Sugar Free Triple Sec

The Sugar Free Triple Sec that we made here at the MDR Labs is truly an innovative creation. Triple Sec, Cointreau, and Grand Marnier are all forms of orange liqueurs and was originally known as Curaçao.  Curaçao Triple Sec used to be the brand name of Curaçao, but somewhere along the way the Curaçao got dropped and Triple Sec became the comon nomenclature.  The Cointreau and Grand Marnier versions are just  name-brand versions, just as Kleenex is a name-brand version of a tissue.  So when you see recipes for an orange liqueur, it may call for Curaçao, Triple Sec, Orange Liqueur, Cointreau, or Grand Marnier.  Only a little confusing, I know…

This is a reagent that dates back to somewhere from the 1830’s to 1850 and is very widely used in classic cocktails.  Different recipes may call for different types of triple sec, depending on what flavor profile they are trying to add to the cocktail, but all of them may be used interchangably.  There are many recipes on the internet on how to make home-made triple sec, but all of them use what we in the chemistry field call sugar gradients in order to extract the flavors from the orange.

As the whole goal of mixdrinkrepeat is to make no carb, no sugar versions of drinks, the labs were presented with a challenge.  Orange liqueurs are a staple in many old drinks, but how to make it?  Well, we used science!

Our solution was an alcohol gradient.  But in order to describe that, lets review how a sugar gradient works.  As a general rule, things like to be equal when it comes to solutions.  If you pour salt water into drinking water, given enough time, it will naturally diffuse to equal salt content per volume.

Sugar gradients work the same way.  If there is more sugar one one side (think of a fish tank with a divider with holes drilled in the middle) then eventually the sugar content will equilibrate and be even on both sides.  Now, add other chemicals to the mix.  If there are alcohol and sugar soluble molecules (like for example, the oils in an orange peel), then those molecules will naturally leave the orange rind and go towards the more sugary side.

Orange rind, in and of itself, only contains 1g carbohydrate per 6 gram of peel, so any sugar soluble molecules will want to leave the peel and go into the solution.  This can be speeded up by heat. There are also other molecules that are only alcohol soluble.  Most recipes you’ll find online for making triple sec utilize these sugar/alcohol gradients to extract the oils and flavors from the peel.  Then they’ll supplement with juice for extra orangey flavor. This method insures that all/most the internal oils go out into the sugar solution.

However, this goes against the mission of the lab.  Fortunately, modern chemistry has something that our friends from the 1800’s did not….  Highly concentrated alcohol that is biologically safe to imbibe, ie Everclear***.  And high alcohol content and an alcohol gradient works just like a sugar gradient.

***This is an important safety announcement.  Everclear is illegal in some states, can be difficult to obtain in many other, and sometimes can be purchased online (if your state allows it).  However, the MDR Labs recommends that you never drink it by itself in it’s raw form, as a small amount can have massive effects.  We like to enjoy ourselves with cocktails, not necessarily get drunk, and safety and delicious flavoring are our goals.  We recommend Everclear because it is highly purified and contains absolutely no methanol.  Laboratory grades of alcohol (ethanol) are not food grade and can poison you with trace amounts of methanol.  Under no circumstances should you use any alcohol (ie. rubbing, lab grade) for this except Everclear or another food-grade alcohol analog.

That all being said, please take caution when using Everclear.  In either its 151 or 190 proof forms, it is highly flammable.  Under no circumstances use near an open flame, unless properly ventilated with an externally vented hood, or outside.  In fact, the more ventilation the better.

Upon taste testing our recipe against name brand versions, our Sugar Free Triple Sec is very similar to Cointreau and is very delicious.  It is also based off of the general Thomas recipe.  Again, please follow all safety guidelines to prevent accidents.  I also did extensive testing to ascertain how many carbohydrates came along for the ride during the extraction process.  Ingesting one ounce over three separate times, I noticed no discernible changes in my blood sugar, so I’m willing to claim that the oranges retained most, if not all, of their original carbohydrate amount.

Sugar Free Triple Sec Recipe

  • 240 grams Orange Peel (about 6 #4014 Valencia oranges)
  • ~3 cups of 75% (151 proof) Everclear ethanol*
  • ~3 cups 2:1 Splenda Syrup**
  • Water

An important note regarding the above amounts.  Since ratios of syrup and alcohol are very important, make sure to measure volumes before doing any diluting.  The listed description will be recounting how the MDR Labs did things, but your individual results may need to be fine tuned to account for differences in volume losses.

First, when peeling your oranges, remove as much of the flesh under the rind as possible.  Rinse the peels under running water to remove potential juice, then blot dry.  The flesh can carry bitter flavors, hence it’s removal.  Once you have all your peels, cut them into narrow strips to increase surface area.

Find a pot, with a matching lid, that is big enough to hold all the peels, but narrow enough to completely cover the peels with 2.5 cups of 75% Everclear (you can easily test this by trying it with water first during the rinsing step).  Add the Everclear to the pot, then turn on the heat slowly.  In our electric cooktop, we dialed it up to 8 until it just started bubbling, then down to 2-3 for 20 minutes, keeping it at a very low boil (remember that ethanol boils at a lower temperature than water). ***Make sure proper ventilation is used here. Breathing alcohol vapors can intoxicate you and it can do it quickly.  Please take proper safety measure and do not use open flames anywhere during these steps, unless outside and with proper safety gear and fire extinguishers present.  Remove from heat and allow to cool with a lid on it (prevents further evaporation).

