Orange peel, sugar, alcohol, and water. These four simple ingredients have come to define a beverage, a brand, a ‘cocktail culture.’ With humble roots in a French family of boulangers, Cointreau has fulfilled the dreams of its creator, Eduard Cointreau, who created the recipe in 1875, writing:
« J’ai recherché passionnément cette liqueur dont j’ai voulu qu’elle ais la pureté du cristal et une grande subtilité du goût, grâce à l’harmonie parfaite d’esprit d’écorces d’oranges douces et amères. »
(“I searched passionately for the essence of Cointreau. I wanted to combine the purity of a crystal-clear liquid with the refined flavours obtained from the perfect harmony of sweet and bitter oranges.”)
But Cointreau has become more than simply the sum of its four simple parts. It has become a marketing behemoth, standing strong across the ages and across the world.
But what is it?
When Eduard created the recipe in 1875, he wanted to build off of the success of curaçao, but he placed his emphasis on obtaining a crystal clear product (all of the other triple secs* available at the time were colored).
(*To clarify – Cointreau is a type of triple sec. And why the name triple sec? This category of liqueur was three times more concentrated in orange essential oils and less sweet (ie more ‘sec’, or dry) than the standard orange liqueurs available at the time.)
But its simple. Two varieties of orange peel (imported from Spain, Brasil, and Northern Africa) – sweet and bitter – are macerated overnight in alcohol distilled from beet sugar. The following morning the mixture is distilled, and the vapor, enriched in the essential oils extracted from the orange peels, is condensed and collected.
(copper stills dating from the 1930s that are still used today to produce 15 million liters of Cointreau per year)
(modernized stills – built in 1972 – used in the distillation of other liqueurs)
The distillate, now 85% alcohol, is blended with water and sugar (again from sugar beets, as this neutral sugar ensures that no additional flavors are added, either via the alcohol or sugar), to obtain the finished Cointreau at 40% alcohol, or 80 proof. It is bottled on site (the most productive bottling line can whip through 10,000 bottles an hour), and ready for consumption!
(Pierrot, Cointreau’s most recognizable mascot)
But let’s not skip the marketing, where Cointreau has perhaps been most influential. Their most enduring mascot is the image of Pierrot, originally chosen by Eduard in 1898, and the following year he appeared in the first commercial ever recorded on film. The inverted image of a woman in the process of undressing was the beginning of a long history of sexually charged advertising campaigns, including the American campaign featuring Burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese, the last French campaign (before the advertising of alcohol was prohibited by law - le loi Evin – in 1991) which carried the tagline “Voulez-vous cointreau avec moi?”, and the most recent US slogan, “Be Cointreauversial.”
The marketing schemes seem to be particularly influential on Americans, as the US represents the number one export market for Cointreau, followed by duty free shops. These two markets comprise 95% of sales, and the third largest market is the domestic French market. Perhaps the high level of consumption in the US is due to the popularity of cocktails. This “cocktail culture” does not exist in France, where Cointreau was traditionally drunk pure as a digestif.
(Cointreau on the rocks becomes turbid as the essential oils come out of solution at the lower temperature. Chilling the liqueur also significantly cuts the aroma and taste of the alcohol, giving the impression of a much smoother, sweeter drink)
But, despite hailing from a country without this ‘cocktail culture,’ Cointreau has become well integrated into the mixology world. In addition to playing a key role in such classics as the Cosmopolitan, Margarita, Sidecar, and White Lady, Cointreau also has tried its hand at a bit of mixology of its own. Their most recent proposal? The Cointreaupolitan. While a bit on the sweet side for my own taste, this racy, hot pink cocktail represents everything that the Cointreau brand has become – sexy, flashy, and just a little retro.
(The Cointreaupolitan – Long version: Mix 5cl Cointreau, 7cl cranberry juice, and 2cl lemon juice over ice. Short version: Combine 5cl Cointreau, 3cl cranberry juice, and 2cl lemon juice in a shaker with ice. Shake and serve in a martini glass)