Back in the 16th-century, several of Jean-Sébastien’s ancestors were mayors of Cognac and unsurprisingly pioneered the cognac business in the early 17th century. Over the centuries, the family became less involved in cognac and more involved in viticulture in general, and, in particular, the significance that it exerted on French politics. Jean-Sébastien Robicquet’s parents were instrumental in building the Assemblée des Régions Européennes Viticoles (AREV), an organisation of political and trade representatives of wine regions within the EU and Eastern Europe.
Jean-Sebastian was born and raised amongst the vineyards of Cognac and as a child played in the vineyards, picking grapes from an early age. He studied biology and oenology at university in Bordeaux, but went on to become lawyer – although still focused on wine and spirits. “I did not envision being in a vineyard or producing wines and spirits without understanding what drives the business and the relationships between consumers and wine,” he says.
He moved into sales and marketing, working for the Hennessy cognac house in Singapore for three years, before returning to France in 1993, continuing to specialise in Asian trading. Staying within Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy he then moved to fellow cognac house Hine. Suddenly ten years had passed, and he felt a calling back home in Villevert Cognac.
“I wanted to be free, to run my own destiny and to create things – even when I was at university I always said I wanted to make my own wine and spirits. I felt it was time to go back to Cognac, to recreate and refurbish what was left of the family’s distillery which lay in bits and pieces across Bordeaux and Cognac. It was a question of seeing who owned what, what vineyards and buildings there were and where they were.”
Partly, this longing reflected something of a deep-seated feeling of responsibility towards grapes and their role in history and society. “I have a true belief in the virtue of grapes – in education, food, history and culture, grapes are part of building blocks of old Europe,” he says. “I wanted to convey their virtue, the beauty of it all and the way they cement Europe. It’s inspiring and dates back to the Romans – when soldiers retired they were given vine plants and wheat as gifts to settle in the place they were, hence the spread of the Latin culture in Gaule.”
But what to make? Option one was to make cognac. The family had vineyards, buildings in which to distil and was familiar with the cognac fraternity. But this was 1999, cognac was in crisis, and Jean-Sébastien was worried about being a small fish among far more established players.
“I decided cognac wasn’t the answer. Travelling the world, I realised white spirits was the fastest-growing area, and knowing that, according to the legal definitions, you can make them from any source of agricultural origin, then there is a huge number of opportunities… innovation comes from constraints” he adds.
Jean-Sébastien realised that the grapes that have surrounded him since childhood could provide the necessary fermentable sugars to create spirits, including vodka and gin – not just cognac. “I was convinced we could bring ‘nobility’ to the categories – there’s an expression ‘grain for people, grapes for the king’.” That was the beginning of his journey with grape-based white spirits and Jean-Sébastien was vindicated in his approach when Diageo asked him to make its ultra-premium vodka Cîroc.