

So, this addendum will do two things. First, I'd like to sip these three new bottles and see how they compare to the earlier ones. Second, I want to retest all the liquors' mixing potential in a simple bourbon sidecar. Everything gets a new grade at the end, and we come one step closer to knowing where we stand when it comes to orange-infused brandies.

If any one of these liquors is going to get you accused of being a horrible cheapskate, it's Harlequin. It screams "IMPORTED FROM FRANCE" just about everywhere, but looking at the label from a distance you'd think it was a $10 fifth of bottom-shelf whiskey. From the goofy jester design to the fake wax seal, it just looks kind of sad. No mention at all of who actually makes this stuff, but it's imported by something called "Premium Imports Ltd." Ringing any bells? No? How about the fact that PI is located in Bardstown, Kentucky?? You know about Bardstown, don't you? ...It's the place where certain a famous and rather huge distillery is housed?? Yup: the bunch selling Harlequin can be none other than our pals at Heaven Hill. They claim that it's "produced in France from a rich blend of the finest aged cognac and Mediterranean oranges renowned for their distinctive flavor" - and this is literally the only information I can find on the stuff. I can only presume it's sold to HH by the Illuminati or something.

La Belle Orange is also fairly obscure, albeit far less so than the Harlequin. This time it's imported by White Rock in Lewiston, Maine, which sells quite a lot of things I've never seen nor heard of. Still no telling who in France ultimately makes LBO, but at least the importers actually bothered to put up a section on their website for it this time. The bottle design itself is, overall, probably my favorite of all the liqueurs save the (much more expensive) Grand Marnier. LBO doesn't bother with a fake wax seal or a ribbon (unlike Gran Gala or Harlequin), but it's more appealing than the similarly humble Torres: just a big orange LB badge and a label on nice paper. On the other hand, it's the only thing here with a screw-off top, but I can't hold that against it too much. La Belle Orange claims to be a "marriage of sun ripened oranges and the finest cognac," and a "harmonious blend" of "rich fruity aromas and elegant cognac flavors." Hmm. Well, we shall see.

Tuaca is the odd duck here, especially among these two. Where they're more or less French attempts at a cheaper Grand Marnier, this (like the Gran Gala) is Italian. Second, at 35% ABV, it's significantly less strong than the other 80-proof bruisers I've got here. Third, and most importantly, it's not just orange we're dealing with this time. Rather, Tuaca is a brandy "artfully blended with hints of vanilla and orange flavors." The addition of vanilla already promises to make this more bizarre than my previous favorite, the Gran Torres, so I've got high hopes for this stuff. Also like the Torres, it claims to date back an absurd amount of time - like, 16th century absurd. Wikipedia, which is always right, claims that Lorenzo de Medici quaffed this stuff. That's pretty cool, and will (if nothing else) make a fine story for parties. Anyways, the bottle itself is classy but rather uneventful; it just looks like a generic brandy or something.

All right, enough cockteasing: I've now poured all three liqueurs into individual glasses for comparison, along with (smaller) samples of the original three liqueurs. First, there's the colors. Of the newcomers, Harlequin is definitely the lightest of the bunch, roughly on a par with Torres; both are a kind of gentle champagne color. The LBO is darker still, perhaps just a touch darker than the Grand Marnier. The real champion here, though, is the Tuaca, which is a thick rich gold even darker than the Gran Gala from last time.

Then there's the aromas. The most notable thing about Harlequin's smell is that it's a dead ringer for Grand Marnier. If you really try you can detect some subtle differences - the Harlequin comes across as slightly rougher, slightly hotter - but if I didn't have these two side by side I'd be completely fooled. Harlequin pulls off the cognac orange juice aroma thing almost perfectly; think of it, then, as Grand Marnier in a dirty t-shirt. La Belle Orange, again, smells most like the Marnier. It's not quite as good a copy as the Harlequin, but I think I might actually prefer it over both. If anything, though, it comes off as even sweeter and smoother, and maybe even a little lighter; you can think of it, then, as Grand Marnier in a schoolgirl uniform. The Tuaca, as expected, is totally unlike all of these other liqueurs. The aroma is - I don't know if I love it or hate it, to be honest. It's unique, to say the least. The nose is extremely rum-like; there's no hints of brandy in here at all, just a lot of wood, cola, maybe some orange at the edges, and above all, vanilla. And, despite the (relatively) low proof, this actually comes across as hotter than the others as well, about on par with the Gran Gala's heat. It's odd.

Now, though, we get into the stuff that matters: the tasting. Down the hatch. (Again.)

The Harlequin, true to its aroma, once again comes off as a cheaper, rougher twin brother to the Marnier. There's some sweet-and-sourness right up front, which then evolves into a very sweet (but hot) orange flavor that, well, doesn't really change. I get another splash of heat at the swallow, but that's really the most interesting thing it does. Like the Marnier, it's slightly cloying. Actually, it's just like the Marnier in almost all things, just less well-sorted about it. If GM were an XO version of a brandy, I would take Harlequin to be the VS. It's rougher, and it's weaker. Now, it's not bad - especially at $18 - but a copy is all it is, and a copy that's slightly worse than the original at everything.

