Episode 227 – The Margarita: A Sweet Technology

In 1875 – at the height of the Phylloxera crisis, Cointreau created its iconic brand of Triple Sec, using a method we can only assume was very similar to the one pioneered by Combier. Until the introduction of Maison Ferrand’s Dry Curacao in 2011 (which was actually developed in partnership with Dave Wondrich), Cointreau was pretty much the gold standard for what a clear orange liqueur is and should be. So if you encounter – at any point – a cocktail recipe that calls for Triple Sec, go ahead and assume that Cointreau is going to be an exemplary representative of the category.

A Felicitous Partnership

5 years after the launch of Cointreau in 1875, a new player entered the picture and its name was Grand Marnier, a mashup comprised of the surname of the family responsible for inventing it and a timeless suggestion from a helpful friend. The family were the Marnier-Lapostolles, who ran a distilling operation in a town called Neauphle-le-Château just west of Paris, and the friend was César Ritz, the Swiss Hotelier responsible for creating what we now know as the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain.

After tinkering with a large stock of Cognac acquired by his father-in-law, Eugène Lapostolle, Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle decided that it would benefit from the addition of a rare orange extract from the Caribbean (in all likelihood, the very same flavorant used in Orange Curacao). Some fine old Cognac, some orange extract, and a little bit of sugar to marry it all together…et voila! A star is born. 

But to be a star, you need to do more than walk the walk. You need to talk the talk, and you need to dress the part.

In 1880, “La Belle Epoque” was really kicking into high gear in Paris, ushering in a cultural golden age that featured a ton of fashionable trends and innovations. One linguistic fad was to call everything “petite,” which literally means “small,” but is often informally taken to mean “cute” or “charming.” So you didn’t just have a dog, you owned a “petit chien,” and you didn’t just read the daily newspaper, you read either, Le Petit Journal, or Le Petit Parisien. Those were the actual, official names of the publications, not just nicknames.

From Petite to Grand Marnier

So amidst all this cutesy petite-ness, one day, Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle poured a dram of his orange-infused, sweetened Cognac concoction for his good friend, César Ritz, and the latter decided that it would be smart to buck convention, to go against the grain, and call this delicious nectar, “Grand Marnier,” a name that was loud and proud, big and bold, in a world where many seemed ready to kick back against the stifling “petiteness” of the bourgeoisie. 

So now we’ve got a spirit that talks the talk AND walks the walk…but how would it dress the part? Well, that’s where the tradition of the Cognac region comes in. If you look at a bottle of Grand Marnier, you’ll notice that it resembles the traditional alembic (or “Charentais”) still design used by French brandy distillers. This, of course, is no coincidence. The bottle was designed to look strikingly different – to stand out from the herd – and the whole ensemble is adorned with a red ribbon (or “cordon rouge”) affixed to the bottle with a wax stamp. For this reason, the term “cordon rouge” very quickly became synonymous with Grand Marnier’s signature product.

But it wasn’t just Grand Marnier who benefitted from its relationship with César Ritz. The hotel magnate famously partnered with Georges Auguste Escoffier, one of the most famous and influential French chefs of all time. The liqueur was very quickly adopted by their respective food and beverage programs, also featuring in one of Escoffier’s most iconic recipes: Crêpes Suzette. This immediate exposure to the wealthiest palates across the continent catapulted…to talk about.

Orange Liqueur, In Summary

Taken as a group, the trio of Orange Curacao, Triple Sec, and Grand Marnier are the three orange liqueurs that best define the category of “orange-sweetened sours” that eventually evolved into the Margarita. Curacao focuses on the intensity and uniqueness of the bitter orange flavor, Triple Sec operates by trying to convey all the orange flavor of Curacao, but without nearly as much sugar, and Grand Marnier is predicated on the notion that extravagance and boldness can bring any beverage experience to the next level. 

