When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And when life gives you bitter oranges? You make … curaçao, of course.

By Mary Tomlinson
April 25, 2018
Photo: Victor Protasio; Prop Styling: Kay E. Clarke; Food Styling: Mary Claire Britton and Karen Rankin

Yes, even though this orange-flavored liqueur can sometimes be a shade of blue akin to a 7-Eleven Slurpee, it has an actual tie to nature and is a coastal bartending staple. So how did it go from orange peel to electric blue? Let’s travel to the liqueur’s home, just off the coast of Venezuela.

Spanish explorers colonized the Caribbean island of Curaçao in the early 16th century, and attempted to grow sweet Valencia oranges. The dry, arid climate resulted in a less-than-ideal crop, and the Spanish abandoned the island and the bitter oranges—known to locals as the lahara trees—to grow wild. A few centuries later, enterprising distillers extracted the oil from dried lahara peels and distilled it into a nuanced liqueur.

Curaçao was born.

Courtesy of Senior & Co. Curaçao

So Why Is It Blue?

19th century Dutch liqueur giant Lucas Bols—who owned stock in The Dutch West Indian Company, which exposed him to the Caribbean beverage—enjoyed adding an element of “otherworldliness” to his products, thus the brilliant azure shade of artificial food dye that gave curaçao its first nickname of “Crème de Ciel,” meaning “cream of the sky.” (The coloring does nothing to change the flavor.)

The blue beverage made a mini renaissance late in America’s faux-Polynesia phase. Bartender Harry Yee created the Blue Hawaii (think a cerulean piña colada) at the Hilton Hawai’i Village in Waikiki in 1957 to help a blue curaçao salesmen increase sales. And the later release of Elvis’s Oahu- and Kauai-set film of the same name cemented the drink in America’s Tiki-drinking tradition.

Today’s bartending climate tends to shy away from unnatural coloring (the bright blue comes from an addition of synthetic E133 "Brilliant Blue" dye), and bars and distillers have attempted to create a natural blue curaçao using Blue Hibiscus and Butterfly Pea flower dye. The acid of the citrus, however, turns the blue to purple, and direct sunlight causes the color to fade in matter of months. To get the ethereal shade, the synthetic stuff works best.

Related: Flaming Punch Bowl Garnish

How to Buy Curaçao

Curaçao isn’t a protected appellation and doesn’t need to be made on its island of origin, but the Senior family of Senior & Co. still makes the product in Curaçao and is the only Curaçao permitted by U.S. trade to put the word “authentic” on its label. They of course sell a blue version (in addition to orange, red, and green bottles) for all shades of colorful cocktail mixing.

Orange-wise, the recently released Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, a beverage brainchild from cocktail historian David Wondrich and cognac distiller Alexandre Gabriel, infuses the sophistication back into the liqueur. The elevated blend of spices, bitter lahara peels, brandy, and Ferrand Cognac makes for excellent Mai Tais and Margaritas.

Our Favorite Curaçao Recipes

The blue liqueur has seen its fair share of screen time—season six of Old Fashioned-heavy Mad Men opened with a sand-lounging Don Draper ordering a Blue Hawaii while vacationing in the drink’s home state. And don’t worry if your drinking buddies make fun of your azure libation. Just parrot back Jack Gyllenhaal's quip to Robert Downey Jr. in Zodiac when he demands to address the Aqua Velva looming over their serial killer-chasing discussion: “You wouldn’t make fun of it if you tried it.”

Illustrations by Nini Tuan

Tropical Itch
Created by Tiki pioneer Harry Yee in 1957 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort in Waikīkī (same home of the Blue Hawaii), the drink’s titular “itch” is scratched with an excess of booze and a towering souvenir bamboo backscratcher.

Photo: Victor Protasio; Prop Styling: Kay E. Clarke; Food Styling: Mary Claire Britton and Karen Rankin

Mai Tai
Despite dozens of fabulous drinks that have come out of Tiki’s golden age, the Mai Tai is far and away its poster child. In fact, this Trader Vic original was so popular that it depleted world rum supplies in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Photo: Stephen DeVries; Prop Styling: Rachael Burrow; Food Styling: Erin Merhar

Creamsicle Float
Some sweets never go out of style. Give that ice cream truck standard a sophisticate’s touch with Pierre Ferrand’s Dry Curaçao orange liqueur and a splash of vodka—think of it as a boozy walk down memory lane.

Our Favorite Blue Curaçao Recipes

Photo: Jennifer Causey; prop styling: Claire Spollen; food styling: Chelsea Zimmer

Blue Velvet Dream
Even a classic gin fizz needs the occasional vacay. The results? This beachy blue spin which combines curaçao, clove-and-almond spiced velvet falernum, and pineapple juice.

Photo: Victor Protasio; Prop Styling: Kay E. Clarke; Food Styling: Mary Claire Britton and Karen Rankin

Blended Blue Hawaiian
Bartender Harry Yee’s other major contribution to the Tiki canon, which was conceived at the behest of a convincing blue curaçao sales rep.