Back in the 1990s, local bartenders liked to say that Grand Cayman had the highest per capita consumption of Grand Marnier liqueur in the world. There’s no way to tell if that boast was true, but it is safe to say that Grand Marnier has been very popular here for a long time.
Although some see the orange-flavored cognac liqueur as something for the older generation to drink – and perhaps that’s true when it comes to drinking it neat from a snifter – Grand Marnier has found a nice niche among young people as well because of its mixability in modern cocktails. Its versatility as a cocktail ingredient is also a big reason why Grand Marnier is one of the world’s top-selling liqueurs every year.
To highlight Grand Marnier as a cocktail ingredient, regional brand ambassador Damian Moreno visited Grand Cayman in June to give a training session on the liqueur and then to serve as a judge in a cocktail competition at the Grand Old House that offered local bartenders the opportunity to win cash prizes.
Presenting to a standing-room-only slate of local bartenders at Agua restaurant, Moreno talked about Grand Marnier’s long history, which dates to 1827 in France, when Jean-Baptiste Lapostolle established a distillery that produced various fruit-flavored liqueurs. Two generations later in 1876, Lapostolle’s granddaughter married Louis-Alexandre Marnier, who came from a wine-making family.
Taking over the family business, Marnier-Lapostolle quickly turned his attention to making only orange-flavored liqueurs because oranges were seen as a great luxury at the time. In 1880, he then had the idea of blending fine French Cognac made from Ugni Blanc grapes with the bitter peels of particular oranges from Curacao in the Caribbean.
“Citrus bigaradia is the name of this fantastic, very perfumed orange that we use,” said Moreno.
The peels of the oranges were first macerated in neutral alcohol for three weeks to draw out the flavors and then mixed with cognac and sugar and bottled. He also added another ingredient.
“Every product has a secret ingredient. I don’t know it. I want to know it, but they won’t tell me,” Moreno told the bartenders with a laugh.
Marnier-Lapostolle originally called his invention Curacao Marnier, but when his famed hotelier friend Cesar Ritz was given a taste in 1880, he was so impressed, he suggested a different name: Grand Marnier. The name stuck, as did the recipe and the bottle design.
“It’s the same bottle, the same liqueur, after 134 years,” said Moreno. “It’s an old liqueur.”
Unlike a lot of other spirits or liqueur brands, Grand Marnier is still a family-owned company with Jacques Marnier Lapostolle now at the helm. In addition to Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge, the company makes a number of other products, including Grand Marnier Triple Sec, which dates to 1827, Cherry Marnier, which is made with cherries from Turkey instead of oranges, and four luxury “cuvées,” including Louis Alexandre, Cuvée du Centenaire, Cuvée du Cent Cinquantenaire, and Quintessence. The company also produces cognac and wines, including the Château de Sancerre brand from France and the Casa Lapostolle brand from Chile.
Over the years, Grand Marnier has been used in different ways, including as liqueur consumed neat or on ice, in cocktails and as a cooking ingredient in dishes like Crêpe Suzette, Grand Marnier soufflé and others. When it comes to cocktails, Grand Marnier has been used in everything from the classic Red Lion that dates to 1933, to the multi-layered B-52 shooter/cocktail that became popular starting in the late 1970s.
To give the bartenders an idea of the differences between Grand Marnier and Grand Marnier Triple Sec, another orange-flavored liqueur, and Cognac, Moreno provided tastes of all three to the bartenders. After trying the Triple Sec and Hennessy Cognac, Moreno had the bartenders combine the two and compare the result with Grand Marnier.
“It’s similar to Grand Marnier, but not the same,” Moreno noted, adding that the mixture was a little sweeter than Grand Marnier.
To demonstrate Grand Marnier’s versatility in cocktails, Moreno made several drinks for the bartenders to sample including a Grand Margarita, a Grand Ginger, a Grand Tonic and a Grand Fuego shooter, which combined Don Julio Blanco tequila, Grand Marnier and Tabasco hot sauce. He also made a margarita with Triple Sec instead of Grand Marnier to allow the bartenders to compare the two.
Agua bartender Simon Crompton said there was a noticeable difference.
“The Grand Margarita has more body,” he said, adding that if he uses Grand Marnier in a margarita, he finds that he doesn’t need to use as much as he would other orange-flavored liqueurs.
Moreno said Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge currently ranks second in sales in the liqueur category behind Baileys Irish Cream.
“Every two seconds, they sell a bottle in the world,” he said, noting that sales range between 13 million and 14 million bottles per year, with about 8 million of those sold in the United States.
Last month at the Grand Old House’s On the Rocks Lounge, the Grand Marnier Cocktail Competition offered cash prizes to the top three finishers, with the winner getting $500 in addition to a Grand Marnier bartender’s kit and a bottle of Cuvée du Cent Cinquantenaire.
Each bartender was asked to make two of the same cocktails in five minutes using Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge as the base ingredient. The cocktails were all supposed to reflect the Cayman Islands in some way.
The cocktails were judged on six categories worth 10 points each, including flavor, aroma, look and balance. In addition, the bartenders received points for how well the taste of base spirit came through in the cocktail and for their presentation and personality while preparing the cocktails in front of the judges.
The bartenders were penalized for errors such as over- or under-pours, spills and waste, with each occurrence costing them two points.
All 12 of the competitors made imaginative cocktails. The Royal Palms’s bartending trio of Lachlan Morris, Ben Gartland and Conrad Gough all added creative props and some welcome humor to the proceedings.
In the end, three bartenders stood out to the judges above the rest. In third place, Agua’s Simon Crompton, who represented the Cayman Islands in the Diageo Reserve World Class Cocktail Competition global finals last year, won $100 and a bottle of Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge with his Bloody Grand Sour cocktail.
Andy Trattner of the Silver Palm Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, who won the Cayman Islands Diageo Reserve World Class competition this year and will take place in the global finals in late July, took second place with his simple but tasty Grand Cayman Swizzle cocktail. Trattner took home $200 plus a bottle of Louis Alexandre Cuvée du Centenaire for his efforts.
Winning the top prize package was Simone Pagnozzi of Guy Harvey’s, who told a great story about a woman having a dream on the beach while he prepared a delicious cocktail called Just a Dream. That cocktail highlighted the classic flavor combination of oranges and chocolate by using Grand Marnier and chocolate liqueur as two of the ingredients. Pagnozzi earned 53 out of 60 possible points – the top scores for any of the cocktails that evening – on two of the three judges’ score sheets to easily win the competition.