Amid the hullabaloo of London Cocktail Week and The World’s 50 Best Bars 2014, I had fallen short on my usual preparations for interview. Arriving to meet Alfred Cointreau, a sixth generation of his family, I knew as little about him as he did me.
In place of the silvery, mustachioed antique of my imagination was a rather more upright figure in his 20s. Perched on the Savoy Hotel foyer’s armchair, this Cointreau is the brand’s heritage and its future.
Right now he is the youngest of the clan working for the business. You would have thought a few more of his 14 cousins would have joined the company, but the theory of nominative determinism has been dealt an almighty blow in this corner of western France. The sixth-generation Cointreaus are just as likely to practice medicine, work in nuclear power or renovate property as they are to macerate oranges.
But not Alfred. As brand heritage manager, he puts his face to the famous name. “The role was created for me,” he says. “My office is the world – I am away about 50% of the time. To be on the ground, to meet people, to share things kicks your ass out of bed every morning. Last week I was in the US, yesterday I was in Berlin and today London. Next week Finland.”
Cointreau’s visit to Helsinki will see him do a shift behind a pop-up bar. For most brand figureheads, making cocktails behind a bar is fraught with the potential for humiliation. But Cointreau will be at home behind the bar, and not just because it is named Alfred.
“I worked at the Buddha Bar in Paris as part of my training and I grew up making drinks in Angers, my family home in the Loire Valley,” he says.
“Every summer we would spend two weeks on the seaside at my grandmother’s house. Before lunch and dinner we would try a new cocktail. So at the end of the two weeks we would know 13 new recipes. My grandmother is the mixologist of the family – she has a piano bar and taught us how to mix drinks and about shakers and strainers.”
Angers is where the Cointreau story started. Since the 16th century the family was made up of bakers and confectioners but, by the 1850s, armed with their skills in maceration, they created the first triple sec (which means triple concentrated and dry). But the famous liqueur would be known by a different name entirely had the French authorities not had their way. Originally the Cointreaus tried to patent Triple Sec.
In the years that followed, the brand proliferated, but for different reasons. In its native France it made its name as a digestif, but in the US Cointreau became an essential ingredient of the Margarita, the Sidecar (a Prohibition cocktail which used Cointreau, illegally imported at the time) and latterly the Cosmopolitan. In Belgium, Germany and the UK the brand gained notoriety as a drier style of the popular orange liqueur.