AGAINST All ODDS
IN A SHIFT FROM GRAPES TO GRAINS
By Stephanie Bonilla
Throughout history, there are those fortunate few born as passionate innovators with an innate fire blazing from within to discover the extraordinary. One such man is François Thibault. A coveted cognac cellar master, this innovator went on to achieve the ultimate challenge – one that others would have deemed nearly impossible for a Frenchman: to create an ultra-premium vodka that would spellbind upscale Americans. But achieve the impossible he did when he created Grey Goose.
How the Venture Began
Born in the region of Cognac, France, most famous for its production of brandy and wine, Thibault developed his passion for creating extraordinary spirits early on. The son of a local wine grower, he quickly became immersed in all aspects of the spirit industry. It was his unconventional upbringing that ignited his passion for the creation of quality spirits, leading him to pursue a formal education in wine making. Shortly after receiving a degree in Oenology, Thibault joined a leading Cognac house working under the tutelage of a maître de chai (cellar master), later earning the prestigious title of cellar master himself in 1992.
“The education I received from my family and my endless passion for my vocation led me to gain the confidence I needed to become a cellar master. You don’t go to school to become one,” says Thibault.
But gaining a formal education and a prominent title was not the highest level Thibault’s passion would take him. His endless thirst for an extraordinary concoction gave him the impulse he needed to fly much higher than that. The challenge came when another high-flyer, Sidney Frank, made his way to Cognac in search of the cellar master who would brew his dream to life: a high-quality vodka that would sell well in the existing American market.
So how did Frank end up choosing a cellar master who knew nothing about vodka to become the creator of his dream elixir? Pure chance. An accidental meeting with Thibault led Frank to put all of his proverbial goose eggs in one basket, challenging Thibault into pouring all of his creative juices into the creation of what has become the world’s most popular vodka brand.
“My instinct and inspiration are what drove me to be crazy enough to take on the challenge. In the beginning, many skeptics believed I would fail since vodka is typically assimilated as an Eastern European drink,” says Thibault. “But the philosophy that has always driven me has been this: If you don’t know it’s impossible, then it is possible.” And since Thibault wasn’t certain it was impossible, he blindly challenged himself to make it possible.
Grains from the Breadbasket of the World
After thoroughly researching the vodka making process, Thibault noticed that historically vodka had most often been produced using grain. Since he resided in the country known as the “breadbasket” of the world, Thibault sought the advice of experienced bakers, learning about the different parameters analyzed in order to select the highest-quality grain.
Shifting his mind from grapes to grain, everything else fell into place. “My goal was never to re-create the standard vodka. It was always to create something that had never been attempted before,” says Thibault. And that he did.
So why is it that mixologists all over the world choose Grey Goose over competitor’s brands? Well, it’s all in taste. Today, Thibault still oversees the crafting of Grey Goose vodka, personally tasting every batch, ensuring the vodka’s quality is always maintained and never compromised.
The creation of Grey Goose starts with the very best ingredients from France – including soft winter wheat grown by three local farming cooperatives in the Picardy region of Le Grenier à Blé (the same high grade wheat used in the finest French breads and pastries).
The harvested wheat is trucked to a dedicated mill and distillery, where a small specialized staff of less than two dozen people carefully weighs and verifies the starch content before milling the grain four times. The wheat flour is then blended with exclusive natural spring water naturally filtered through limestone in the Gensac-La-Pallue region of Cognac. Then begins the ‘saccharification’ process of converting starch into glucose and the activation of yeast that initiates fermentation. The resulting ‘wheat mash’ churns through a half-dozen tanks where simple sugars convert into alcohol on its way into a massive column still that ultimately produces the velvety smooth Grey Goose vodka.
“Even with today’s advances in technology, there is no machine capable of replicating the human qualities intrinsic to the creation of Grey Goose,” Thibault said.
Top Notch QC
Every batch of Grey Goose vodka undergoes more than 550 daily quality control checks, including the personal tasting and approval by Thibault. Once a batch receives his thumbs-up nod, the
bottle receives a signature cork that serves as its seal of quality. From field-to-bottle, the expertise of the Maître de Chai François Thibault ensures an unparalleled smoothness and exceptional taste to the connoisseur palate.
Thibault’s passion for creating vodka has continuously grown over his tenure. Recently he enacted the novel idea of adding real fruit flavored spirits to the Grey Goose portfolio: “Cherry Noir,” “L’Orange,” “Le Citron” and “Le Melon.”
Unlike the geese that appear on the iconic bottle of Grey Goose, Thibault has never desired to spread his wings and migrate elsewhere. Cognac will forever be his home. And although he dedicates his inspiration to his homeland, his spirit has become universally popular. Today, Grey Goose bottles are distributed throughout the world in more than 130 countries. So for the man whose passion overcame the impossible, and whose story teaches us to always aim to fly higher, we raise our glass to François Thibault – with a toast that he may always continue to fly beyond.