“It’s the smell,” Alfred Cointreau tells me over some hearty Scottish fare at Mac & Wild Fitzrovia. “It hits you even when you’re just driving by the distillery. The beautiful scent of that intense, bitter orange.” I have just asked him to describe the earliest memory he has of his family’s world-famous work, and it is apparent that he cannot remember a time when it did not pervade his childhood experience.
In fact, his first taste of the Cointreau family’s legendary triple sec recipe came, somewhat ironically, on his baptism day. “It is a family tradition that occurs when we turn six months old, the baby’s grandfather will give them a bottle, laced with the tiniest dash of Cointreau,” he laughs. “We simply grew up surrounded by it.”
Alfred is the sixth generation scion of the Cointreau family and now helms the business, which celebrates its 170th anniversary this year. We sat down with him on a blustery August day to discuss everything from the modern taste for moderation, to the necessity of loving what you do for work.
I became the Cointreau Heritage Manager eight years ago. Before that, I had been working in the advertising department of a newspaper, and tried my hand at a number of things. It was really important for me to develop my passion, because I had watched my grandfather brewing until the end of his life at the distillery — he was there every single day, even at 90 years old, because he was so passionate.
Saying this, there really is no pressure in my family for future generations to carry on the business — it has to be a natural choice. I am careful to give my daughters the choice, but my four-year-old already knows how to shake a good cocktail!
Today, people are looking to drink less, and drink better — and we want to encourage this trend. Cointreau is obviously more expensive than other orange liqueurs, and it will make you a better cocktail than other orange liqueurs. You can finish one glass and truly appreciate it, rather than simply drinking excessively to get drunk. Everyone knows it’s very boring when you’re partying with your friends, and there’s that one guy in the corner who’s gotten smashed — it’s not good for him, or for the party you’re trying to hold.
Of course, we make and sell alcohol, but we can do it in a responsible way. And, I think that education is absolutely key. People today want to know what they’re consuming — whether it’s a beer, whiskey, or the food on your plate, you want to know where it comes from and how it was created.
In the 19th Century, Edward Cointreau wanted to give the brand an international feel so he designed our square-shaped bottle. The idea was that Cointreau would reach all four corners of the world, but it also optimising how many bottles could fit in a box for transportation. We still have that global vision, and part of my job is to meet with all our distributors and teams, to improve our communication and get our message out there.
I work with bartenders, and what I really love about Cointreau is that it tastes the same everywhere. It’s amazing for me to see how mixologists around the world take inspiration from our bottle and make their own interpretation.
Our first major market was the US, during the Prohibition years when my great-grandfather spotted an opportunity! Cointreau became the spirit that everyone was drinking in underground bars and that built us an incredible network. Once Prohibition ended, Americans still wanted to stick with the spirit they were used to.
Interestingly, our second biggest market is duty-free. I think of it as our ‘window to the world’, and it is incredibly important. I love the fact that you can travel anywhere from Hong Kong, to Switzerland, to Japan and still find Cointreau.
Everyone has a good story that involves a bottle of Cointreau. The first time they tasted it, the first time they served it, a wedding celebration or an anniversary party — it’s always good things. And people love to share those stories when they meet me, which is such a pleasure.
It is this heritage that is so important, and it is crucial that we preserve our authenticity. It’s great to be innovative and move with the times — but in the end, I think it’s good that we are able to stand apart and remain as we have always been. I think of us like a lighthouse in that way.
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