Bottom Line at the Top: we love spirits who are distinctive and declare themselves and we love spirits that stand apart from the norm. In this, Borducan is a blinding success. It is easily identifiable from triple-sec and all major brands of orange liqueur that we're aware of as well as announcing itself with ALL CAPS emphasis in just about any cocktail. For some, that's like hearing a cover band do your favorite song and, doing it differently, is upsetting to you. This is particularly true for vodka cocktails. For others who are looking for different, avant garde flavors, this will be a delight. It might share some similarities with Italian amaro liqueurs and be very appealing to those who find traditional amaros too bitter and difficult to work with but are pleased with the prospect of the herbal complexity. While your first reflex will be to put Borducan in vodka and gin drinks like any regular old triple-sec or Cointreau, avoid that temptation and try it with aged tequila (Margaritas) or even whiskey (Old Fashioned)... it mixes gorgeously with oak.
Bitter orange liqueurs have a tremendous influence and history in the cocktail world. From triple-sec and its unnumbered derivations first originating from the Caribbean isle of Curaçao, to the orange liqueur and cognac blends of France, to orange bitters in a host of cocktails, and even to orangecellos and similar liqueurs in Italy the sweet-and-citrus blend of orange is endlessly popular for thirsty palates across swathes of cultures and history. Borducan is an Italian entry into this world and claims to be a direct competitor with Cointreau and similarly-styled premium orange liqueurs.
Cointreau is a stiff competitor. It has in its history twice been named Best Liqueur in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (2007 and 2008) with generally solid ratings across the decade (though lagging a bit in very recent years). It is widely regarded as one of the key ingredients for elite expressions of cocktails like a Cosmopolitan, Red Lion, and others. For its part, Borducan and its self-proclaimed infusion of alpine herbs and saffron, we're expecting something of great complexity, bordering on an Italian amaro style liqueur with a burst of orange sweetness. Knowing it begins from a base of sugar beet distillate, we're expecting a deep, base note of relaxing sweetness that should allow the herbs and the fruit to soar. In Cointreau vs Borducan it is Caesar vs Charlemagne and we shall see who prevails!
Borducan vs Cointreau By Itself in a Glass
Let us make a quick mention on packaging. The Cointreau bottle is iconic with its heavy, darkened glass and square shape. Borducan is equally engaging, however, with a rectangular clear glass that shows off the color of the spirit (pale gold). It also includes a nice cork-top that fits into a petite opening with a rubber sieve-like bottom. Knowing that the screw-top on Cointreau bottles get crusty with sugar over time, we find the clean and delicate pouring experience out of the Borducan bottle vastly superior. Excellent design by the country known for sports cars, shoes, and other luxury exotica!
In appearance Cointreau is completely clear while the Borducan presents as a light gold. In coganc blends like Grand Marnier, this is due to the aged brandy. Here, alas, it appears to be due to "caramel color added," which appears on the label. The aroma of Cointreau is intense bitter orange and instantly identifiable with light undercurrents of lemon zest and blossoms. In contrast, the aroma on the Borducan is herbal—very amaro-like as we expected—with a light orange scent. We feel like white pepper, maybe a touch of lime zest, and—we suppose—saffron, though it's hard to know because it's not something we tend to have about the kitchen. A little ice settles out the heat and introduces more sugar (it's actually better served neat).
In tasting, Cointreau's initial impression is orange and sweet... very sweet! It's also tingling hot, likely from the 80 bottling proof. It goes down a mixture of warming and hot. The finish is sugar all the way with lingering aftertastes of pleasing bitter orange. This is clearly and obviously a mixing spirit; not something we'd tend to drink straight. In contrast, the Borducan sweetness tastes like thick, viscous honey. The texture is syrupy. The initial taste is still very sweet but a far different character than the French while the finish is orange. The herbal infusion does indeed make it feel like a very, very light amaro or perhaps a baby-amaro. Much less heat probably due to the lighter 70 proof bottling. A little ice doesn't at all reduce the honey-viscous character but does bring out a lower orange note on the palate that is reminiscent of the bitter orange of Curaçao.
Judgment: We resist recommending either liqueur served neat; both demand to be mixed for different reasons. Forced to choose, we would give the slight victory to Borducan for its more interesting, honey-forward and herb-enriched flavors. The more one likes honey, the more one will enjoy the Borducan.
Borducan vs Cointreau in a Cosmopolitan
We can't go far in our journey without the Queen of Vodka cocktails, the Cosmopolitan. We make ours in classic style with the modern take of citrus vodka: 2 parts vodka (we used Absolut Citron); 1 part cranberry juice; 1 part orange liqueur; and a bit of lime juice (just a bit). Shake on ice and serve up.