Wow. If I thought Grand Marnier was sweet, La Belle is off the fucking charts. This stuff is really sweet: it's as if they took the sweet n low taste of Marnier and turned it up to eleven. It's so sweet, in fact, that I find it genuinely difficult to drink neat; I feel like it's going to throw me into a seizure or something. Right up front there's a familiar clovey bite, which then evolves into what can only be described as Mega-Marnier. It's sweet orange squared. It gets a little sour at the swallow, but that's the only real relief one gets. Not only that, but it's smoother and there's even less of a burn. Everything I liked (and hated) about Marnier is here, severely amplified. Sipped neat it's like being tackled by a linebacker smothered in sugar. That isn't to say it's bad - it isn't. But next time it's getting a few drops of water.

The Tuaca tastes more conventional (in many ways) than I was expecting from its aroma. It has a very minimal, very toned back orange taste remotely reminiscent of the Gran Gala, but then over that there's a strong current of vanilla. From the initial moments all the way up until the conclusion of the flavor development, it really does come across as a spiced rum of some kind. Only at the end do the flavors separate themselves, so you can tell it's a Marnieresque liqueur with a lot of vanilla rather than some kind of especially vanilla-y Sailor Jerry's. There's a little bit of a burn going down, but nothing like what I got from the nose. Here's the weird thing, though: the vanilla flavor makes it pretty heavy, but Tuaca's actually pretty pleasant to sip on its own (moreso than the other two newbies, anyways). I can't down it with anywhere near the speed of Torres, say - it's more of a savor-a-half-ounce-over-twenty-minutes kind of drink - but it definitely has an appeal. I have absolutely no clue how this'll do in a sidecar, but it definitely strikes me as something that mixing geeks would enjoy playing with.

Speaking of sidecars, I guess it's time to see what's what in the mixing realm. To repeat, I'll be making bourbon sidecars. I'll be using a a bourbon to liqueur to lemon juice ratio of 2:2:1 - that should be leaning towards the sweet side for a sidecar, but frankly I want some sweetness to shine through here. For this test I'll be using my go-to budget bourbon, the lovely (if somewhat rowdy) Evan Williams 1783, which I've been using to make sours as of late. The newbies go first, starting with the Harlequin.

Despite the already-low amount of lemon juice, the Harlecar comes out on the sour side of things. So far as I can tell, the Harlequin just folds: aside from a rather dull sweetness, it doesn't assert itself at all here. The sugar is there for the beginning of the sip and most of the middle, but by the end it goes very sour indeed. No real orange flavors are detectable, either. I found this sidecar rather lame, though it's by no means something I would turn down. All the liqueur is doing is providing a sweetener, and there are other things that do that job much better.

The Bellecar is next, and I was expecting the LBO to just give me another toothache with its sweetness. Instead this sugar-happy little liqueur surprises me: it's sweeter than the Harlequin, yes, but along with the sweetness comes a much more pronounced orange flavor and an unexpected amount of nuance. There's a kind of lemon candy opening to it, and then the orange juice tang cuts in at the end to deliver a very novel, almost bitter (but still sweet) blood orange twist. It's extremely nice, and I prefer this Bellecar to the Harlecar by leagues. Some will probably find it too sweet for a sidecar - I'm tempted to add more lemon to this next time I make it, and there will be a next time - but even with this version I find it delicious and refreshing.

And third comes the Tuacar, which is the real dice roll. Will it work? Will it be horrible? Well, it smells pretty awful. There's just a confusion of all sorts of flavors: first there's the vanilla and a bit of oak from the bourbon, and then a lot of lemon. Lemon and vanilla, just to tell you, are not good pals aroma-wise. In terms of taste, it's much the same story. The relatively subtle flavors of the Tuaca are completely covered over here, leaving only a messy and nearly-unrelieved lemon rush. Only in the aftertaste, when I start to breathe out vanilla, do I recall that I've actually been drinking a fairly nifty liqueur. As a drink, then, the Tuacar is a failure. It's the clear loser among these three, although this is reall an unfair test - a sidecar is just not the right drink for this stuff. I have some ideas about what would be, but that lies outside the scope of this test. (Since it's very rumlike, for example, could one use it like a rum? How about mixing it with cola?)

Now then, on to mixing the three from the previous test. The Marnicar is a really pleasant surprise, considering Marnier's rather lackluster showing last time. The first thing I notice is a really lovely aroma which is rather difficult to describe. Brandy suspended in a cloud of orange pulp, maybe. In terms of sweetness, it fits nicely in-between the Bellecar and the Harlecar - maybe leaning a little more on the side of the latter's subtlety. Sweetened lemonade is the first impression, but as it moves back the orange pulp starts to poke itself through so that by the swallow it's totally dominating the other flavors. It doesn't quite have the sharp fruity jab at the end like the Bellecar, but in exchange it's a little more laid back and balanced. I think I slightly - slightly - prefer the Bellecar, but which one I would choose would really depend on my mood. In any case, the Marnicar is a fine damn drink. It's reserved without being boring, it does a fine job whetting the appetite without being overly tart - it's the perfect apéritif.

