The most recent liquor sample to arrive at my door wasn’t one for which I had high expectations. The package contained two 750 ml bottles of Hiram Walker Triple Sec and, for comparison, one tiny bottle of Cointreau. To be honest, I was more excited about the Cointreau than the triple sec. Hiram Walker expected this and forthrightly acknowledged that Cointreau is an excellent product. Yet they also suggested that if recipients experimented with both orange liqueurs we’d be impressed by how well the triple sec stands up, especially at its much lower price point. In my case they were right.
Tasted neat, the Hiram Walker is noticeably sweeter; its oranginess is much more straightforward than the bitter orange peel flavor of Cointreau. At 60 proof it’s also smoother, whereas the 80 proof Cointreau has some heat to it. Unless you happen to drink a lot of straight orange liqueur, this probably isn’t all that interesting. What matters is how well it mixes in a cocktail. To test that I made samples of the three drinks for which I most frequently turn to Cointreau: the Pegu, the Margarita, and the Horatio (a concoction of Krogstad aquavit, Cointreau, Fernet-Branca, and orange bitters currently on my menu at Carlyle).
In two of the three the Hiram Walker compared surprisingly well. The drinks were a little bit sweeter, but this can be a good thing. Fernet-Branca provides bitterness in the Horatio so the cocktail isn’t lacking in complexity when made with the triple sec. It makes a respectable Margarita too. Only in the Pegu did I feel it made a really poor substitute. In that drink Cointreau, gin, and lime combine to make a superbly crisp cocktail and it tastes much less lively when the sweeter triple sec is used instead.
Hiram-Walker’s biggest advantage is price. A bottle of Cointreau costs about $40 a bottle, give or take a few bucks. Hiram-Walker costs less than a third of that. Most cocktails call for less than an ounce of orange liqueur so the cost of a bottle is spread out over many drinks, which makes price less of an issue than it would be in a base spirit. Even so, that’s a sizable difference — enough of a difference that I’m using it fairly often at home and questioning whether Cointreau really needs to be so expensive. I am pleased with it and in the right cocktails I think it can work very well.
(If you do buy it, make sure you get the 60 proof bottling. There are also 30 and 48 proof versions. I haven’t tried the 48, but the 30 is excessively sweet.)