Though triple sec and Cointreau are both orange-flavored spirits made from distilling orange peel, they are not the same -- and a difference in price is not the only reason. Triple sec and Cointreau are used in numerous cocktails for their flavor and sweetness. Once you understand the differences, you'll know which to choose.
Similarities and Distillation
The name "triple sec" means triple distilled and is not a brand name. Cointreau is a brand, and its distillation process has not been completely detailed by the company. This means Cointreau could be distilled three times but isn't necessarily. Both triple sec and Cointreau are distilled from orange peels and are classed as orange-flavored liqueurs. As a result of their similar flavors, you can substitute one for the other in most cocktails.
Triple sec is a Caribbean drink, and as a result, it uses oranges from the Caribbean in its triple distillation process. Cointreau uses orange peels from around the world in its recipe, including oranges from Brazil, Haiti and Spain. The orange peels are then dried and macerated in red copper stills to extract their oils. The variety of oranges used in Cointreau are one key difference, although both triple sec and Cointreau use a combination of sweet and bitter oranges to make their liqueur.
A key difference between the two liqueurs is the alcohol content. Cointreau is 40 percent alcohol, the same content as many rums and whiskeys, while different brands of triple sec are generally between 20 and 25 percent alcohol. This difference arises because triple sec is mixed with water, which greatly decreases its alcohol content. The orange peel in Cointreau is also mixed with alcohol, sugar and water, but not in the quantities required to cut the alcohol content in half.
Cointreau is more expensive than triple sec. While many companies make triple sec, only one produces Cointreau. This partially explains the difference in price. One bottle of triple sec may not taste as good when compared with another, and it may be made using less expensive methods or ingredients. Cointreau, however, is always produced by Remy Martin.