13:50 GMT // 11 Jul 2011
Bacardi bought Grey Goose vodka seven years ago and they've never looked back. We had the honour of being the first journalists to visit Picardie and Cognac to see exactly how Grey Goose is made, from wheat grain to finished bottle. We were shown processes not previously seen by anyone outside the brand and now understand why Grey Goose was such a great buy.
To properly understand how the brand came about, it's important to go right back to the beginning - to Sidney Frank himself. His vision for a super premium vodka, his determination to make it in France, and his mission to source the best ingredients and most skilled people laid down the foundations for this brand's success.
Frank was an entrepreneur from a young age. While some kids might have brought home a bit of pocket money from paper rounds or mowing lawns, Frank had bigger ideas. Aged 12-years-old, he built a very long ladder, and charged tourists 10 cents each to climb to the top of a large rock near his house.
Thanks to various other imaginative schemes, Frank raised enough money to go to Brown University, although his funds ran dry after a year (he would later donate $100m to Brown to set up a scholarship scheme to help other students who couldn't afford the fees).
In a Daily Mail interview, Frank announced that the easiest way to make a million dollars is to "marry it rather than earn it". Although this might seem quite cynical coming from a man who was actually rather good at earning millions all by himself, Frank was, in fact, speaking from experience.
While he was at Brown, he proposed to Louise Rosenstiel six times, and eventually persuaded her to marry him. Conveniently, Rosentiel's father happened to be the founder of Schenley Distillers - America's largest distillery at the time - so no longer was Frank a farm boy, but his marriage had propelled him to the high echelons of American society.
After a successful spell in his father-in-law's company, Frank was forced out in 1970, only to spring straight back by launching his own company two years later, called 'Sidney Frank Importing'. Frank's first triumph was with Jägermeister, where he employed the foolproof marketing campaign of shifting liquor by using scantily clad women - 'The Jägerettes'. He toured America, and used his Jägerettes to persuade college boys to switch their shot of choice to Jägermeister. Sales went through the roof.
Frank's next venture was into high-end vodka. Absolut was a pop-culture sensation but selling for a mere $15 per bottle. Frank decided he was going to make the "world's best tasting vodka", and was convinced that people would spend $30 to drink a superior tasting spirit made from the best possible ingredients.
At the time, premium vodka was a groundbreaking concept, but Frank had always thrown caution to the wind, and gone with his gut instinct for what would sell. If that wasn't enough, he decided to shock people even more by producing his vodka in France, despite Poland or Russia being the traditional homeland for
There was logic to Frank's reasoning - France has centuries of spirit making expertise, as well as some of the finest wheat and water in the world. Additionally, Frank clearly understood that you're only as good as the people you hire, and Frank had some good people lined up in France. In particular François Thibault.
Thibault had already produced a range of Cognacs for Frank's importing company, and had been head of the team that was responsible for creating Jacques Cardin. As Maître de Chai, Thibault was fascinated with innovation and experimentation in the world of spirits, and his willingness to push boundaries inspired Frank to approach him to ask whether he could apply his spirit-making expertise to the creation of a super premium vodka. Thibault agreed, and assumed responsibility for every element in the creation of Grey Goose, right from the selection of the highest quality ingredients to the design of the distillation process and the blending of the final spirit.
Thibault continues to work for Grey Goose, and his affection for the product is evident from the stories he tells - like a proud father reminiscing over years of parenting.
"When Sidney was ready to place his first order, he sent over a fax for an order of 30,000 cases," Thibault recalls. "The sales guy thought that it must have been a mistake - he thought that maybe he'd got the decimal point in the wrong place, but Frank said 'I really want 30,000 cases'. The sales guy stuck the fax on the wall of the office, because for several days afterwards, none of us could believe it."
The risk paid off, and Grey Goose flew off the shelves - so much so that in 2004, Bacardi Ltd offered Frank a rumoured $2.4bn for Grey Goose, and he accepted. By the time of his death in 2006, the Connecticut farm boy was living out the American dream - six houses, chefs, Maybachs, Bentleys, and (bizarrely) a private golf team who'd play on demand, taking Frank's advice on which clubs to use.
The name Sidney Frank still commands heartfelt respect in the industry, and will do for a long time. He was a marketing genius - branded a "hero" by Michel Roux, the man behind the Absolut vodka bottle advertising campaign. An enduring successful spirits brand is not just born out of marketing though - the product has to justify and outlast the hype. There's something more that put Grey Goose alongside Bombay Sapphire and Dewars, as brands that have caught Bacardi's eye as a sparkling investment.
