David Zivan David Zivan | September 10, 2020 | Food & Drink National
Two decades ago, Grey Goose had the audacity to launch a flavorful luxury vodka imbued with French spirit. Now? They are still flying high.
François Thibault, cellar master of Grey Goose
Situated almost directly north of Paris and touching the English Channel along its northwestern edge, the Picardy region of France is home to some of the world’s most grand Gothic cathedrals—all survivors of some of the grimmest battles of World War I. A fair portion of the lands here are planted to sugar beets, a legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte, who ordered the introduction of the crop when the British captured French sugar territories in the Caribbean.
But the breathtaking scenery of the area is provided largely by its vast fields of winter wheat, as golden and picturesque as a postcard. More than 5 million hectares are sown with the grain, which supplies enormous quantities of the nation’s finest flour for its finest baguettes—and gives the region its nickname as the breadbasket of France.
The winter wheat of France’s Picardy region, which is used in making Grey Goose vodka
Still, Picardy’s greatest contribution to posterity may well be the vodkas of Grey Goose, which have graced bar backs around the world for nearly 25 years. A French product from start to finish, sown in the fields of the north and distilled with water from a natural limestone well in Cognac, the spirit is so well-known as to obscure its upstart origins. But, it remains a leader in its category, an elegant and delicious starting point suitable for celebrations of every stripe.
“The most beautiful things often come about in the most naive way—in an unexpected way,” says François Thibault, cellar master of Grey Goose. “When we started, I would never have expected it to become such a success.”
Trim and energetic, Thibault is a leader in the superpremium vodka category. Born in the Cognac region to winemaker parents, Thibault knew early on that he wanted to do work “related to nature,” he says. He trained in wine first in Burgundy and then in Bordeaux, and eventually returned to his roots, beginning an apprenticeship at the storied H.Mounier house. He went on to become cellar master there, eventually working with American importer Sidney Frank, a bon vivant who first brought Jägermeister into wider consumption. It was Frank who suggested Thibault consider making a vodka.
The brand’s “ancestral home,” Le Logis, in Juillac-le-Coq, near Cognac
“At the beginning, we all thought it was just a personal project and that he was looking for some advice,” Thibault says. “But he said, ‘No—I am sharing this idea with you because you are going to be in charge of doing it.’”
Thibault “didn’t know anything about vodka,” he explains, and at first considered using grapes from Cognac, a decision that would have been more than a little unpopular in his home region. But he saw the potential in wheat from Picardy—and knew the water from a well in the small Cognac town of Gensac-la-Pallue would provide an excellent base. A vodka of entirely French provenance was born, and the first bottles arrived in June 1997.
“Some people wouldn’t even talk to him when he first started,” says Emile Chaillot, a Paris-born brand ambassador now based in Chicago. “They told him it would never last. It was a little bit revolutionary. But now those same people cross the street to shake his hand.”
Grey Goose maintains Le Logis, an estate nestled within the tiny Juillac-le-Coq hamlet in Cognac. In the center is a large house with cozy sitting spaces, a formal dining area, a kitchen with an open fire and 15 guest rooms, all sumptuously appointed in an elegant mixture of rustic and luxe. The 17th century limestone building, the brand says, is the vodka’s “spiritual home.”
In one quiet wing, various displays illuminate the particular care the brand puts into the making of its offerings. In an adjacent room, lit like an elegant laboratory, a long table provides an opportunity to taste the vodka in a controlled setting, at various temperatures. It is here that the difference in the product becomes clear.
Cocktails that put vodka front and center
Over the years, Thibault has presided over an expansion of the portfolio: La Poire, L’Orange, Le Citron, La Vanille, Le Melon and Cherry Noir all receive the same high level of attention to ingredient sourcing and distillation. Three years ago, Grey Goose even partnered with legendary chef Alain Ducasse to produce a limited-edition “culinary vodka” meant to be enjoyed with food.
And at room temperature, the core bottling reveals its origins. On the nose, there is a distant aroma of bread. Or better put, of cereal—wheat, distilled to its essence. “In recent years,” Thibault says, taking a deep sniff, “various makers are saying, ‘Oh, we distill 20 times. It’s great. It’s neutral.’ But then you are getting something that’s extremely neutral. We are striving for something elegant to enjoy in your cocktails. Something with character.”
Photography by: Courtesy of Grey Goose