The outrage bubbled up quickly throughout France's Cognac region: François Thibault, Maître de Chai and Cognac mogul, was going to make vodka.
“People were mad,” says Thibault, who still lives in Cognac. “They saw it as cheating on the profession.”
From a young age, François Thibault was obsessed with the science of the senses. The philosophical Frenchman strongly believes in paying attention to interests that present themselves in childhood. He grew up surrounded by wineries and distilleries, so it was only natural that his interests blossomed from there. After studying oenology in his university, he realized that his new scientific skills could be useful back home.
“Within Cognac, there is a real emphasis on preserving our way of life. People who are born there are really driven and encouraged to be involved in the cognac industry to help the region,” says Thibault.
In 1982, he started working at a cognac company and fell in love with spirits. He learned the ins and outs of distilling and in 1992 became a Maître de Chai (Cellar Master) at an impressively young age.
“This was the opportunity of a lifetime. I was ready to be the Cellar Master and dedicate my life to cognac,” he says. “I never imagined another opportunity would arise in the meantime.”
That opportunity came via Sidney Frank, a client who approached Thibault in the 1990s to craft cognac for the American market. In 1996, Frank came back and asked Thibault to craft vodka.
“I told him, ‘That’s not something we do here.’ He said, ‘I know. What I’m asking you to create doesn’t exist anywhere yet,’” says Thibault, while recalling the enormous gap in the vodka market at the time.
Thibault had no idea how he was going to craft a high-end vodka, but he had full confidence in the concept. To this day, Thibault is effervescent and detail-oriented, with an incredibly optimistic attitude, but now he has Grey Goose to show for it.
“If you don’t know something is impossible, you can still do it,” he says with a smile.
When Thibault started examining the raw materials he had at his disposal, he bypassed grapes and went straight to French winter wheat. France is blessed with an ideal climate and unique soil that creates its renowned high-quality wheat, famously beloved by the country’s iconic boulangeries.
“I had to learn to understand the extracts and qualities of wheat. Grey Goose was the first vodka to use whole wheat and transform it. Most competitors don’t source ingredients from the farmers — they buy things already distilled,” says Thibault.
He had the idea to create a custom calibration process, so that he could process materials consistently while still creating the best extractions. The creation process for Grey Goose remains the same to this day. First he has to harvest the wheat, clean it, mill it and transform it into flour, distill it and then blend it into vodka.
Thibault still works directly with the farmers, whose wheat crops take nine months to grow. After harvesting, the whole production process takes four and a half days.
“The steps all need to flow together. It’s very time-consuming, but it’s vital to quality,” says Thibault. “It’s very important to be able to control every step of the process.”
Grey Goose went on to become one of the world’s top spirits brands and changed the vodka market forever. Even so, Cognac residents remained skeptical.
“After I made it, people said, ‘It’s good, but it won’t last.’ Eighteen years later people have come around. They’re more open-minded. Some have been inspired to make their own vodka brands,” says Thibault, who credits the Cognac region’s dedication to quality for all of his opportunities.
When asked if he had any opinions on vodka before he entered the market, François Thibault says, “I had none. I didn’t drink it before I was asked to make it.” And now?
“I have many opinions,” he says with a wink. “I’m always writing down recipes that come to me. I’ve always got ideas and dreams for the future.”