What Frank left behind, and what Bacardi Ltd continues to perpetuate, is a modern alcohol masterpiece - one that combines high quality, carefully sourced raw materials and production processes, dictated by Thibault, with a sound commercial nous that's been often imitated, but rarely duplicated.
Deep in 'the breadbasket of France' are the soft winter wheat fields of Picardie. Located in the north of the country, the area is blessed with perfect wheat growing conditions - an ideal combination of temperature, humidity and rich alluvial soil. The wheat used to make Grey Goose is supplied exclusively by three farming cooperatives - one of which Marc Egret belongs to.
A row of children's wellington boots are lined up in the hallway of Egret's house. This is no purpose-built wheat processing unit, but a three-century-old family enterprise. Egret lives in Tupigny - a village with five hundred inhabitants in Picardie. Since he took on the family farm in 2004, it's more than doubled in size to over 2,000 acres, and has become a main supplier of wheat for Grey Goose vodka.
Egret uses hi-tech equipment to keep an eye on the soil, but he still decides when it's time to harvest by biting on a piece of wheat. Despite farming on a large scale, it's clear that he still respects the tried-and-tested methods that have been handed down the generations in this successful farming region.
When we met Egret in November, it was coming to the end of sowing season, and there were just 100 acres to go. It's pretty quiet then until March when he begins an in-depth soil analysis using satellites to create 'soil spreadsheets'. These colour code the soil: red tells Egret that the area is in need of more nitrates, and green tells him that it's doing just fine.
"The soil is just like a person," Egret says. "If you feed it too much, then it bloats and isn't any use, but if you don't feed it enough, then it starves. It's important to keep a healthy balance."
Thankfully, Egret doesn't have too much trouble due to the location of his farm. Northern France has a naturally good 'ratio' between the soil and the climate, which makes it a perfect location for wheat production:
"In Ukraine, the soil's great and there's lots of organic matter in it, but the climate's very changeable," Egret says. "In southern areas like Spain, the climate's consistently good, but the soil's too dry. France has a great balance of good soil and consistent climate which makes it very successful in wheat production," he added.
Standing at the edge of a gigantic field which rolls off into the distance, Egret explains how one square metre of farming land produces enough wheat to make just one bottle of Grey Goose vodka. It's the start of a long and laborious journey which takes Egret's wheat and turns it into a bottle of Grey Goose vodka.
Not far from Egret's farm lies Saint-Quentin, the kind of typical French town you'd expect to see in films such as Amélie or Chocolat - all narrow streets and old brick houses. There's one peculiarity though, and that's the block of chimneys visible in the outskirts, betraying the location of Grey Goose's distillery.
The variety of wheat used to make Grey Goose is Blé Panifiable Supérieur, the same wheat used to make the finest French bread and pastries. This arrives at the distillery in 25-ton lorries where it is checked for quality and moisture content before being stored in a 320 ton silo. Before it can be fermented, the wheat must first be milled into flour.
It is worth remembering that the majority of vodka producers do not actually distil their own base spirit. Many of the makers of even the best-known and most respected vodka brands start by buying in third-party distilled neutral alcohol. Furthermore, those few vodka distillers who do actually distil their own base spirit don't tend to mill their own wheat. Milling the wheat on-site means that Thibault and his team are able to control any damage to the flour and maximise its freshness when fermentation begins.
As with every other aspect of Grey Goose production, the milling process benefits from custom-designed technology. In this case, a series of extraordinary contraptions linked by transparent tubes zig-zag across the ceiling, propelling the grain into different machines on different floors of the multi-story mill building next to the fermentation tanks. It's sieved, the dust is removed and then it's put through a remarkable vibrating machine which removes any stones or other foreign bodies.
Once the wheat has been moistened and rested for 24 hours, it's subjected to the most impressive of all the machines: The Plansichter. Despite sounding like a German S&M club, the purpose of the contraption is actually to grind down and sieve the wheat through four different rollers which get consecutively smaller so that the grain is ground to a fine flour - perfect for maximum fermentation. Water is added to the flour to turn it into a paste, and enzymes are added to the mixture to start breaking down the starch to make sugars.
François Thibault explains how each process has to be individually assessed. "It's not a case of just entering a formula and pressing a button," he says. "The key is to know how to extract the best from the mash. You want to concentrate the flavours you already have and make the most of what's there."
