More than 175 years ago, Jean-Baptiste Combier, a French confectioner, and his wife were making liqueurs to inject into chocolates when they began getting requests from local residents to sell the liqueurs straight. So they began bottling an orange liqueur that was, really, the world's first triple sec.
"The distillery has a lot of history," explains Tommy Klus, bartender and owner of Portland cocktail spot Kask and brand ambassador for Combier. "It's a very old recipe and a very old brand."
And while American drinking culture has had a long love affair with triple sec -- a key ingredient in mai tais, side cars and margaritas -- you could never get Combier Liqueur d'Orange. Until now.
The French liqueur is finally making its way to the United States, and it launched last night in Colorado with Klus on hand to talk history and cocktails with Front Range bartenders.
And it's a rich history. The distillery, which is still family-owned and operated in the Loire Valley, is one of three producers using a particular kind of copper still, which puts the brand in the company of Chartreuse and Benedictine. Combier also makes liqueurs that come from recipes that date to the 1600s, like Combier Rouge, a blend of bitter morello and guignes cherries originally crafted by a nun.
But Klus says he first fell in love with the brand for its foundation: the triple sec. "I never got excited about triple sec as a bartender," he confesses. "You pay a lot for Cointreau, and if you buy anything below that, you get artificial flavoring and coloring. But Combier doesn't have synthetic flavoring or coloring. It's a quality, hand-crafted artesian product. I fell in love with it."
And despite the association of triple sec and those classic cocktails -- as well as more recent popular drinks like the Cosmopolitan -- Klus says Combier is particularly versatile, especially because it's not nearly as sweet as most of the orange liqueurs out there.
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Matt Lanning, a bartender at the Bitter Bar in Boulder, who helped put together last night's launch but isn't involved with the brand, echoes that sentiment: "It's a better way to control sweetness in a drink while still imparting the orange flavor."
Klus says more Combier products -- like the Rouge and Royal, which he describes as "yellow charteuse meets orange liqueur" -- will eventually make their way to the Rockies. For now, Lanning says you can sample the liqueur at Colt & Gray, Row 14 and the Bitter Bar.
And, if you're mixing something at home, Klus recommends tossing the liqueur into an El Presidente, made with rum and grenadine, or the Jasmine, which matches Combier with Campari and gin.