Oh crap, it's the Galacar. Honestly, the more I've quaffed the Gran Gala, the less I've liked the stuff. When I initially started doing the taste test way back in November, I actually preferred its sour firey Italian personality over the rather boring Marnier. But, like hanging with a really rowdy friend, the charm ran out after awhile. Truth be told, Gala's just too damn harsh to enjoy on its own. On the other hand, it does still shine as a mixer, and it makes a fine showing here. The sour-orange-on-fire aroma is here right from the start, right out front, and that's not something I much care for. What I do like, on the other hand, is the taste. The lemon might as well not even be here - it's totally overpowered by the Gala, which immediately pushes its way to the front with (happily subdued) tangy orange tastes. It's surprisingly sweet, too, almost up there with the Bellecar, but the Galacar's finish is much more sour than the Bellecar's bittersweet blood orange. Again, it's tough to say which is best: factor in the aroma and I'd give it to the Belle by a nose, but for pure taste I honestly think that Gala might produce the best drink here.

Finally there's the Torrecar. It is, as I was expecting, a letdown. The aroma is wonderful, of course - it's got all the deep orange zestiness that I love about the stuff - but the taste just doesn't bear it out. Torres, as a sippin' liqueur, is all about little nuances and subtleties. Forced to provide the sweetener role in a classic cocktail, though - well, it does the job, but it loses everything that makes it special. All I get up front, again, is sweet lemon, which blossoms out slightly as it moves back but doesn't really do much. In a lot of ways this comes across like a better smelling, slightly sweeter, slightly tastier version of the Harlequin, and that's not quite good enough in this company. I love Torres with a burning passion, but none of what I like about it is here in this drink. Frankly, the Torrecar is a waste of the stuff.

And that's it - six liqueurs, six cocktails, and we're done. So, which is the best?

Well, as before, I think it finally depends on what you're using it for. The Gran Gala, if you can ignore the force of its aroma, remains the best mixer, followed by La Belle Orange and (maybe) the Grand Marnier. The Torres may be a mediocre mixer, but for my money it destroys everything else for sheer sipping joy (the bizarre Tuaca comes in at a very distant second). LBO and the Marnier are probably the best all-rounders. And Tuaca, well, that's something for the cocktail scientists among us. And, while we may not have a clear winner, we at least have a clear loser in the Harlequin. Harlequin isn't horrible, it's just weak and comparatively rough, and there's very little it does that the others can't do better. Its only significant plus is that it mimics the classic Grand Marnier flavor and aroma better than anything else here. If you're a cheapskate, you could presumably use it to fake out your foodie friends.

And that leads the final point to be made: Grand Marnier is pretty good, but it's fuckin' expensive. Even the Harlequin, as weak as it is, is (I think) a better value for the money than Grand Marnier. And if that's the case even for the worst stuff here, it's doubly true for everything else. So, then, let the conclusions stand thusly: Harlequin is the clear loser, Grand Marnier is overpriced, and for everything else, go by your own needs and preferences.

Grand Marnier
Grade: A-
Summary: Smooth, sweet. It's good stuff, neither too strong nor too laid back, and it's relaxing to sip (if a little one-dimensional). And it works well in a drink, used properly. But at $32 a pop, it isn't really worth it.

Gran Gala
Grade: B+
Summary: Vile but interesting. The aroma's way too pungent and it's hard to sip neat, but it mixes like a champ.

Gran Torres
Grade: A
Summary: Smells and sips the best of anything here. Incredibly nuanced stuff on its own. But if it's a mixer you want, well, subtlety isn't really the way to go.

Grade: B-
Summary: It's a cheap knockoff of Grand Marnier. Period. Pour it into an old GM bottle and pretend not to be the shallow cheapskate that you are. I won't tell if you don't.

La Belle Orange
Grade: A-
Summary: Grand Marnier Xtreme. Even smoother and sweeter, and that can be good or bad depending on taste. It does cost about 40% less, though, and that's a lot.

Grade: B
Summary: Odd, vanilla-y orange liqueur. Nice enough for sipping neat (slowly), but I suspect its real brilliance lies in finding the right cocktails for it.


  1. Been mixing Gran Gala with ritas and pretty good, just now trying the La Belle and it's different but both mix well for ritas.
    Have not tried the others yet and always use 100% agave tequila for Margaritas.

  2. Love the Cadillac Margaritas at El Torito...they are made w/Gran Marnier. Had my first margarita last eve w/Gran Gala...I COULD NOT EVEN FINISH IT! It was SOOOOOO bad! So, I would really have to disagree w/your findings...I guess it's all a matter of what you like...not what everyone else would like!

  3. I enjoyed your post! I would rank
    Marnier first, Harlequin second,
    Grand Gala third based on a fair
    amount of experience.