Orange liqueurs in general, and bottles like Cointreau and Grand Marnier in particular, were a huge part of beverage culture in continental Europe and beyond by the early 20th century, when Americans began quaffing “sunrise tequilas” at Mexican resorts, as we mentioned at the conclusion of Part I. But while all this experimentation with “new-style” and “old-style” daisies was happening in the new world, a new conflict was about to break out in Europe. I mean, yeah, there was some little squabble about an archduke assassination that got a few people bent out of shape, but the conflict I’m referring to is one that would push bartenders to not merely combine spirits, acids, and orange liqueurs, but also to seriously consider and ruthlessly defend the ratios they used in the cocktail shaker.

The Sidecar: Conflicting Formulations

To learn why, we need to set the timeline back about 100 years before the present day to a famous bar in Paris, where a bartender named Harry MacElhone was whipping up drinks for thirsty American Expats who couldn’t drink out in the open on their native soil, where the Volstead Act was in full force.

His venue was known as Harry’s New York Bar, and this eponymous joint is absolutely legendary in the beverage world as being the definitive or assumed origin of drinks like the French 75, Bloody Mary, Old Pal, Monkey Gland, and, importantly for this episode, the Sidecar. According to cocktail historian Simon Difford, whom we’ll return to in just a minute:

The son of a jute mill owner from Dundee, Scotland, Harry first worked at number 5 Rue Daunou in Paris (the site that he would later acquire and turn into Harry’s Bar) when Milton Henry Opened his New York Bar there in 1911. He then headed to America, working at the Elton Hotel Bar in Waterbury, Connecticut, and the Plaza Bar, New York, before serving in the air force in World War I.

When the war ended, Harry took up a role at Ciro’s Club, London, where he became enough of a celebrity to publish his first book, Harry of Crio’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails in 1921.”

In this book, we find a recipe for the Sidecar cocktail, which is described as containing equal parts Cognac, the orange liqueur Cointreau, and Lemon Juice. I managed to dig up a scanned PDF of the book online, so you can head over to the show notes page if you’d like to see how it appears in its original format. Unfortunately, the edition I was able to find was the 1923 reprint, and not the original version that came out two years prior, but you’ll note that at least this edition of the book credits the Sidecar to a bartender named Pat McGarry at Buck’s Club in London. The same equal parts recipe also appears in another 1922 book called Cocktails: How To Mix Them, by a Belgian-born bartender named Robert Vermeire.

Around the same time, a second recipe for the drink appears, courtesy of Paris Bartender Frank Meier, who tended bar at The Ritz. According to a Tweet thread I dug up from Dave Wondrich (also linked in the show notes), this recipe was published in 1923, a year after the two equal-parts formulas hit print, and had something that Wondrich describes as a ⅔ – ⅙ – ⅙ formulation. This looks SOMETHING like 1 ¾ ounces of Cognac, paired with about a third of an ounce each of lemon juice and Triple Sec.

A little less than a decade later, a book would come out that presented a schism in the church of brandy sours much like the schism between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The author was a barman by the name of Harry Craddock, the book was the legendary Savoy Cocktail Book, and HIS recipe for the Sidecar calls for 2 full ounces of Brandy and one ounce each of orange liqueur and lemon juice.

London vs. Paris

Craddock’s Sidecar recipe became known as the “London” school, since he tended bar at a London hotel, while the equal parts rendition became known as the “Paris” school. Ironically, it may have been Frank Meier’s Paris Ritz version that inspired Craddock (since Craddock’s formula uses similar ratios, but different measures), and we know with very little doubt that the equal parts Paris version was originally created by Pat McGarry in London.

While all of this chiasmatic cocktail commerce twixt London and Paris makes for incredibly confusing historical commentary, the upshot is this:

As different palates and sensibilities had the opportunity to test and tweak the Sidecar formulation, it migrated from an equal-parts recipe to something that resembles what we today would think of as a classic sour ratio: 2 or 3 parts booze, one part sour, and one part sweet.

Now, all these measurements are a huge pain in the neck to keep track of if you’re just using automatic recall, so I’ve created a very special Google Sheet with all the recipes I referenced here and in Part I so that we can do a little bit of number crunching, and so you can compare these different builds based on other qualities like publication date, service method, and ABV. So please, if you have the chance, take a look at all these different sour cocktail recipes lined up next to one another on that spreadsheet. I guarantee it’ll give you a completely new appreciation for the format. 


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