Bottle #54: Cointreau

Mar 27, 2024

Bottle #54: Cointreau is one of the oldest looking bottles I’ve come across so far. Also one of the tiniest. While there’s no volume measure on it, it’s probably only around 30 mL rather than the standard 50 mL size for minis. It’s also got a really unusual foil closure with little tabs on the side for opening. It’s a fun one!

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As is the story of Cointreau. Unlike some of my bottles, Cointreau is still around today to promote their own origin story. According to their website, the distillery was founded in 1849 “amid the euphoria of the French Industrial Revolution” by Adolphe Cointreau. He applied his expertise working with fruit as a confectioner to making fruit liqueurs, starting with cherry and expanding from there. Business was booming, so he brought his brother, Édouard-Jean Cointreau, into the business.

According to a charming Food & Wine interview with sixth-generation family member and current brand ambassador Alfred Cointreau, it was Édouard-Jean’s son Édouard who focused the company on orange liqueur starting in 1875. It’s hard for us to imagine today, when orange juice is everywhere, but at the time orange was an exotic fruit that most Europeans would not have had regular access to in its natural form. Édouard wanted to make that flavor more readily available as a liqueur, and travelled the world to find just the right combination of oranges to make it so.

By 1885 he succeeded, and Cointreau Triple Sec was released to the world. Yep, Triple Sec. Cointreau claims to be the originator of the Triple Sec style of orange liqueur. Cointreau did produce an orange liqueur before then, but they – like everyone else – called it Curacao. The Dutch had originated that style of orange liqueur in the 1600s, flavored with the peel of a bitter orange from the island of Curacao. So for a couple hundred years, curacao was what everyone called their orange liqueur. This included Cointreau, whose orange liqueur was sold as a Curacao before 1869, and then a Curacao Triple Sec until Triple Sec became the sole descriptor in 1885. (For more on all this, check out Camper English’s excellent post on the subject on his Alcademics blog.)

These days the words Triple Sec don’t exist on a Cointreau label at all. That term has been relegated to bottom shelf bottles, typically between 11 & 15% alcohol, leaving not much room for sophisticated flavors from the distillation of orange peels. Cointreau didn’t want anyone to confuse them with that product, so by the early 20th century the term was completely gone from the label. This makes it a little like Disaronno, which no longer wants to be known as an Amaretto, as I talked about in Bottle #10.

Like Curacao before it, Triple Sec eventually became a kind of generic for orange liqueur. Cointreau’s claim to have originated the term is challenged by another French liqueur maker, Combier, who claims to have been using it since 1835. The two companies also have very different takes on what the term even means. According to Cointreau, they invented the term of showcase that their liqueur was three times more concentrated in orange flavoring than the other orange liqueurs on the market at the time. Combier says they used the term to mean “triple distilled.” Other people figure it must have to do with the use of three different kinds of oranges. “Sec” means “dry” in French, so you’d think it would refer to sweetness level, but there’s no evidence that that’s what they were going for. Basically, nobody knows and it doesn’t really matter!

As I say often in my cocktail classes, orange liqueur is one of the most confusing categories. Triple Sec, Cointreau, Curacao, Blue Curacao – there are no clear definitions or lines between them, and when it comes to cocktails, they can often be used interchangeably. My advice is that if you only have room in their liquor cabinet for one, it should be Cointreau, which I find to be the most versatile.

Which is why I was especially excited to see this little bottle of it turn up! The Cointreau we drink today is not quite the same as the original; they did modify the recipe to be less sweet in 1923. But they claim that it has stayed the same ever since, and in that Food & Wine article I linked above, Alfred Cointreau says “You can taste the Cointreau of this year, last year and 15 years ago… it’s the same.”

So how about 60 years ago, Alfred? As best I can tell from staring at all the vintage bottles I can find online, this tiny bottle of Cointreau is probably from the 1960s. It’s had some leakage or evaporation, so I suspect it will have a little oxidation, but I’m definitely excited to taste this one!

