Mike flies south to sample Grey Goose Vodka.
At the Grey Goose HQ a Le Logis, in the heart of the Cognac region’s rolling countryside, their marketing team are laid back and friendly. They don’t need to strain. They have a secret weapon: FranÃƒÂ§ois Thibault. He’s an impish man, immaculately turned out in a blue tailored suit with silk kerchief in his top pocket, a crisp white shirt, brown brogues, designer glasses, a quality watch and a silver Grey Goose lapel pin. It’s clear he enjoys attention to detail.
Our small group has gathered to sample the premium French vodka and to hear the story of how it was born. FranÃƒÂ§ois is constantly animated, waving at security cameras as we circuit the wall of the 16th century chateau. He has a twinkle in his eye. He has done this many times for invited guests but he is enjoying it. The surrounding nine hectares support white grape vineyards. But Grey Goose Vodka has wheat as its starting point, so what are the grapes used for?
We move poolside where chef Anna Barnett has created food pairings to go with versions of their Le Grand Fizz cocktail mixed by Dan Berger, Head of Bars at The Ned in London. Each delicious canapÃƒÂ© and cocktail explores a flavour group; sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. FranÃƒÂ§ois’ mother liked to cook, Ã¢â‚¬Å“She often said I was her biggest criticÃ¢â‚¬Â.
His talent for taste led to wine making courses in Burgundy and Bordeaux before returning here to make Cognac in 1982 Ã¢â‚¬Å“Everyone from this region has a family member somehow involved in the craft of Cognac.Ã¢â‚¬Â He quickly became one of the youngest MaÃƒÂ®tre de Chai – a Cellar Master.
Over the next twenty five years he developed many cognacs before a meeting that profoundly changed his life. The billionaire liquor importer Sydney Frank Ã¢â‚¬Å“Arrived in a chartered Concorde, with his hairdresser, his doctor and a team of musicians and dancers who always travelled on board, he enjoyed lifeÃ¢â‚¬Â.
Frank was famous for taking the unknown German herbal liqueur JÃƒÂ¤germeister and persuading millions of Americans to drink it. He had now spotted a gap in the US market for a high end vodka and wanted FranÃƒÂ§ois to create it.
It seemed crazy and was a big surprise for everyone in FranÃƒÂ§ois family. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The region reacted negatively; they thought I was mad to go against four centuries of Cognac tradition.Ã¢â‚¬Â But Frank was a visionary, Ã¢â‚¬Å“His best attribute was to trust the technicians in their work, I had all liberty to make the products just as I wanted”.
Many vodka companies just buy industrial alcohol and add water, so his challenge was to do something different and better, but he had no clue how. He focussed only on his work. “If you focus on success you will go in the wrong direction”. His research discovered that the first vodkas were made with wheat so he decided not to use the grapes of the region Ã¢â‚¬Å“I would have been beheaded if I didÃ¢â‚¬Â. He controlled all the production himself as he had with cognac. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The head distiller is like a chef, he needs to understand everything to get the best ingredients, the right temperatures and the right timingsÃ¢â‚¬Â.
We now sit at a huge white marble table lit by a single three metre linear light in a chateau room, it is a setting a bond villain would be proud of. Each place is laid out with seven lidded tasting glasses on bespoke trays with a small basket of bread to the side. FranÃƒÂ§ois talks us through the process from field to bottle.
Ble Panifiable Superieur winter wheat from the Picardie region is ground into fine flour and distilled into alcohol. It travels 600km to their purpose built blending and bottling plant in Gensac to be blended with the soft and slightly sweet water the area is famed for, extracted from it’s 150m deep limestone reservoirs. Vodka is 60% water; Ã¢â‚¬Å“It’s the crucial part Ã¢â‚¬â€œ even more taste analysis is done on the water than on the spiritÃ¢â‚¬Â.
We sniff the bread then taste the Grey Goose and even I can detect the similarity.
He elegantly raises a glass to take its bouquet, holding it by it’s base with his thumb. He doesn’t spit after tasting. He loves this liquid and delights in telling others about it. “If I wasn’t born in the region and hadn’t studied oenology I could have missed the chance of a lifetime”.
The vodka is filtered only once – more is not better. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It’s like a chef adding more and more ingredients to his sauce, it doesn’t mean it will taste goodÃ¢â‚¬Â. Over filtration strips out taste and character, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I didn’t approach this as stripping out impurities Ã¢â‚¬â€œ I never let them get in there in the first placeÃ¢â‚¬Â.
We taste the five flavoured varieties; Le Citron with zesty Lemon from Menton on the Cote d’azur, L’Orange with sweet Florida oranges (as French are too bitter), La Poire with William Pears from the nearby Anjou region, Le Melon with Cavaillon melons from Provence and Cherry Noir with black cherries from the Basque region.
He takes the same care and control over the fruit additives sourcing the finest fruits and having them distilled in Grasse, famous for its perfume expertise.
He pioneered’cascade fermentation’ a continuous single distillation process with five column stills. He sees vodka distillation as an art; Ã¢â‚¬Å“If you have a colourful painting it’s not a catastrophe if you get a speck of paint on it. Vodka is like a blank canvas, one tiny speck and you can tell it has been tarnishedÃ¢â‚¬Â.
We sample the Ducasse variety, a collaboration with Michelin starred chef Alain Ducasse resulting in a Vodka made from toasted wheat – an even smoother taste. FranÃƒÂ§ois says it goes especially well with crevette rose (pink shrimp) grilled with a little butter.
The final variety is VX. It is 95% original Grey Goose blended with 5% Cognac aged for only a year in very old barrels which have no tannin left in them. We finally discover what those vines surrounding the chÃƒÂ¢teaux are used for as this young and aromatic Cognac is distilled from them.
Grey Goose was first born in 1997 and the brand became hugely successful. FranÃƒÂ§ois reputation was restored. “The name is an aerial voyage, their Atlantic migration is the perfect synonym for the marriage of the USA and France in the product. It was destiny for the brand to fly beyond this region and become famous all over the world”.
Grey Goose is now in 166 countries. 180,000 bottles are filled per day worth over £6m at the retail price of around £35. In 2004 the company was sold to the Bacardi family for over $2bn. FranÃƒÂ§ois is happy beyond the liquidity his liquid has brought him. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am more lucky than a painter because I can see my success before I dieÃ¢â‚¬Â.
Marketing a product is all about finding and communicating it’s story and here they have a genuine one here. I ask what is up his tailored sleeve next. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I always have new ideas in flavours and for other specific products in my desk, but I can’t tell you them as I lost the key for the drawerÃ¢â‚¬Â. That twinkle in his eye again.