The difference in aroma is obvious and immediate: clean orange vs herbs. A diva being served her favorite drink at the club would immediately wonder, "What else is in here" and squint suspiciously at her newly found adorant. The Cointreau version tastes clean, fresh, and delicious. The Borducan version is, simply, better. It tastes sweeter due that honey richness and finishes with more orange. It carries a daring edge. The only real disadvantage is that the drink is so much richer, it's hard to imagine our diva tossing back several of these things before settling in for either a good cry or a back alley fistfight, whichever way the night takes you. This is the cheesecake of Cosmopolitans in that one fills you up. The Cointreau version feels like a digestif for the Borducan version... we could easily see the "main drink" using the Borducan and then the Cointreau version like the coffee after the meal.
Judgment: as a first drink of the night or the final drink before bed, this is a win for Borducan. The strange, exotic nature of the liqueur may set some purists back on their heels who might prefer the cleaner, more neutral and subdued flavors of vodka-forward drinks. It will be upsetting to many Cosmopolitan enthusiasts who will find their delight in simple, straightforward flavors disrupted. Still, we find the Burducan has the better flavors.
Borducan vs Cointreau in a Red Lion
Being great fans of gin, we went for the gin classic next (though it has countless variations). We used 3 parts orange liqueur; 2 parts gin (we used Tanqueray); and 1 part both orange juice and lemon juice. Shake on ice and serve up.
In these ratios, the drink feels overly sweet... almost as if the gin is trying to get through but can't. The sugar from the Cointreau and orange juice has beaten the gin flavors into a subdued, bitter whimper on the aftertaste. This drink would be much better with vodka (and indeed, it almost is if you swap out the cranberry juice with orange juice... such is the way of the cocktail world). With the Borducan, one finds the herbs of the orange liqueur much more romantically involved with the gin. It takes on almost sweet, Vesper-like quality. Sipping it requires black coats with long tails and long white dresses over a Gilded age setting in New York served by a white-gloved bartender who cracks the ice from a black with hammer and pick.
Judgment: again, like the Cosmopolitan, we opt for the Borducan in particular settings and in particular moods. But it will make gin-idolaters very grumpy and unhappy who are expecting different aspects out of their Red Lions and similar cocktails.
Borducan in Hot Water
One of our favorite tricks is simply hot water—if you have a Keurig, just run a glass of hot water—mixed with a liqueur. Usually the sweet flavors come through like a gorgeous herbal tea. Borducan is highly eligible for this treatment with the thick honey sweetness and the herbal-noted orange. We were not at all disappointed with the results! For fans of orange darjeeling tea, this is the Final Answer to all your prayers for the perfect drink. The orange scent is buoyed by the aroma of spices and the sweet is a perfect match in the hot water, giving it a kind of mulled wine sensation. It's a complexity that Cointreau simply can't match. Where Borducan might be unusual and touch upsetting to people in classic cocktail settings, in this simple version, that absolutely demands to be drunk at the afterparties on ski slopes, it's an overflowing cornucopia of flavor and goodness.
Judgment: easy call to the Borducan. If you like hot drinks, then this particular liqueur performs better in that simple, elegant setting than almost anything else we've tried.
Borducan in a Margarita
Another popular use of orange liqueur is the calming sweet counterpoint to tequila in a classic margarita. As ever, we're classic: 3 parts tequila (we use Gran Centenario Reposado), 1 part orange liqueur, half-part lime, serve on the rocks.
Once again, the taste with the Borducan is profound different and it's obvious from the very first aromas wafting off the top of the glass. For strongly flavored tequilas—and particularly those tequilas with a little oak age on them like this reposado—the strong flavors of Borducan work the best. The agave and the oak play very nicely with the spices and the thick honey for something that is daring approach the slopes of the finest of all cocktails, the Sazerac. We tried this with a smokier mezcal and we were rewarded with an even better flavor. In our opinion, the stronger the flavors of the base agave spirit, the more improved they are by the supporting complexity of the Borducan.
Judgment: Borducan in spades. While we're approaching a divided opinion with white spirits in vodka and perhaps gin, there is no such indecision with aged tequila. Borducan can easily take the place of any premium orange liqueur on the shelf paired with the finest tequilas. In fact, if you're scared to make Margaritas out of your top-shelf tequila, then let this liqueur be the deciding factor.
by Neal MacDonald, editor
[Disclosures: we received a 750ml bottle of Borducan free of charge for review purposes. All other brands mentioned in this article were acquired on our own.]