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Bottle #54: Cointreau

Mar 27, 2024 |

Bottle #54: Cointreau is one of the oldest looking bottles I’ve come across so far. Also one of the tiniest. While there’s no volume measure on it, it’s probably only around 30 mL rather than the standard 50 mL size for minis. It’s also got a really unusual foil closure with little tabs on the side for opening. It’s a fun one!

As is the story of Cointreau. Unlike some of my bottles, Cointreau is still around today to promote their own origin story. According to their website, the distillery was founded in 1849 “amid the euphoria of the French Industrial Revolution” by Adolphe Cointreau. He applied his expertise working with fruit as a confectioner to making fruit liqueurs, starting with cherry and expanding from there. Business was booming, so he brought his brother, Édouard-Jean Cointreau, into the business.

According to a charming Food & Wine interview with sixth-generation family member and current brand ambassador Alfred Cointreau, it was Édouard-Jean’s son Édouard who focused the company on orange liqueur starting in 1875. It’s hard for us to imagine today, when orange juice is everywhere, but at the time orange was an exotic fruit that most Europeans would not have had regular access to in its natural form. Édouard wanted to make that flavor more readily available as a liqueur, and travelled the world to find just the right combination of oranges to make it so.

By 1885 he succeeded, and Cointreau Triple Sec was released to the world. Yep, Triple Sec. Cointreau claims to be the originator of the Triple Sec style of orange liqueur. Cointreau did produce an orange liqueur before then, but they – like everyone else – called it Curacao. The Dutch had originated that style of orange liqueur in the 1600s, flavored with the peel of a bitter orange from the island of Curacao. So for a couple hundred years, curacao was what everyone called their orange liqueur. This included Cointreau, whose orange liqueur was sold as a Curacao before 1869, and then a Curacao Triple Sec until Triple Sec became the sole descriptor in 1885. (For more on all this, check out Camper English’s excellent post on the subject on his Alcademics blog.)

These days the words Triple Sec don’t exist on a Cointreau label at all. That term has been relegated to bottom shelf bottles, typically between 11 & 15% alcohol, leaving not much room for sophisticated flavors from the distillation of orange peels. Cointreau didn’t want anyone to confuse them with that product, so by the early 20th century the term was completely gone from the label. This makes it a little like Disaronno, which no longer wants to be known as an Amaretto, as I talked about in Bottle #10.

Like Curacao before it, Triple Sec eventually became a kind of generic for orange liqueur. Cointreau’s claim to have originated the term is challenged by another French liqueur maker, Combier, who claims to have been using it since 1835. The two companies also have very different takes on what the term even means. According to Cointreau, they invented the term of showcase that their liqueur was three times more concentrated in orange flavoring than the other orange liqueurs on the market at the time. Combier says they used the term to mean “triple distilled.” Other people figure it must have to do with the use of three different kinds of oranges. “Sec” means “dry” in French, so you’d think it would refer to sweetness level, but there’s no evidence that that’s what they were going for. Basically, nobody knows and it doesn’t really matter!

As I say often in my cocktail classes, orange liqueur is one of the most confusing categories. Triple Sec, Cointreau, Curacao, Blue Curacao – there are no clear definitions or lines between them, and when it comes to cocktails, they can often be used interchangeably. My advice is that if you only have room in their liquor cabinet for one, it should be Cointreau, which I find to be the most versatile.

Which is why I was especially excited to see this little bottle of it turn up! The Cointreau we drink today is not quite the same as the original; they did modify the recipe to be less sweet in 1923. But they claim that it has stayed the same ever since, and in that Food & Wine article I linked above, Alfred Cointreau says “You can taste the Cointreau of this year, last year and 15 years ago… it’s the same.”

So how about 60 years ago, Alfred? As best I can tell from staring at all the vintage bottles I can find online, this tiny bottle of Cointreau is probably from the 1960s. It’s had some leakage or evaporation, so I suspect it will have a little oxidation, but I’m definitely excited to taste this one!

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