What is it about France that has made it synonymous with great food and drink? In part it is nature’s blessings, including the superior wheat grown that has given French breads and pastries such renown. Then there is the spring water that percolates through the limestone foundations of southwest France.
But it is also the national depth of expertise in crafting fine food and drink, the culmination of centuries of practice. Among the innovators: Baron Jean-Baptiste Otard, who in the 19th century recognized the ideal conditions for aging fine cognac. In the 20th century, vintner Henri Jayer invented a cold-soak method to boost complex aromas in wine. And in 2011, the work of Paul Bocuse was so celebrated that he was named “chef of the century” by the Culinary Institute of America for his great achievements in French cooking. Today, another innovator is at work in France—maître de chai François Thibault.
You’ll find Thibault at Le Logis, a restored 17th-century manor that serves as the brand home for Grey Goose Vodka in Gensac-la-Pallue, in the Cognac region of southwest France. Local craftsmen and stonemasons have preserved the building’s architectural integrity, but there are modern touches, including an outdoor dining area, pool and bar. Fruit trees line the grounds, and there is a greenhouse filled with the scents of wild herbs.
The delicious aroma of baking croissants wafts from the Le Logis kitchen. Laid out in the dining area are Mottin Charentais, a regional specialty cheese, mulberry jam made with the fruit from a 300-year-old mulberry tree on the property and smoked trout from a nearby fish farm. It is a breakfast for royalty. The region boasts a climate and terroir that consistently yield exquisite gastronomic bounty from the farms and vineyards dotting the countryside.
Thibault sits at the table. He is the maître de chai (cellar master, a title given to distillers and blenders only after years of training) for Grey Goose. Born and raised in the region, he has centuries of knowledge running through his veins. While working for cognac-maker H. Mounier earlier in his career, Thibault honed his ability to combine the products of the region into one of France’s most celebrated spirits.
Thibault has an inquisitive spirit. By the 1990s he had a vision: to create a vodka from quality French ingredients that would be worthy of the nation’s reputation. He knew that without a source of pristine water, creating the purest-tasting vodka would be impossible. Fortunately, Gensac-la-Pallue is blessed with fine, limestone-filtered water. Next, he chose a superior winter wheat grown in the Picardy region in the north of France. “I am convinced that the quality of Grey Goose Vodka comes from the quality of French winter wheat,” Thibault says. He established relationships with Picardy farmers to ensure he could count on the best of each harvest.
Under Thibault’s watch, the entire grain is milled, fermented and distilled in Picardy to concentrate the natural flavours while the wheat is still fresh. The resulting spirit is then sent to Gensac for filtering and blending with its special water, and finally bottled.
“The cultural tradition of craftsmanship I learned over the years enables me to oversee every step of the production of Grey Goose, from field to bottle,” Thibault says. But, like his innovative French forebears, Thibault is passionate about finding new ways to elevate centuries-old practices. For example, he has developed custom-calibrated production steps that best bring out the unique flavours in vodka. While many vodkas have gone through numerous distillations and filtrations, Thibault relies on just one stage. The more times a spirit is distilled, the more it is stripped of character—and character is the essence of Grey Goose.
Indeed, Thibault’s vodka captures the flavours of France. He ensures that the nation’s wheat and water, and the gentle minerality of the soil, can be detected in every sip. Having achieved the pinnacle of great vodka flavour, Thibault has since extended the Grey Goose line with a collection of flavoured versions: L’Orange, La Poire, Cherry Noir and Le Citron. Ripe, intense and authentic, the aromas are enveloping, the flavours complex yet elegant. Many flavoured vodkas tend to taste sweet, unbalanced and artificial but Thibault uses only highest quality fruit, such as the Menton lemon and Basques cherries, to infuse Grey Goose Vodka.
It wasn’t that long ago that Thibault’s fellow master blenders warned him he was taking a big risk in creating a spirit alien to the region’s heritage. Today, he has earned their respect by creating an ultra-premium, exceptional-tasting vodka that has captivated the world.
And that is so typically French.