Monday, January 18, 2010

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

(This here is an addition to my comparison from a few months ago; I'm adding the text below to that post, as well as giving it its own fair shot at the front page. Enjoy!)

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. I'd like to know what cocktails you'd put Tuaca in. I found a recipe for a "B-55" on a site which I'm trying now:

    Equal parts:
    Irish cream

    Not bad. But I need some more ideas to finish this bottle. I can't really sip it for long and I'm tired of Tuaca-and-Coke.

  2. I've been becoming less and less a fan of creamy/sugary dessert-type drinks lately. Eh, maybe I'm getting old. I've never tried the monstrosity you describe, but I did mix Tuaca with some Cask and Cream once and it just didn't do it for me. Tuaca with Coke works, but only to the extent that Coke with anything brown and full of alcohol works (the result typically just ends up as delicious, dirty, boozy Coke).

    My suggestion? Ounce of Tuaca, ounce of bourbon (something on the moderately spicy side - Maker's Mark won't do it), a dab of bitters, and a few drops of water to open her up. Stir, add a fat-ass ice cube and maybe a cherry, and sip. Call it a Tuaca Manhattan, maybe. This has been my favorite cocktail using the stuff, although I've only made it a few times. Perfect for hot summer nights. I'm convinced it's possible to do better, though.

  3. I really disagree with this review. Once i did a lot of testing with Grand Gala vs. La Belle as a low cost alternative. One was very very good and the other was terrible. It has been a couple years since I've tasted either but it would be nice to get an honest accurate review w/o me having to go buy a bottle of each.

  4. In comparing orange liqueurs, I find Solerno to be the epic choice. The Blood Orange creates an amazing liqueur

  5. My Margarita is 1-1/2 oz. Tequila, fresh lime juice, Solerno. 1/2 ounces Agave nectar. Best rocks Margarita ever