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There is no substitute

East Coast bartenders, especially around Baltimore and D.C. are a funny breed, or were when I was first learning the skill.

My first bartending job was at a steakhouse franchise called Beefsteak Charlie’s. I learned a lot from that job. I had five blenders for dessert cocktails, two very industrial blenders for frozen drinks and a full bar for everything else. I would be servicing 17 waiters on a Saturday night and it was not uncommon for me to be underwater (making drinks) for 40 minutes at a time. It made me fast, but it could be exhausting.

So when I went out with other bartenders to drink and unwind, for some reason, when drinking beer, shots of Grand Marnier would be drunk on the side.

Not whiskey or tequila, Grand Marnier.

The actual product we drank is Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge, an orange-flavored liqueur created in 1880 by Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle. It is made from a blend of Cognac brandy, distilled essence of bitter orange, and sugar, containing 40 percent alcohol (80 proof).

It is commonly consumed “neat”(no ice) as a cordial or a digestif, and can be used in mixed drinks and desserts. Popular examples of the latter include crepes Suzette and crepes au Grand Marnier.

It is usually sipped in a brandy snifter. The aroma is strong cognac but sweet. It was not designed to be drunk as a shot. But East Coast bartenders are a crazy lot, especially if the bartenders partying are good friends.

My great friend and roommate for a couple of years, George Houst and I were uncompromising about drinking it with our beers. He was a top-notch bartender and when we went out together, it was a lot of fun. 

We often clicked our glasses full of G.M., drank in one gulp, and would say, “Grand Marnier, there is no substitute.”

It is a fine liqueur that should not be drunk as a shot, but because it shouldn’t, that is why we did it. When you are in your 20s, you do a lot of off-the-wall stuff.

According to its official website, Grand Marnier’s first distillery was built in 1827 by Jean Baptiste Lapostolle in the village of Neauphle-le-Château. His granddaughter Julia married Louis-Alexandre Marnier in 1876, and four years later, the Marniers released a signature cognac with Haitian bitter orange.

The brand has released anniversary editions of its well-known liqueur lines and became popular in the United States in the 1980s. 

There have been some different experiments with this liqueur, including a cream version which was amazing, but it has been gone for decades. The three that are most popular are:

Cordon Rouge (“Red Ribbon”) is an orange-flavored cognac liqueur and the original Grand Marnier liqueur, created in 1880. It is not a cheap bottle, running somewhere between $40 and $45 for a 750 ml bottle. This was the spirit we did shots with and also cooked with.

Cuvée du Centenaire (“Centennial Edition”) was first released in limited quantities in 1927 to commemorate the 100th anniversary. It is made with up to 25-year-old fine cognacs and is consumed neat. On average, Cuvée du Centenaire est $145 per bottle. Personally, this is my favorite when I can find it. 

The Cuvée Spéciale Cent Cinquantenaire (“Special Sesquicentennial Edition”) was created in 1977 to honor the 150th anniversary of the brand and is currently the most expensive variety of Grand Marnier. It is made with up to 50-year-old cognacs in frosted glass bottles featuring hand-painted Art Nouveau decorations. In 2005, it was marketed with the slogan “Hard to find, impossible to pronounce, and prohibitively expensive.”

It does seem to run $1200 to $2000 a bottle when I went on the net to find it. The crazy thing is, I can remember getting it for around $100 back in the 80s which was expensive back then, but not $1200. In fact, my buddy George gave me a bottle on several birthdays. Sort of wish I had just kept them now instead of drinking them, but what is the fun in that?

I learned a lot about Grand Marnier from just drinking it all the time, and when I was in Taiwan, I got to know the Asian Director of this company. Back then it was still family-owned. Anyway, because I was so familiar with the product, Yves (the director) asked me to be their brand ambassador for Taiwan and China. I thought about it, but when he asked me, I was Jim Beam’s brand ambassador for Taiwan and they said I could be one or the other, but not both. Ah well….

I met the owners in Shanghai once and got to have some awesome desserts cooked with Grand Marnier when they took me to dinner. No wonder I love the stuff. 

On 15 March 2016, the Campari Group announced a friendly takeover offer for Société des Produits Marnier Lapostolle S.A., the owner of Grand Marnier. It was not a family business any longer. I was a little bummed that day, because I knew Grand Marnier would become corporate. That is not usually a good thing.

It is not only for sipping and doing shots but is quite good in citrus cocktails.

There is a good chance if a person orders a Cadillac Margarita, it will have Grand Marnier in it.

A classic cocktail from the 1930s is called the Red Lion and until the Cadillac Margarita, it was the most famous cocktail using Grand Marnier.

It is 1-ounce gin, 1-ounce Grand Marnier and 3-ounces orange juice. Put all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake. Then pour into a martini glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

I will point out that because of the high sugar content, doing shots of it, does give a strong buzz, for lack of a better way of saying it, and the hangover can be brutal. Again, only bartenders would drink like this and face the hangover. At least that is my theory, especially since this was reinforced to me when I was in Hawaii. 

I was partying with a group of bartenders from the West Coast and I mentioned doing a shot of G.M. with my beer. 

One of the people said, “Oh yeah, that is an East Coast way of drinking it. I heard about that.”

Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.

There are some products that taste close to Grand Marnier and will work fine in cocktails like the Cadillac Margarita. They are way cheaper too. Gran Gala is the first that comes to mind.

But when it comes to drinking this spirit as a shot, especially with a beer chaser, don’t settle for those cheaper versions.

In the words of my friend George and me some years back ”Grand Marnier, there is no substitute.”

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