We all know and love Cointreau as the orange liqueur that is in the mix of so many cocktails and even used to give a zing to baking and desserts. This year, the brand celebrates its 170th anniversary and we spoke with Alfred Cointreau to find out the amazing story behind this legacy.
Imagine being born into a family whose business dates back to the 16th century? Well, that's a reality for Alfred Cointreau, a fifth generation of the Cointreau family who is now a global ambassador and heritage manager for the business. We caught up with him in Dublin recently to hear more about how the wonderful orange liqueur came about.
A family business
"On the bottle you have a date, 1849, that’s when everything started with the distillery. Before that, in the 16th century, the family were bakers and after we became confectioners. But in 1849 with the dream of two brothers, Edouard-Jean and Adolphe Cointreau, my great, great, great grandfather and his brother, we became distillers.
So the first philosophy of the family was to work with natural ingredients from the region, mainly, and also to respect the authentic liquor recipes that already exists. Very quickly they involved the second generation in the business, Edouard Cointreau, the son of Edouard-Jean. He was the man who wanted to see it further and he wanted to work with exotic ingredients – oranges.
Today, oranges are very common, you find them everywhere, but in the 19th century, it was very difficult to get. It was considered an exotic and rare fruit. So, Edouard had the brilliant idea to create a rare liquor with exotic flavours.
He travelled around the world to find oranges and he didn’t bring the fruit with him, he brought the peels, dried peels because in the peels you have the essence. If you crack a dried orange peel and smell it, you release this essence. Different varieties of oranges and in different countries, you have a difference in the essence in the peels, some bitter and some more sweet and juicy.
For 10 years, Edouard worked on the perfect combinations to find the perfect balance between sweet and bitter peels and also designed an iconic bottle to put his precious liquid inside, and today, 170 years – it celebrates this anniversary this year in fact – we want to replicate the same recipe since the beginning."
"We produce in Anger, on the west side of France between Paris and the Atlantic Ocean, in the Loire Way valley. We don’t have any appellation, it’s not like Cognac or Champagne, which means we can distil Cointreau wherever we want, but Anger is the birthplace of the Cointreau family and that is why, still today, we still only have one distillery in the world and it is still in the birthplace. The distillery is open as a visitor centre to the public and I recommend to anyone to come and visit us!
My family is still involved in the business, but also, in 1989 we became part of the Rémy Martin, which is today owned by Hériard-Dubreuil.
When you look at the history of France and look at the castles, all of them have a small house called an Orangery, which is where you kept the orange trees during the winter. In this time, the more orange trees you had the more powerful you were… Today a nice car or watch shows your social status, but back then it was orange trees. Also, after the 19th century, an orange was given as a nice gift as it was considered a ‘golden fruit’. So Edouard really took his inspiration from this history to create his exotic drink."
Consistency is key
"In the 19th century, all the spirits and wines were aged. Edouard Cointreau wanted to source the best ingredients, with a specific distillation process that is dedicated to Cointreau, so that at the end, at the bottom of the pot still, you are able to appreciate the spirit. You don’t have to age it. In terms of a business plan, it was completely new to do something like that. You can’t see it when you look at the brown bottle, but the liquid is crystal clear.
You can taste the Cointreau of this year, last year and 15 years ago... it’s the same. That is the challenge for us, to keep this consistency because, as you can imagine, the oranges peels from Africa or South America are all different. We know all the farmers, all of the suppliers of our orange peels and every year that is a rule of the master distiller is to choose the best orange peel through the farmers to make sure she can replicate exactly the same recipe."
A new product
"Our speciality is Cointreau, the original, it’s what we do the best. When it comes to innovating, we have two options; we can look back to the legacy of the brand and what we used to do before the original recipe – a forgotten recipe if you can call it that – or otherwise we can think about the flavours in the 21st century.
Bernadette, the produce master distiller and fifth generation, before retirement, wanted to show us her expertise in terms of sourcing orange peels. Today our sweet and bitter peels come from Spain, Africa and South America. What she wanted to do was create an orange liquor, but with French orange peels. She went to Corsica and found blood oranges and distilled them to create our new product, Cointreau Blood Orange. It’s like the last creation of the master distiller before she retires, and, she is replaced with the sixth, still a woman, Carol, and now she takes care of the recipe."
The perfect serve
"It depends on the context for me, I drink it differently from when I might have one with a journalist during an interview as opposed to a romantic night with my wife. How you appreciate Cointreau really depends on you.
What I like to do is go to sit at a bar, just after the opening before the bar is busy, and speak to the bartender. I do not check the menu, I just speak to him, and he creates a cocktail just for me, and really something that I like.
You have more than 350 classic cocktails created with Cointreau, so you can find your appropriate cocktail in this list, or if like to play with different ingredients then can ask a professional bartender to create something for you with what you like.
I remember the first cocktail I mixed with my grandmother, I was around eight years old and I was like the assistant for my grandmother to mix the aperitif. I used Cointreau, lime and tequila to mix a margarita, with a salt rim on it. The salt rim and the tequila were really unusual flavours, very exotic, for me. So to blend all of these ingredients together, yes, I still remember this experience of this cocktail today, and it is still one of my favourites.
Otherwise, a few years ago we started to relaunch the Cointreau fizz – a recipe inspired from 1955. It’s really simple, just Cointreau, lime and sparkling water. We wanted to push to encourage people to twist the original recipe and to add a fourth ingredient with what you have in your kitchen or in your fridge.
I remember the first time I was in London after that, I went to the Savoy Hotel during tea time and I thought ‘wow’ I didn’t release that tea time was something really important for English people. It gave me the idea to put tea in the Cointreau fizz. The tea is infused in the Cointreau, you add the lime and sparkling water and so you have the Cointreau Fizz Tea. It’s really good so."
"We have to keep the consistency because Cointreau is our speciality, but we have to feel the market and the trends, for example the blood oranges are quite trendy right now; we have to take care of our legacy also, we have to preserve that, and the cocktail culture is growing around the world and Cointreau is in the heart of cocktails, so we have to embrace this."