Thibault sees vodka distillation as an art. "If you have a painting with lots of colours on the canvass, then it's not a catastrophe if you get a speck of paint on it. With vodka, it's like having a blank canvas - if you get one tiny speck of paint on it, then you can tell straight away that it's been tarnished.
"The head distiller is like a chef - he needs to know the best ingredients, the right temperatures and the right resting period. It's all down to knowing your ingredients, and understanding how they work." Understandably, when probed for exactly what these "right temperatures" are, Thibault was reticent to divulge the exact process. However, we can tell you that five state-of-the-art continuous column stills are used and that the rectification columns operate under a partial vacuum. And that the mash goes into the first column still at 10% abv and emerges from the third and fourth rectification columns at 96.3% abv.
The rectified high proof wheat spirit is transported the 600 kilometres from the distillery to Gensac, Grey Goose's purpose built blending and bottling plant. Although there have already been more than 500 quality checks between the wheat fields and Gensac, the high proof spirit is checked again on arrival. At this point the vodka is still at 96% abv - the same strength it was transported at, so the next step in the process is to blend with the all important water to reduce it to bottling strength.
The Gensac plant was completed in 2001 - before that, the blending and bottling was handled by Thibault at the H. Mounier's facilities in Cognac. Just as the distillery is strategically sited in the wheat-growing plains of Northern Picardie, the bottling plant is purposefully located in Gensac - in the suburbs of Cognac, a region famed amongst distillers for its soft and slightly sweet spring water. This originates in the North East of Cognac, passing through limestone soil to emerge in the Gensac spring.
"If the water's not perfect, then it will express bad taste from the spirit," says Thibault. "The vodka is 60 per cent water - it's the crucial part. There's even more taste analysis done in the water than in the spirit."
The water Grey Goose uses comes from a well just outside the building. Although the water is very 'pure', excess minerals must be removed so there's no residue and sedimentation present in the finished vodka. No chemicals are used to extract the minerals - instead the water is demineralised by reverse osmosis. This involves it being pumped through tubes at a very high pressure and then being forced through a selective membrane. The larger molecules and ions are unable to pass through the membrane and so are separated from the now demineralised water.
When the molecules of alcohol and water meet, they release energy, which means that the mixture rises 7°C during blending. The blend is left to settle for an hour to allow the spirit and water to coalesce before being agitated and pushed through a particle filter, which helps the two liquids gel. A further filtration through cellulose pads impregnated with activated carbon also enhances the visual 'polish' and the shine of the spirit.
This filtration is relatively light compared to other vodkas and takes place at ambient temperature (not chill filtered) using five micron filter pads. This ensures the taste and character derived from the high quality grain and careful production processes are not stripped out by excessively harsh filtration.
Before being released to the bottling line each batch must be tested in the lab but even high-tech lab equipment can't test taste so each batch is also tasted by a panel, personally trained by François Thibault to detect even slight variations. The panel are drawn from all areas of production and you won't be surprised to learn that they volunteered.
There are two bottling lines at the plant - one for small bottles up to 500ml and the other, a faster line running at 12,000 bottles per hour, for larger ones. Both run daily from 6am to 9pm. Firstly, the bottles are rinsed with Grey Goose vodka, and then the spirit is gravity fed into them. The bottling plant is the final stop of this lengthy journey - a whirring room of bottles being filled every hour and then dispatched to each corner of the world.
40% alc./vol. (80°proof) 700ml bottle retail: £30
The original, unflavoured Grey Goose vodka launched in 1997 (UK 2001). As described previously, this is distilled from wheat grown in Picardie, northern France using a five column distillation process to produce an exceptionally pure distillate. Grey Goose is then blended with demineralised limestone-filtered spring water in the heart of France's cognac region.
Grey Goose does not contain any sugar, flavouring or other additive. It is simply made from fermented wheat which is distilled, hydrated and bottled; its flavour and character is purely derived from the wheat, spring water and these carefully managed processes.
Taste: Crystal clear. A very clean nose with the merest whiff of nuts and fennel over the peppery spirit aromas. (When cold has a fruit aroma of desiccated coconut). The clean palate has grainy cracked pepper mineral notes and faint delicate flavours of aniseed. (Creamy coconut notes emerge with the addition of water). Long, clean, peppered finish with faint aniseed and sweet liquorice. 5/5
40% alc./vol. (80°proof) 700ml bottle retail: £30
Two distinct processes are required to produce the citrus oil extract used in Grey Goose Le Citron. The first is based on the maceration of Menton lemons and the second is based on the extraction of essential oils from lemons grown in Argentina and Brazil.
