Mark Ludmon visits the home of Cointreau liqueur in France
Walking around the grand medieval Château d’Angers in Angers in western France, you could easily miss a tiny wooden door, almost hidden by bushes. Once unlocked, it leads down a narrow corridor to what turns out to be a circular room inside the château’s 13th tower. No longer used as a prison, this is now the first stop for the Academie Cointreau – the programme that brings bartenders and other members of the trade to the area to explore the history and production of classic liqueur Cointreau.
Inside the tower, bartending books dating back over a century are displayed within glass-topped recesses in a sleek round table. These reveal how Cointreau has been prescribed for many classic and lesser-known cocktails since the liqueur was first produced in 1875. From the Cosmopolitan and Margarita back to a White Lady, a Singapore Sling and a Sidecar, there have been around 350 recipes listed since the late 19th century.
This heritage fascinates Alfred Cointreau (pictured below), the great-great-great-grandson of the liqueur’s creator Édouard Cointreau and now heritage manager and globe-trotting ambassador for the brand. “When I was seven, I helped my grandmother to make drinks and she told me you have to mix cocktails with the best ingredient,” he recalls. “Since then, I have understood Cointreau was at the heart of the cocktail.”
Cointreau, now part of Rémy-Cointreau, has enlisted cocktail expert and writer Fernando Castellon to explore the “mixography” of Cointreau and develop new serves. This includes bartender training on the classic Cointreau Fizz (pictured), made by mixing the liqueur with fresh lime and soda water, which can be twisted by adding different fruits and other ingredients.
Cointreau triple sec was created by Édouard in 1875 as an alternative to the brandy-based orange curaçaos available at the time, wanting something clear, less sweet and more alcoholic. Still used today, his recipe has just four ingredients, all natural. It starts with a mix of dry sweet peel, dry bitter peel and fresh sweet peel from oranges from southern Spain, Africa and South America – wherever the best-quality fruit can be found. After maceration of the fresh sweet peel in alcohol and water, all the peels are combined with purified water and a 100% neutral sugar beet-based spirit in the pot stills. After macerating overnight, they are distilled to produce an 88% ABV spirit.
More water is added which turns it cloudy because of the essential oils – the same reason that Cointreau turns cloudy when mixed with ice or frozen. However, it is clarified again through a centrifugal process to separate out the excess oil and is then finally mixed with alcohol, sugar and water to create the liqueur. The exact recipe is a secret, and Alfred – who is 28 – learned it only four years ago from his grandfather. It is made under master distiller Bernadette Langlais (pictured), who has worked for Cointreau for over 30 years and travels the world to select the best oranges.
Bernadette also created Cointreau Noir liqueur, which was launched last year, inspired by Majestic, a spirit originally formulated by Édouard Cointreau in the 1900s. The modern interpretation is a blend of Cointreau orange liqueur and cognac Rémy Martin with a maceration of walnuts and almonds bringing out more sophisticated aromas and complexity.
You can visit the distillery which is now in a rather unglamorous trading estate in Saint-Barthélemy-d’Anjou on the outskirts of Angers. However, once inside the modern building, you are immersed in what is now called Le Carré Cointreau, or “the Cointreau Quarter” – home to the distillery plus a shop and a bar for education.
As well as welcoming more people in 2015 through the Academie Cointreau, the brand’s team will continue to work with bartenders in the UK. Alfred plans to return this year after being impressed by the enthusiasm and expertise on previous visits, including events for London Cocktail Week in 2014. “The level of bartending in the UK is definitely one of the best in Europe,” he says. “British bartenders are very creative and bring their own personality, their own touch, with a bit of craziness.”
The brand also has a new boss, Panos Sarantopoulos, who took over last summer as chief executive of Remy-Cointreau’s liqueurs and spirits division after previously heading its Greek spirit business Metaxa. He is excited about the opportunities to further develop the brand in the UK. “You can’t imagine rock ‘n’ roll without a guitar and it is the same thing if you take the orange liqueur out of cocktail,” he explains. “It can take centre stage, it can lead the show. We will increasingly be asking that of Cointreau so that people will say ‘Cointreau’ when they ask for a drink.”