Grand Marnier's unique flavour comes from cognac and Citrus Bigaradia orange peels - there are no herbs or spices added. Indeed, the only additional ingredients are sugar, water and neutral spirit. Grand Marnier Cuvées don't even contain neutral spirit, they are made with just cognac, orange peel, sugar and water.
The secret to creating a liqueur with such complexity of flavour lies in the quality of ingredients used, the skill of the blenders and the processes used.
Citrus Bigaradia, a particularly delicately perfumed variety of bitter orange is used to flavour Grand Marnier because of its high concentration of natural oils and therefore flavour. This citrus fruit only grows in tropical regions where it thrives on a long dry season with plenty of sun. These are sourced from Marnier-Lapostolle's own 500 hectare plantation in Haiti where they are selected and handpicked at their aromatic peak whilst still green. If allowed to ripen, essential oils in the skin would start to be drawn into the fruit. Unlike oranges harvested to be eaten, Grand Marnier are only interested in the peels so their priority is to retain the flavour in the skin.
The oranges are cut and quarters of peel spread out on matting to slowly dry in the Caribbean sun for several days. This slow natural drying process is another important step to ensure the maximum flavour is retained. Once dry, the green skins are packed into hessian sacks to be shipped to France.
At the distillery the dried peels are rehydrated by soaking in water for 24 hours, and then the white part – the 'albedo' is removed from each segment of peel to leave just the green pitted outside skin where all the oils and flavours are concentrated.
In order for the specially designed machine to cut away the albedo, the peels must all be turned white side up. This is achieved by sending the peels cascading down a stepped vibrating shoot. On their journey down the shoot, gravity turns most of the peels over. The odd few that make it onto the conveyor at the foot of the shoot the wrong way around are turned by hand. This hand-sorting process also presents a last opportunity for the operator to pick out any peels that don't appear of perfect quality.
Once the albedo has been removed, the rest of the green peel is put in a vat where it is macerated in neutral alcohol (reduced to 65% alc./vol. with purified water) for three weeks. The skins and now orange flavoured alcohol are poured into sills and slowly distilled together.
The infusion and peels are single distilled in a hybrid copper pot still with a column. Steam heated serpentine coils in the base heat each still with the peels held in the top section by a grid to prevent them burning on serpentine below. A small heart, between just 93% - 89% alc./vol. of the run is taken with the discarded orange-flavoured tails added to the Citrus Bigaradia infusion used for the next distillation.
Cognac and Château de Bourg
Besides Citrus Bigaradia peel, cognac is the other essential ingredient used to make Grand Marnier and incredibly Marnier-Lapostolle are the world's fifth largest purchaser of cognac.
In common with many other cognac houses, Marnier-Lapostolle does not distil its own cognac, it purchases both eaux-de-vie and cognacs from more than 240 suppliers, including 45 distillers across Cognac's top five regions, and then ages it itself. This large supply base helps them attain more consistent blends than would be possible from just a handful of vineyards.
Marnier-Lapostolle's cellar master works closely with local farmers, bouilleurs de cru, and distilleries throughout the year to ensure the quality and variety of cognacs that will be matured at Château de Bourg. Selecting the best cognacs, then ageing and blending them in their own style, ensures the consistency of the finished Grand Marnier liqueur.
The Cognac Appellation is divided into six different growing areas, each of which corresponds to a particular soil type, thereby producing eaux-de-vie with distinctive characteristics. The cognacs which go into the making of the Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge come from Cognac's best five wine-growing areas: Grande and Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois and Bons Bois. The structure of the eaux-de-vie from Bons Bois forms the base to which the other four cru add their aromatic characteristics.
Incidentally, Marnier-Lapostolle also bottle their own Cognac Marnier, the quality of which is a testament to the cellar master’s skill and the care taken over the purchase and aging of the eau-de-vie used to make Grand Marnier.
The relationship with the individual farmers and bouilleurs de cru that supply Grand Marnier with cognac often goes back generations, and it is common practice for Grand Marnier to provide them with brand new casks in which to age their cognac. Indeed, Marnier-Lapostolle are major customers of Cognac's largest cooperage, Vicard Tonnelleries. Ensuring the quality of the eaux-de-vie, the casks and the conditions it is aged in is key to producing great cognac, and so in turn, Grand Marnier.
Each week 50,000 litres of cognac aged at Château de Bourg-Charente is blended with the Citrus Bigaradia orange distillate and beat sugar syrup before being placed in 1,500 hectolitre oak vats to marry and age for one month. This final maturation helps the flavours marry, giving Grand Marnier its characteristic roundness and complexity.
Generations of experience have led to Grand Marnier's polishing process. After maturation the liqueur is chilled to -6˚C, forcing fatty acids in the liqueur to precipitate so allowing them to be filtered out. This ensures the finished product is always clear and bright golden regardless of whether the product is destined for a very hot or very cold climate.
The company's Gaillon-Aubevoye bottling and packaging site in Normandy was built in 1975 to meet growing demand on a site chosen due to its proximity to the large shipping port of Le Havre. Each week, the distillery in Cognac sends 200,000 litres of liqueur to Aubevoye for bottling.
There are quality control checks throughout every step of the process, from grape to finished liqueur. In the laboratory, “triangular tastings” are performed each day with members of trained tasting panels each presented with three black coloured glasses so they can’t be influenced by appearance.
A final precautionary particle filtration is performed at the bottling plant. Then the liqueur is ready to be bottled and to receive perhaps the most famous final touch, tying of the famous red moiré ribbon and the wax seal.
Over 100,000 bottles can be packaged daily on three fully automated lines. However, while this mechanisation is possible for standard bottles, larger bottles and limited editions are still prepared by hand.
Watching the workers hand-tie the red moiré ribbon and apply the wax seal is mesmerising, they make it look so easy. Incidentally Grand Marnier uses more than 1,500 km of ribbon and interestingly, the brass stamps used to apply the logo to the wax are water cooled to avoid the hot wax sticking to the stamp.
After packaging, the majority of production is sent to the nearby port of Le Havre from where it is shipped all over the world to over 150 countries. Grand Marnier is probably the most widely exported French liqueur – a bottle of it is sold every three seconds worldwide.