Now remove peels (saving them for later) and measure remaining volume of extract.  We had 2 cups remaining of our starting 2.5 cups due to evaporation during the heating phase.  So add appropriate volumes of 75% Everclear (in our case 1/2 a cup) to bring the volume back up to the starting volume.  Now place the liquid and the rinds in a glass sealable container.  We used a sealable glass bowl and placed a smaller glass bowl inside in order to make sure all peels were still submerged in the alcohol.  Seal the container and place in a dark area.  Agitate occasionally and incubate for a total of 24 hours at room temperature.

After the steeping period, pour the orange infused alcohol into a separate container and discard the peel.  It is recommended, though not necessary, to now strain the liquid to remove any debris.  However, not all debris will be removed so some settling may occur in your end product.  This is okay and normal.  Just swirl your bottle around prior to using to redistribute the sediment.  We do this prior to using our triple sec every time.

Now measure the volume of alcohol.  And here is where things get tricky.  You’ll want to reduce down your volume of alcohol by 34%.  The goal here is to concentrate the orange flavors and to reduce the alcohol content of the final product, via evaporation, without overly diluting the flavors we worked so hard to get.

To reduce the volume of 2.5 cups by 34%, remove the peels, measure the volume, then place the alcohol on a heat source and bring up the temperature.  Measure often by pouring back and forth into a glass measuring device.  Please follow all previous safety guidelines regarding heating alcohol!  Once the volume is reduced by 34%, in our case, down to 1 and 2/3 cups, add back 5/6ths of a cup (1/2 cup + 1/3 cup) of water.  If you accidentally over-evaporate, just add back the necessary amount of 75% Everclear to get the volume back to 1 and 2/3rd cups.

Once the water is added, the final volume should be back to 2.5 cups, the original orange flavor retained, but now the final alcohol content of the solution should be 50%.  This is, of course, too much (our target is 30-80 proof, so we cut the difference and went for 50 proof),  but now add 2.5 cups of the 2:1 syrup**, which sweetens the final product and further reduces the alcohol content to 25%, or 50 proof.

Now bottle and allow to rest for 24 hours.  Store in a cool, dark place to retain color.  You can sample a bit if you want, but the flavor does mature a little bit over time.

This is a delicious liqueur that I’ve added ice to and sipped as well as added to many other classic cocktails.  It has quickly become one of my favorite additives to drinks.

The Sugar Free Triple Sec recipe by Mix Drink Repeat may be a lot of work, but it is well worth the work.

Remember, mix, drink, repeat (but safely and responsibly!)


*151 Everclear can be directly obtained, but if you only have access to the 190 proof version, it can be diluted with water.  You’ll want 21 parts water to 79 parts Everclear190.  I just did a simple estimation to 75%, so 0.5 cups of water plus 2 cups Everclear.

**2:1 splenda syrup is different from Scott’s Sugar Free Simple Syrup.  It is just a spenda/water mixture.  Just take 2 cups of Splenda into 1 cup water.  It may need a little heat to dissolve properly.

11 thoughts on “Sugar Free Triple Sec

  1. So far I am loving this, even without the syrup this is wonderful as I can add whatever sweetness I want to cocktails. Question though. When we heat the Everclear (before and after the Steeping), doesn’t the alcohol % continually reduce as the alcohol evaporates before any water? So the resulting proof using your calcs would actually be much lower than anticiapted? Don’t actually know. I’m asking.

    • I honestly do not know. While Stevia is a good choice for some, it does actually contain carbohydrates, which doesn’t help people such as myself. I will try and do some looking into the matter.

      • Fortunate for me, carbs are no problem with me. I don’t take in many and yet, I still have a good fast metabolism being mid-aged. My husband hates it because we can’t eat the same things and have the same results!

  2. Definitely heed the flammability and ventilation warnings! The vapors build up immediately. Also, I looked away for a few seconds during preparation of a batch and the Everclear (151) boiled over and ran down the side of my pot. Caught fire instantly. Luckily my kitchen is adjacent to the back yard, and I took the pot outside and was able to then calmly put it out by putting on a lid. Happened super fast!

    • Oh my gosh! I hope you are ok!

      Yes, the everclear is highly flammable! I’ve worked with industrial non-foodgrade versions of this and we used it specifically for its flammability for sterilization purposes.

      You can’t take enough precautions when heating this stuff!

      Remember that it also boils 30 degrees cooler than regular water!

  3. Has anybody used rind from sour oranges which is used for making orange marmalade due to its intense orange flavor?

    • I’m not sure if you could get away with it. The high alcohol percentage of the everclear is what allows the oils to be extracted from the orange peel. That being said, you may be able to get away with using vodka, but by boiling longer. This will also change the proof of the end product and you may need to make some recipe adjustments. There may also be a taste difference as well. Everclear has absolutely no flavor. Vodka (especially cheap vodka) definitely does have some flavor. Will it ultimately matter in the end, I have no idea. If you want to try it, let me know how it turns out. If you can, do a side by side taste comparison with some high-octane name brand triple sec and see how it measures up.

      Good luck!

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