Feeling The Blues: The Iconic Curaçao Liqueur

THE OUTCOME OF the Argentina vs Curaçao match may now no longer be a matter of speculation (if you missed the score, it was 7-0 in favour of the former), but conjecture over the origins of Curaçao — the liqueur, not the island nation — will continue for the foreseeable future. For a fairly well-known liqueur, when curaçao was first invented — and by whom — remains a mystery. In fact, the liqueur may not even have existed, if not for an accident of nature — or better yet, evolution. 

Here’s what we do know: At the very end of the 15th century, the first European — a Spaniard — set foot on the island of Curaçao, part of a cluster of islands that includes Aruba, just off the northern shore of Venezuela in the Southern Caribbean sea. Over the next decade-and-a-half the majority of the indigenous populace of the island had been enslaved and transported away. Then, a few years later, in 1527, the Spanish began to settle on the island. They brought with them varieties of flora and fauna, which they introduced to the island’s ecosystem. Some of these experiments were more successful than others. 

Among the failures was the Seville orange. The Spanish settlers had perhaps anticipated the time when their newly transplanted orange trees would bear fruit. However, in Curaçao’s dry earth, which is more conducive to aloe and cacti, the orange trees did not flourish. The disappointed settlers abandoned the groves, but over decades, these orange trees grew wild. The cheery orange hue of the Seville orange never graced their boughs — instead, what grew was a very bitter and fibrous green citrus fruit. Based on the Portuguese word for oranges (laranja), this wild fruit was called laraha, or the Curaçao orange.

Now the laraha was quite inedible, so there wasn’t any interest in it. Then, it was discovered that its peel — especially when sun-dried — had a distinctive and pleasing aroma. By this time — this would have been in the early 1630s — the island of Curaçao had passed into Dutch hands. While the story of curaçao (the liqueur) has only the haziest of shapes at this time (some accounts say a version of it was already being produced in Flanders), it does come into sharper focus in the second half of the century.

Lucas Bols, who hailed from a prominent family of Amsterdam-based distillers and was a major shareholder of the Dutch East India Company, was well-versed with the herbs, spices and fruits that were being brought back to the Netherlands from faraway lands and trade routes. Many of these discoveries were being used in innovative new liqueurs and jenevers (Dutch gin). Bols found that a fragrant oil could be extracted from the peel of unripe larahas. When this oil was exported to Amsterdam, further experiments led to a drink that is very similar to curaçao as we know it. 

Curaçao is available in myriad hues today (and even in its original colourless form), but it is the orange and brilliant blue versions that are most iconic. Whether in a Mai Tai or a Blue Hawaiian, the curaçao liqueur has truly made a place for itself behind the bar.