Meet François Thibault, the man who oversees Grey Goose Vodka from grain to glass

Grey Goose’s Joe McCanta and François Thibault. Photo: Jason Bailey

François Thibault has an enviable job. As the cellar master for Grey Goose — the Maître de Chai if you will — Thibault [pictured above with global brand ambassador Joe McCanta] not only oversees every aspect of the production of Grey Goose, he’s also the guy who created it in the first place.

It’s not a job just anyone can do, either: Thibault was born into a winemaking family in Cognac, studied winemaking and oenology, and spent some seven years as an apprentice, and another 25 years as the Maître de Chai making cognac.

So when he started out on the journey to make Grey Goose, he did it the only way he knew how.

Thibault was in Sydney recently for the Grey Goose Getaway, which saw lucky bartenders and bar owners from around the country gather up the coast from Sydney, away from the hustle and bustle and the madness of their bars, for a day and night hosted by Thibault and McCanta.

We sat down with Thibault to find out what it is that makes Grey Goose Vodka special.

Grey Goose’s François Thibault. Photo: Jason Bailey

What are some of the big lessons you’ve taken from the craft of cognac and applied to crafting Grey Goose?
The main difference is this: the cognac we’re going to age it, but not the vodka.  But the common point is that they are both spirits, and to make a spirit we need a fermentation.

Are there particular types of yeast that you use to create Grey Goose? What can you tell us about them and what they contribute to the final spirit?
When we began the creation of Grey Goose, we took eight months to develop the recipe, and we tried many different types of yeast for fermentation. The yeast we selected is a variant of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. We selected this yeast for three qualities: its alcohol-making power (yield); it created less secondary alcohol molecules; and its aromatic potential.

Today we use the same yeast that we used in the beginning, 22 years ago. It is important to always have the same yeast so the flavour profile is always the same. In the 10 percent ABV bread wine there is a flavour of breadcrumbs and a little bit of almond which is specific to our yeast. These flavours continue on in the final product.

We know that Grey Goose uses a high grade of Picardie winter wheat as the raw material — why is this important, and what does it contribute to the character of Grey Goose?
Well to start with, we mill our own wheat — this ensures we capture its flavour.

I believe that to create the best spirit, we needed full control of our ingredients. And we have only ever used two: soft winter wheat from Picardie and spring water from our own well in Gensac-la-Pallue.

Unlike many vodkas available, we refuse to buy in an existing spirit and re-distil it. Instead, I wanted to start at the beginning, by selecting and controlling the base ingredient. 

I believe that soft winter wheat — sown in the autumn, harvested nine months later in midsummer — produces the best-tasting spirit. This soft winter wheat has the ideal balance of starch, gluten and minerals, and – when milled – produces a superior flour. It’s the finest bread-making wheat.

In France, wheat is divided into four categories, and the best is Blé Panifiable Supérieur, the only wheat considered good enough to make the finest French bread and pastries.

The wheat fields regularly undergo crop rotation with crops such as linen or sugar beets to always assure there is enough nutrients in the soil to support the unique terroir. And the wheat required for an entire year’s production of Grey Goose vodka is easily supplied from the annual harvest: one square metre of land provides just enough wheat for one bottle. France is the world’s fifth largest producer of wheat and in all we use just less than 1000th of the annual harvest in one region of the country.

We don’t use GMO wheat. Ever. All our wheat is SAI certified. That means we can guarantee a set of sustainable agricultural practices were used in its production. These include no irrigation and culture rotation, to ensure soil regeneration.

Good times at the Grey Goose Getaway. Photo: Jason Bailey

Can you outline the five step distillation process you use for Grey Goose? How does it separate Grey Goose from other vodkas?
We don’t do multiple distillations, instead we do one continuous distillation with five steps. The first step is to concentrate the bread wine from 10% to 92% ABV. A process of refinement happens over the following four steps.

In these four next steps we determine the profile, the flavour and the aroma. After the five steps, you have concentrated wheat spirit at 96%. The distillation always starts with the last tank of fermentation so it is always continuous.

You have two options when making vodka: one is that you can buy industrial alcohol which means you have to do many distillations and rectifications — it means you are not able to make a quality product. 

But with Grey Goose we don’t have to do that. We control every step, from fermentation to bottling. As the Maître de Chai of cognac, you learn that in order to make a good spirit you have to have a good wine to start with.

Many bartenders find tasting and assessing vodka more difficult than other spirits. How do you approach the task? 
You need to practise a lot. You always need to do a tasting in the same conditions, and the same ambient temperature, and you should do one tasting at 40 percent and another at 20 percent ABV. The first thing you’re going to notice is the ethanol, it’s not very agreeable; with Grey Goose the alcohol is not aggressive, and because of that you can really get the taste of the wheat and the fermentation. 

You need to try a lot of vodkas to get to know the differences, and to practise every day.

Grey Goose Le Fizz, anyone? Photo: Jason Bailey