Young Frenchman Alfred Cointreau talks about the challenges of running a 165-year-old inheritance that has given generations across the world liqueur to die for.
Many times I have dreamt that I own Cointreau, the liqueur I just love, and unfortunately still pretty pricey in India. And then comes a day when I meet Alfred Cointreau, the real owner — in New Delhi recently, all the way from Angers in western France, to promote the world-famous aperitif.
The young affable Frenchman is, well, very French, even his English is so. But what he has to say is so very international, simply because though Cointreau is a French product, it has its connoisseurs across the globe, including India and China, the reason why Alfred has travelled to the two Asian giants.
While the brand has its crew of ace quality controllers and distillers, it is left to 27-year-old Alfred as its Heritage Manager to talk to the world about the legacy that has been his family’s for six generations now. It is said that the recipe of Cointreau is still a family secret.
Alfred begins by saying that he joined his family business three years ago out of which one year went in understanding the process of how Cointreau is made. For some time now, he has been travelling across the world as an informed ambassador of the brand.
I ask him the obvious first, “So how does it feel” to be a part of the legacy. Armed with a smile, he relates a family tradition to me, “You know, it has been a practice in my family that whenever a baby is six-months-old, a dash of Cointreau is dropped into its mouth by the grandfather. I first tasted my family legacy when I was half-a-year old.” Having grown up in Angers, where his ancestors Adolphe Cointreau — a confectioner and his brother Edouard-Jean Cointreau, set up the distillery in 1849, Alfred remembers seeing his grandmother trying out various recipes to make cocktails based on the orangey triple sec and also teaching others to do it. “So it is very natural for me,” he adds.
His siblings and cousins are not in the company. Alfred too began working outside the family business — in a newspaper in Paris. He now says he has “found” his passion but adds, “Though it may look simple, the challenge of keeping Cointreau, the young lady, carry on is a huge challenge, particularly when I am the only one from the family doing it.”
The fan in me just can’t avoid asking him, there are so many triple secs but why Cointreau tastes so singular? Alfred is proactive, raises a Cointreau bottle, balances the square on one of its four corners, saying, “The liqueur is made of four main ingredients — water, alcohol, sugar and sweet and bitter orange peels. The four corners of the square bottle are for these four ingredients. Each corner can keep the bottle in balance which signifies that it is a perfect product.”
Alcohol, sugar and water are easy to find in France. What has become increasingly a challenge to procure are the perfect sweet and bitter orange peels — the USP of Cointreau, also the main differentiator from other triple secs. He says the brand’s master distiller, Bernadette Langlais, regularly travels across Africa, Spain and South America to get hold of the perfect peel. From a sack, he takes out the sweet orange peels, breaks one into two and asks you to smell its sweet, floral aroma. “This is orangeier, isn’t it?” he asks. Then he breaks a bitter orange peel. When you smell it, you get more than a hint of why Cointreau tastes the way it does.
“It is a huge challenge to get the perfect smelling orange peels. Once the selection is made, a bottle takes a week to 10 days to make,” he fills in.
Yet another challenge is “to keep a guard against anyone copying Cointreau because many triple sec makers try to do it.” One way of testing the purity of a Cointreau is, he says, “pour an ice cube into some Cointreau and after 10 seconds it will become cloudy. This is because it is a perfect balance of all the four ingredients.” Also, how many triple secs can you drink neat, like you can do with Cointreau, he asks. Here, he also touches upon the point that in the 19th Century when Cointreau was made, the message was loud and clear to a wine-drinking country that you no longer need to gestate your brew.
For Alfred India is a new market. He is aware that each State has its own set of Excise rules. “We have two objectives here. One is to create a cocktail culture in India by training bartenders in our recipes, our history, why Cointreau is best for cocktails like Margarita than other triple secs, etc. The other objective is to educate consumers, engage with them. They can become bartenders at home by trying out some simple but classic cocktail recipes of Cointreau.”
The custom of carrying a bottle of wine to a party is picking up in urban India. Alfred, by making Cointreau more easily available in the market, wants party-goers to shift to gifting a Cointreau. “You may find a wine bottle cheaper than Cointreau but remember, you can fill only a few glasses with a bottle of wine but with Cointreau, you can make many more cocktails,” he says. His idea about the Indian consumer is clear, “Ours is a premium product. I think as long as people in India know what they are paying for, they won’t mind paying.”