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Oranges and Cocktails from Angers

“My Grandfather always told me to respect our name and not to be arrogant. He told me to be proud and not do stupid stuff with it.”
—Alfred Cointreau

In the year and a half that Alfred Cointreau worked with his grandfather at the family distillery in Angers, he learnt the importance of preservation. With a family lineage descending six generations after the inception of the Cointreau business, Alfred is the newest in a long line of Cointreau family that have manufactured an orange flavoured liqueur. “It is not because you come from the family and you have the Cointreau name, that they put the pressure on you to join the business. If you want and you are comfortable with it, then you can join.” As it happens, Alfred is the only member of the 6th generation to have joined the business. Having studied in Nantes and Paris, Alfred started his work with Cointreau at the distillery four years ago: receiving orange peels, watching the distillation and taking part in the blending of the finished distillate. Nowadays Alfred works from Paris, with focus on marketing the brand.

Summer holidays in the Cointreau family usually take place at Alfred’s grandparents house on the seaside. His grandmother—now 93 years of age—continues to mix cocktails. Alfred remarks, “Last year she broke her leg and whilst she was in hospital, she mixed cocktails for the doctors.”In spite of its connotations with bars and nightclubs, there is a decidedly ‘chicken soup’ aura with which Alfred refers to the cocktails his grandmother makes. “During the summer, before we went out to a party, my grandmother would ask us what time we will be home from the party. She needs to know because if it is 11 p.m. she’ll make us a different cocktail than if it’s 3am.” In addition to its usage in cocktails, Alfred readily noted “In France we have a digestive culture and that is why at home, we mostly drink it neat, on ice.”

The process of making Cointreau relies on a distillation of spirit together with a variety of orange peels; dried and fresh of which there are both sweet and bitter peels. Ninety percent of the peels are dried to ensure that they don’t lose their flavour in the transport process. Once distilled, the heart of the distillation is removed and diluted with the addition of water and sugar. At the time when Cointreau was invented, oranges were an exotic fruit in France, “oranges were referred to as the ‘golden fruit tree’. It was a common gift for Christmas.”  The liqueur represented a means by which drinkers were able recall the unique flavour at a moments notice. To ensure that production remains at a consistently high level, the new distillate is tasted each day at 11 a.m. by 60 workers in the distillery, alongside two glasses of the original Cointreau.

Asking Alfred about the biggest market for Cointreau outside of France, he cites the USA. The usage of Cointreau in the USA hails back to the times of prohibition, as per Alfred; “During the prohibition, my great-great grandfather found a way to distribute [Cointreau] illegally in the USA. He put the bottles on a big boat and then just as it was about to hit the American coast, small boats would swoop in and take the bottles to safe havens from where it would be later dispatched. The company that dispatched Cointreau was the company who made the coins (tokens) for Casino’s. Of course, they shipped Cointreau with their orders. Furthermore, during prohibition, a lot of American bartenders moved to Europe to practice their job. After prohibition they returned to Europe, familiar with a lot of new ingredients, Cointreau was one of them.” 

After Alfred finishes his travel abroad he will return home to Paris. “Though I’m based in Paris, my heart is in Angers. The fresh air and the knowledge that the country side is not far away.” Speaking of the regional specialties that Alfred grew up with, he reserves special praise for his grandmother’s preparation of Stingray cooked with a burnt butter sauce. “She keeps her recipes in a secret book which she doesn’t let anyone see. She will pass the book on when she dies.” Whatever the recipe, there is a strong theme of legacy that permeates the Cointreau family. 

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