Forget about the garish, neon '80s concoctions such as the Blue Lagoon that were so beloved by tacky hotel resort bars. A different sort of liqueur is gracing the shelves of top bars, yet it's not something new.
Many bars are armed with a range of generic liqueurs, or the latest flavour hit that will remain in vogue for all of three months. But even modest venues will stock at least one proprietary brand such as Galliano, DOM Benedictine, Chartreuse and Cointreau. They boast hundreds of years of history between them, yet are still finding relevance in a world that has given birth to marshmallow and acai-berry-flavoured vodkas.
Many brands live by the mantra of "innovate or die" yet there is also a sound rationale behind being constant, reliable and authentic for more historical brands. One, Cointreau, has even hired a "heritage manager" to spread the word about the liqueur's rich history. And he knows a bit about the brand; at 27, Alfred Cointreau is a sixth-generation member of the Cointreau family that launched Cointreau "Triple Sec" in 1875.
“I travel around the world to meet the distributors and bartenders, to understand the cocktail culture and different ways of drinking … I take care of the history of the brand and the authenticity,” Cointreau explains.
He tells me that in the 19th century, orange liqueurs made with the bitter oranges from the Dutch-controlled Caribbean island of Curaçao were very popular. Oranges themselves were a rare treat that would be given as gifts at Christmas. Édouard Cointreau (Alfred's great-great-grandfather) spent 10 years working on a recipe for triple sec, a triple-concentrated but drier take on the Dutch curaçaos.
“Today we respect very well the authentic recipe created by Édouard Cointreau … and that makes the difference – that's why it is unique and why Cointreau is the best," Cointreau junior says.
"The secret of us surviving this 'marshmallow world', if you will, is because we respect the authentic recipe with just four ingredients … water, alcohol at 96 per cent, sugar from the sugar beet and the sweet and bitter orange peel.”
The master distiller for Cointreau, Bernadette Langlais, has developed a new variant for Cointreau – Cointreau Noir – that Alfred was in Australia to launch this week. But even this innovation is inspired by a recipe by Édouard Cointreau from 1902. Langlais' Cointreau Noir is a blend of 70 per cent Cointreau with 30 per cent champagne cognac from Remy Martin. Cointreau junior assures us that this new release “doesn't lose the DNA of Cointreau”.
Cointreau - the liqueur - and indeed generic 'triple secs' have benefitted by being very versatile in cocktail making, appearing in 20th century classics such as the Sidecar, the White Lady and the Margarita. A resurgence in cocktail culture over the past two decades has certainly helped give liqueurs a new lease on life.
Even more obscure brands such as the herbal DOM Benedictine and Green Chartreuse – whose primary purpose used to be as a digestive tipple – are being dusted off and used in cocktails again.
Chartreuse, which is based on a recipe handed to an order of Carthusian monks in 1605, is positively ancient in the world of spirits and despite its distinctive medicinal flavour is far more versatile than might be expected. A Green Chartreuse cocktail called The Last Word is a cult classic cocktail amongst bartenders in Australia. In New York, the Manhattan has made way for modern takes on its formula like the Greenpoint – named for a trendy neighbourhood in Brooklyn.
60ml straight rye whiskey
15ml Yellow Chartreuse
15ml sweet vermouth
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Add all ingredients into a chilled mixing glass. Fill with ice and stir for about 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist.
45ml of quality cognac
20ml fresh lemon juice
Add all ingredients into a shaker. Shake briskly and strain into a chilled cocktail glass rimmed with castor sugar.
What's your favourite way to enjoy a liqueur?