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  • Writer's pictureJohn B. Reyna

Now you know, real triple-sec is Cointreau

I remember the first time my mother bought me alcohol. After helping me move into my freshmen dorm, I found myself sitting in the parking lot of a nearby liquor store as she procured a couple bottles to celebrate. There was a bottle of rum and vodka, which I may have requested. Oh, how my tastes have changed! But the one surprise I distinctly remember, Cointreau.

There are plenty of versions of orange liqueurs, aka triple sec and curacao, out there. And then there is Cointreau. As the original, it is called for in all the classic cocktails for good reason. Many less expensive knock-offs are less alcoholic and full of extra sugar to mask poor flavor. Cointreau is boozy (40% ABV) and oh so smooth. Perhaps not what an 18-year-old me should have been shooting with my new dorm mates, but damn was it good.


The Cointreau family were bakers for hundreds of years the town of Angers in Loire Valley. In 1849, Adolphe Cointreau decided to diversify the family business by experimenting with different fruit liqueur recipes. He started with a local favorite, Guignolet, which is a cherry liqueur popular in the 17th century.

Using his knowledge of baking with fruit, he started making over 50 liqueurs using fruit essences, including strawberry, plum, and cherry. By 1856, the company gained momentum, and Adolphe’s brother Edouard-Jean joined to help build the first distillery along the Maine River to prepare for export. By 1857, Cointreau had already received its first award at the Laval Exhibition in France.

Edouard-Jean’s son Eduard took over the business in 1875 and decided to focus on orange. He saw a growing interest in what was as an exotic and rare fruit at the time. His wife, Louisa, managed the business as Eduard traveled searching for the perfect ingredients. He explored Europe, Africa and South America, drying and keeping peels as he went. In 1885, he finalized the recipe still used today by making it crystal clear. Orange peels from Spain, Brazil, and several countries in Africa are supposedly still represented.

This original triple sec was three times more concentrated in flavor and less sweet than other orange liqueurs at the time. The recipe is the perfect balance of dried and fresh, sweet and bitter orange peels. Eduard received his trademark and began packaging in the distinctive square bottle.

Next, Eduard focused on marketing and winning awards. Cointreau won medals in 1889, at the World Fair in Paris with 32 million visitors, as well as the Chicago’s World Fair in 1893, putting it on the global map. In 1898, the first ever in the history of film commercials, featured a spot of the brand’s recently created mascot, Pierrot. There’s even an advertising bar car that hits the streets of France in 1903.

© Cointreau

Cointreau continued to run as a family run business until 1990 when it merged with Remy Martin to form the current manufacturer, Remy Cointreau. The recipe and process remain a secret, but you can tour the distillery.

Cointreau was first called triple sec. Though it’s still debated, the Cointreau family says the name came from the triple concentration of orange flavors and relative dryness of the liqueur. As imitators came out in the early 1900s, the Cointreau family decided to rename the product to differentiate themselves.

Famous drinks

Cointreau was originally marketed as an aperitif and difestif to be drunk on its own. Confectioners have used it for baking from the start as well. However, with the cocktail boom in the early 1900s, it became a go-to ingredient of bartenders everywhere as they realized Cointreau would make a flavorful sugar substitute.

In 1919, Harry MacElhone, a famed bartender and cocktail book author, recorded the first official Cointreau cocktail - the White Lady cocktail. Originally equal parts Cointreau, white crème de menthe, and lemon juice, the drink is now usually made with 2oz gin, 3/4oz Cointreau, 3/4oz lemon juice, and an egg white, making it ghostly white.

Shortly after, the first official recipe for the Sidecar came out in 1922, specifying the use of Cointreau. According to Death & Co.'s Cocktail Codex, the Sidecar is a core cocktail (i.e., one from which other classic and modern cocktails were developed), and for this reason it is a must-learn cocktail for any developing bartender. You can read more about it on our simple syrup post.

Cointreau cocktails continue popping up throughout the 20th century. In 1948, an American socialite, Margaret Sames, created the Margarita and claimed, “A Margarita without Cointreau isn’t worth its salt.”In 1955, the Cointreau Fizz is recorded in the 1948 book, Cocktails, by Jean Lupoiu. Mr. Lupoiu was the president of the French Barmen’s Association at the time. The Cointreau Fizz is a simple but delicious fizz recipe with lime and club soda.

Finally, in 1988 in New York City, Toby Cecchini crated the Cosmopolitan. If I were to drink a vodka drink, it would be a well-made Cosmo. Though frustrating as hell, Carrie got one thing right.

Cointreau is tied to 350 different classic cocktails. I had the tough job of choosing two for this post.

Cocktail Time!

Between the Sheets

3/4oz Cointreau

3/4oz Cognac

3/4oz Rum

3/4oz fresh lemon juice

Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake. Stain into a chilled coupe.

This is another Harry MacElhone cocktail. Harry created this Sidecar variation in 1930 during prohibition while tending bar at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. The drink is also referred to as the Maiden’s prayer.

And for our next round....

Pegu Club

2oz London dry gin

3/4oz Cointreau

3/4oz fresh lime juice

1 dash angostura bitters

1 dash orange bitters

Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake. Stain into a chilled coupe.

Named after the British gentlemen’s club where it was created in the 1920s. Along the Pegu River in Burma, ex-pats hung around in British colonial Rangoon, which is now known as Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. It was first recorded in 1930 in Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book where he notes, “The favourite cocktail at the Pegu Club, Burma, and one that has traveled, and is asked for, round the world,”

For the past 15 years, there was also a renowned cocktail bar in NYC called Pegu Club. This instrumental bar helped revive craft cocktail culture and is responsible for inspiring many bars and bartenders across the world. However, with the COVID19 shutdown, the bar recently announced they will not be reopening. Sadly, John and I missed our opportunity to experience this iconic bar. Still, we’ll continue to make many Pegu Clubs at home and follow the bar's celebrated alumni bartenders in an effort to honor the establishment.

Well, I did not intentionally choose the two cocktails based on their sensual name or smutty history. But hey, some things just come together. Both are certainly both delicious and deserve to be tried once you pick up that bottle of Cointreau. Or your mother picks you up one. Cheers!

Sending triple concentrations of love,

















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