The Menton lemons are harvested from February to May in the town of Menton on the Côte d'Azur where the micro climate produces exceptionally aromatic lemons. The region celebrates its lemon harvest during its annual lemon festival: 'la Fête du Citron'. This kicks off at the end of February and sees the town filled with fantastical fruit statues and a citrus carnival attracting more than 200,000 people (www.fete-du-citron.com).
The Menton lemons are washed by hand, cut into eight pieces and then macerated for two weeks. The resulting 'juice' has a flavour that is unique to Menton - very floral with a subtle bitterness.
The essential oils are extracted from the lemons harvested in Argentina and Brazil by gently rolling the entire lemon on a metal plate which pierces the fruit, removes the peel and cuts it open. The fruit is then sprayed with cold water to remove the delicate essential oils while still at their freshest.
The essential oils are distilled twice using a vacuum distillation process - at pressures as much as 1,000 times lower than natural atmospheric pressure. This reduces the boiling point so less heat is required thus ensuring the fruits' fresh, natural flavours are retained in the essential oil extract.
The results of the two processes, maceration and oil extraction, are combined to create the flavour profile specified by François Thibault. Initial blending with Grey Goose takes place at the flavour house. Due to the volatility of the lemon oils, a specific filtration process is required to ensure stability. The essential oil is then sent to Grey Goose's facility in Cognac for final blending.
Taste: Crystal clear. Superbly clean, zesty lemon meringue pie nose with subtle eucalyptus aromas. The clean, fresh palate has the zesty lemon with a slight bitter note, as one might expect from fresh lemons. Clean, fresh lemon finish with slightly bitter zest lemony bite. 4.5/5
40% alc./vol. (80°proof) 700ml bottle retail: £30
An orange-flavoured line extension of Grey Goose vodka, launched in the US in 2000 and 2002 in the UK. The clear goose-shaped window on the distinctive frosted bottle magnifies a Paul Cézanne painting of a bowl of oranges printed on the back of the bottle.
Grey Goose L' Orange is flavoured with essential oils extracted from the skin of sweet oranges from Florida, Brazil and New Guinea, where they are harvested year round, according to season, for maximum freshness. The oranges are first lightly compressed to extract the juice and then more firmly crushed to extract the essential oils from the peel. The fruit is then sprayed with cold water to remove the delicate essential oils while they are fresh. After resting for a period, the liquid separates into essential oil at the top and water below. The oil is then siphoned off using a tapping method and filtered.
A flavour house uses a specially-designed column still to distil the filtered oils twice using a vacuum distillation process - at pressures as much as 1,000 times lower than natural atmospheric pressure. This brings the boiling point down to 60°C so avoiding the need to use excessive heat which would affect flavour. The distillation separates the orange oil into its various elements and only 20% of these are selected and blended together to produce the essential oil used to flavour Grey Goose.
Taste: Crystal clear. Floral, clean fresh mandarin zest nose - somewhat akin to a very expensive scented soap or perfume. Clean, elegant palate with zesty satsuma orange flavour and a peppery note of grainy vodka. Orange zest finish with bitter orange notes with freshly grated black pepper. 5/5
40% alc./vol. (80°proof) 700ml bottle retail: £30
Grey Goose La Poire launched in the US on 1st February 2007. The distinctive bottle features an impressionist style painting of yellow pears in front of a blue vase of
The essential oils used to flavour Grey Goose La Poire are made by two separate processes and then elements of the oils produced blended and filtered to make an essential oil. One is a distillate made from William pears from the Anjou region of western France. These are washed, crushed and macerated for two weeks. They are then distilled once in a copper pot still to extract their natural flavours.
Added to this distillate is the essence of pears obtained from concentrated juice. The pears are washed and pressed to extract their juice, which is then concentrated under vacuum. The third element is based on an infusion of William pear.
These three elements are blended together to mimic the taste and freshness of the original fruit. Finally this is blended with Grey Goose vodka by François Thibault and his team.
Taste: Crystal clear. A very attractive nose of green apple skin and just sliced earthy pear skin and overripe pear fruit. Clean palate with crisp but ripe conference pear - more earthy thick skin than flesh and with a touch of lemon zest to keep it fresh. Long clean pear finish with cracked black pepper spirit and the merest hint of bitter almond. 5+/5
Producer: Bacardi Production, 11 Route Laubaret (off N141), 16130 Gensac-la-Pallue, Angoulême, France