The just-drinks Interview - Panos Sarantopoulos, CEO of Remy Cointreau's liqueurs & spirits unit

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Earlier this year, Panos Sarantopoulos was promoted by Remy Cointreau to head up its liqueurs & spirits division. Late last month, Richard Woodard travelled to France to meet him.

While Remy Martin dominates the portfolio, Remy Cointreau has a raft of other spirits brands

While Remy Martin dominates the portfolio, Remy Cointreau has a raft of other spirits brands

Despite their location on a distinctly unglamorous industrial estate on the outskirts of Angers in the Loire Valley, the headquarters of Cointreau offer a serene and elegant oasis, a world away from the workaday garages and packaging plants on their doorstep.

Panos Sarantopoulos, the new man at the helm of the brand (as well as several other Rémy Cointreau spirits and liqueur names), could be forgiven for enjoying that sense of calm. He's fresh – if fresh is the word – from a three-year stint turning around the company's previously moribund Metaxa brand – an icon of his native Greece that was sent spiralling into crisis by that country's descent into economic hell.

A few years prior to that, Sarantopoulos was the man running Krug Champagne when Lehman Brothers collapsed, taking the luxury Champagne market with it. Being put in charge of Cointreau, a brand whose annual sales have held steady at just over 1m cases for the past few decades, might be viewed as a nice change of pace.

Not that Sarantopoulos is taking things easy. He details two main challenges at Cointreau: Completing the virtuous circle of value and volume growth, and transforming the image of the brand from cocktail staple to marquee spirit name in its own right.

"The question is, how can you move from being an ingredient [in classic cocktails] to affirming the presence and personality of the house, to taking centre stage?" he asks. "How can you have the friends of the taste of Cointreau actually calling its name? Broadly speaking, that's the challenge."

The keys to this process surround us at the excellent visitor centre housed in the Cointreau distillery: History (Cointreau has been making triple sec since 1875; the family sold up in 1989, but sixth-generation Alfred Cointreau is now brand ambassador); a pioneering approach to advertising and marketing (it claims the first cinema ad in 1899); and what Sarantopoulos calls the "DNA" of the brand, which he sums up as "authentic, elegant and avant-garde".

And then, there is the Cointreau Fizz, a combination of Cointreau, lime juice and soda water which has its roots in the mid-1950s but is now the centrepiece of the current brand strategy. Simple, easy to make and readily adaptable with any number of "twists", the idea is that this is a serve that can work anywhere in the world.

Panos Sarantopoulos, CEO of liqueurs & spirits at Remy Cointreau

"Fizz works in practically every market I've seen," says Sarantopoulos. "There is a twist to it though: In the US, the same drink is called Cointreau Rickey, simply because Fizz in the US bar vocabulary is a different drink.

"We are proposing it as both an after-work drink, and also at moments when you might have a glass of Champagne. You should see the waiters with Cointreau Fizz siphons at the cabanas around the pools in Florida, or the Cointreau Fizz bars where the staff prepare the drinks and the customers 'twist' them themselves. It's absolutely fantastic."

Metaxa's rebirth was partly engineered by new, premium line extensions, while Cointreau has the recently-launched Cointreau Noir (a blend with Rémy Martin Cognac) and a culinary spin-off in an atomiser bottle. So, is NPD on the Angers agenda?

"The workhorse of Cointreau is Cointreau Original," Sarantopoulos responds. "This is where we progress and where the main growth is going to come from." 

Variants such as Noir, he is swift to add, are not "flavours" in the modern sense of the word, but are instead "perfectly aligned to our DNA" – noting that Noir is itself a nod to the Cointreau Majestic of the early 20th Century, another Cointreau-and-Cognac combination.

Nor is Sarantopoulos keen on talk of Cointreau Noir taking on rival Grand Marnier – with which, after all, it shares many characteristics – head-to-head. 

"When it comes to the market, we let Cointreau Noir speak for itself," he says. "It's not having to deal with a given competitor – we don't look at the brand this way. The world is a big place, and there are plenty of moments out there, plenty of occasions."

Sarantopoulos isn't keen to talk in detail about the other brands under his management – as if it would be bad form to discuss anything other than Cointreau in Angers – but he acquiesces to touch briefly on the rest of his portfolio.

St-Rémy, the number one French brandy? "There, we have to drive, to move towards the higher qualities, the older qualities. St-Rémy XO is one of the main focuses."

Passion fruit liqueur Passoã? "The idea is that Passoã has a fantastic following as a liqueur and it's increasingly finding friends as a cocktail in a bottle – there are going to be other expressions of bottled cocktails around Passoã … . Passoã has this fantastic opportunity, because it's so innovative, to branch out into other categories. Convenience, flavour and innovation are big things for Passoã."

Basque liqueur Izarra? "…is being nurtured. It's been around since 1906. Its days of glory were in the '60s and '70s, but it can come back in a world of vintage liqueurs".

Spiced cream liqueur Ponche Kuba? "The number one premium crema in that sub-category of cream liqueurs. Its stronghold is around the Caribbean basin and south/south-eastern US, and certain parts of Benelux. There, the idea is to see to what extent the exotic feel, the unique flavour profile of Ponche Kuba can appeal to broader audiences."

More broadly, Sarantopoulos' challenge will be to enhance the profitability and global reach of brands that have historically played second fiddle to Rémy Martin Cognac – which, despite its recent slump in China, still accounted for 70% of Rémy Cointreau revenues in the last fiscal year, and 77% of operating profits.

And, given that Metaxa, Mount Gay rum and Bruichladdich single malt Scotch are all managed separately, Cointreau clearly has still a huge role to play. "Cointreau is a big part of this," Sarantopoulos says. "The idea is to find a way to bring Cointreau centre-stage. This is what is going to really make a difference – Cointreau is the big one."

Sectors: Spirits, Wine

Companies: Remy Cointreau

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