In the world of wine and spirits, François Thibault is about as close as it comes to royalty. The maître de chai is revered by alcohol experts and lovers as a bona fide icon - and rightly so: it was he who developed the original recipe for Grey Goose vodka in 1997, consequently revolutionising the industry and transforming the drinking experiences of many.
Though it is vodka that Thibault is so renowned for today, wine was his first love. He grew up in the heart of Cognac in France, where he quickly became enthralled with the process of wine-making and the intricate craftsmanship it entails. “Alcohol has always been in my family – my father was a wine grower, so I knew I wanted to work in the industry from a young age,” he tells me. Francois studied oenology in Bordeaux for 7 years before joining the esteemed cognac house H. Mounier. “It was during this time, in the early 1990s, that I was approached by Sidney Frank, the American businessman who brought Jägermeister to the world,” he says. “Sidney had a vision – he wanted to create something a bit different and exciting. Until that point, vodka production was dominated by Eastern Europe and Russia. It was almost unthinkable that we could make it elsewhere, but as someone who loves a challenge, I wanted to see if I could turn my cognac-blending abilities to this new sphere.”
And so, that’s exactly what he did, starting from scratch with raw materials and a novel fermenting process that hadn’t before been used in the creation of vodka. Ultimately, the transition from working with cognac to vodka involved a simple transferral of skills. “I believe that I haven't changed my job, coming from a cognac house to develop vodka,” says Thibault. “I've simply adapted myself to a different type of ingredient but still applied the same rules. I've swapped the grapes for the grain of wheat!”
Grey Goose is the first vodka to be produced using the ancient tradition of Maîtres de Chai: whilst such a venture initially incited controversy from vodka purists, any scepticism was soon quashed upon experiencing the spirit first hand. A lot of this comes down to Thibault’s deliberate use of only the finest ingredients sourced from France - soft winter wheat from Picardy, which has come to be known as le grenier à blé, or ‘the breadbasket’ region, as well as spring water from Gensac-La-Pallue, naturally filtered through limestone. “The easiest thing to do would be to purchase industrially produced alcohol from competitors, rectify it several times and add water,” says Thibault. “This way anyone can make a vodka. I opted for another way, that of turning the process itself into the product, as I always did in my experience as maître de chai in Cognac. By mastering all stages of the process, it is easier to bring the best out of each one.”