As you may know, I am the Cocktail and Spirits Expert for Rémy Cointreau. One does not earn this title by being a slouch. I’ve done a little research and a lot of hard work. Since joining the company, I’ve spent approximately 90% of my days on Cointreau. Why? It’s high relevance and historical importance to cocktail culture as we know it… or can best remember it. It also happens to be a product that I’ve always held in high personal regard: that precious bottle, slightly more expensive than desired for its category when stocking my bar. But it makes all the difference.
So, let’s talk orange liqueur. Better yet, let’s talk Cointreau.
The Cointreau distillery was founded in 1849 in Angers, France. A beautiful, quaint town in the Loire Valley, complete with its own castle. On this appointed year, brothers and master confectioners Adolphe and Edouard-Jean Cointreau set up a still and started making spirits with the local fruit. The famous orange liqueur? Not yet. Not even close. Their first success was actually with Cointreau Guignolet, a wild cherry liqueur. It was so popular that it created a family tradition.
With a little scratch in their pockets, the Cointreau brothers’ portfolio expanded exponentially: Anisette, Curacao, Cassis, Menthe, Vanille, Liqueur Jaune, Liqueur du Couvent, Noyau, Ananas, Marasquin, Prunelle, Fraises, Cerisette, Eau de Noix, Brou de Noix, and Kummel. And, the innovation continued for generations. I’ve even found long extinct, yet now applicable, products such as a quinquina called Quinap and an extra dry gin called Old Bickett. And, what happened to the Orange Bitters from the 1930’s? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The year is 1875. Edouard Cointreau, son of Edouard-Jean, has returned from worldly travels. Bent on proving his worth in the family business, Edouard decides to make his own liqueur. Not only something new, but an improvement on the past. An ambitious young fellow, but rightfully so. Edouard was about to write a symphony.
In the late 1800’s oranges were considered exotic, since they had to be imported from Spain and other warm, dry climates. Of particular novelty were the bitter oranges from the island of Curaçao.
News flash, marketing to the masses with something “exotic” wasn’t thought up yesterday.
Prevailing liqueur companies of the day made a product known as Orange Curaçao, macerating the peels of this exotic and inedible fruit with brandy and spices, then dosing the result with a lot of sugar… you know, to make it taste right.
Edouard saw opportunity. Here was an unrefined, yet highly consumed product. Why not perfect it? With a sense of purpose, Edouard set to work. During the first of his many late nights in the distillery he decided to cut the sugar, throw out the spices and celebrate the orange. Balancing the aromatics and flavors of the bitter orange peels was not achieved with heavy sweetness. Instead, this was solved with sweet orange peels. Additionally, brandy was ditched for a neutral spirit, the clean product of the industrialized and popular column still. The result: a liqueur for the modern age.
Triple Sec Blanc was born.
Here is where I take a very important moment of pause. Anyone laying claim to earlier provenance or creation of ‘Triple Sec’ has a little explaining to do. It seems that Triple Sec Blanc did not exist before 1875. Edouard had copious notes and even published a book on his process, which is the earliest documentation I’ve been able to reference on the subject. Disagree? I welcome the evidence. At best, I’ve found mentions of Curaçao Triple Sec and Curaçao Blanc, which were perhaps missing links in the evolution of orange liqueur. What we mean today when we discuss Triple Sec specifically, it’s history and what has been so widely emulated, begins with Edouard’s recipe for Triple Sec Blanc, which is not a Curaçao.
Furthermore, do not let the modern connotation of Triple Sec lead you astray. The two words, Triple and Sec, represent everything that Edouard set out to accomplish. Triple is a reference to the increased level of orange essential oils, not the number of distillations. Sec directly translates from French to English as dry. This was a product that set out to distinguish itself from its bitter and syrupy forefather. This was the opposite of that brownish Curaçao being hawked in clear round bottles. To prove it, Edouard bottled his clear Triple Sec in brown, square bottles.
Edouard’s genius did not stop there. Obsessed with modern technology, and being good friends with Louis Lumière, he pioneered the world’s first film advertisement. Fact. He was also known for his pop-up bars and automobile towed advertisements fashioned like giant bottles of Cointreau.
Marketing aside, we are left today with a product designed for the late 19th century. Designed for the age of the cocktail. Designed for the future. A future with a taste for quality and innovative simplicity.
Recipe unchanged since 1875, Cointreau remains a four ingredient masterpiece: orange peels (bitter and sweet, sourced from Spain and North Africa), neutral sugar beet spirit, sugar, and water. The family secret lies in the careful art of master distillation and Cointreau’s custom stills: a unique setup of copper pots that swan-neck into copper columns.
So, why the name change from Triple Sec? Well, Edouard created something worthy of a namesake. He did the family proud. But, in all honesty, Cointreau’s Triple Sec became so popular that it also became a category wrought with imitation. Visit the Cointreau distillery today and there is, what I dubbed, a wall of shame. A collection so wide of counterfeits and knockoffs that it spans a very, very long hallway. More than 1,000 copies have been identified and new ones are emerging every year.
So where do I leave you? With a product that was snuck through floorboards during American Prohibition in the 1920’s and that swept the UKGB of 1930’s London. Open up Here’s How by Judge, Jr. Open the Savoy. Open the Café Royal. I leave you with a vital ingredient of the White Lady, Side-Car, Corpse Reviver No. 2, Margarita (Picador), and Cosmopolitan. Honorable mention to the Between the Sheets, Silent Third, Seelbach, Devil’s Own and Jasmine. Cocktailians, this is an important part of your blurry, yet decipherable history. Something with a story. Something with a 6th generation. Treat it well.
And if you ever find yourself in Paris, take the hour and half train ride to Angers. I’ll be sure to introduce you to Alfred Cointreau, who, if available, will proudly show off the birthplace of his family’s contribution to cocktail history.
Where: Cointreau Distillery
Saint Barthelemy d’Anjou
Phone: +33 02 41 31 50 50
When: Open everyday from 11 am-6pm
From November 2nd-April 30th closed Sundays, Monday and bank holidays