By Sourish Bhattacharyya
IT IS not enough to have an exalted family name to assure you a corner office in the Remy Cointreau business empire. Alfred Cointreau knows this better than anyone else.
The sixth-generation inheritor of a great legacy, and the only one of his 15 cousins to follow in the footsteps of Edouard Cointreau, his famous forebear, Alfred, 27, started his working life unloading dried orange peels, the foundation of his family's business, sourced from suppliers in Spain, Africa and South America.
|As Cointreau Heritage Manager,|
Alfred Cointreau was on his first visit
to India, where he arrived after
travelling to Beijing, Shanghai,
Kuala Lumpur and Singapore
Each bottle of Cointreau, the world's most popular orange liqueur, which is sold in 165 nations and goes into making more than 350 varieties of cocktails, uses up the dried peels of three oranges. With an annual production of 15 million bottles, therefore, Cointreau consumes several hundred thousand sacks of orange peels year after year. And the oranges, I was informed by Alfred, are made into jams and marmalades in their countries of origin even before the peels dry up.
After dirtying his hands unloading sacks of orange peels, Alfred spent the rest of his initiation year under the wings of Cointreau's master distiller, Bernadette Langlais, in Angers (France), picking the best peels for the production process (you need to develop the nose of a perfumer for this delicate art) and then master the science of distillation.
"You can't learn my job sitting behind a computer. When I completed my first distillation, I had tears in my eyes," Alfred recalled when he met me at one of the board rooms on the 28th floor of the ITC Maurya Towers. "I go back to the stills every six months to make sure I don't forget the basics." As Cointreau's Heritage Manager, a position that makes him the face of the product to bartenders and journalists around the world, Alfred cannot afford to do it.
When I asked Alfred why his company sources orange peels from so many different suppliers, he pointed out that the quality of orange peels can vary in one country from year to year because of weather conditions. Langlais travels around the world each year to zero in on the oranges whose peels she would use. Spain, Brazil, Haiti and Ghana, though, have consistently supplied orange peels to the world's largest consumer of this commodity.
Like a magician producing a rabbit out of a hat, Alfred brought out two orange peels from a little bag that travels with him around the world. One was orange and sweet, bursting with exuberant floral aromas once it was cracked open to release its essential oils, and the other, bitter and mottled green, which was more understated. Edouard Cointreau's recipe, which has remained unchanged since he perfected it in 1875, is all about achieving the "perfect balance" between the flavours of the two.
Cointreau has four ingredients: pure alcohol derived from sugar beet, water, orange peels and sugar (240 gm per litre). In the first stage of production, the orange peels are macerated for six months in pure alcohol and water. What follows is distillation in 13 column stills with elongated swan necks and made only with red copper.
"Between the distillation stills and the bottle is the reduction process," Alfred explained, producing from his bag of goodies three bottles of distillates labelled Head, Heart and Tail. It is the Heart that has all the flavours. It is the chosen one that goes into the final product. The reduction process is essentially about stabilising the alcohol content at 40 per cent -- it is completed in two stages, first with water and then with sugar. "At the beginning you have a peel and at the end you have the heart," Alfred added dramatically -- he didn't have to try very hard to prove he's the best man for his job!
Edouard Cointreau called his product a 'triple sec' because the flavours were three times more concentrated with many times less sugar than other orange liqueurs -- 240 gm versus upwards of 300 in the case of others. These qualities make Cointreau a dependable ally of bartenders and they have made it the soul of three iconic cocktails -- Margarita, Sidecar and Cosmopolitan. Bartenders around the world are constantly reinventing classical recipes, using ingredients as different as apples, peaches and cherries in France and kaffir lime and galangal in Singapore, but Cointreau has been the constant.Not surprisingly, Alfred doesn't like to be in his office for more than two weeks at a time. He wants to travel, to connect with bartenders around the world, to discover more about the Cointreau heritage. "I don't want to be just an email address for the men and women who work for the brand," he said. With Cointreau selling in 165 nations, Alfred shouldn't have worries on one count -- travel. He has lots of it to do in his lifetime.