The production of Grey Goose could be summed up as follows: “high quality wheat is processed using advanced milling, fermentation and distillation methods to produce a highly rectified spirit which is blended with soft water in Cognac.” But there’s more to it than that…
The wheat used to make Grey Goose is supplied exclusively by three farming cooperatives made up of family run farms in the Picardie region, deep in "the breadbasket of France". This part of northern France is so named due to its fields of soft winter wheat, a crop the area is blessed with perfect growing conditions for with an ideal combination of temperature, humidity and rich alluvial soil.
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. It is grown by people like Marc Egret who operates his three-century-old, 2,000 acre family farm in Tupigny, a village with five hundred inhabitants in Picardie. 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.
I met Egret in November, close to the end of the sowing season, a period that’s quiet until March when in-depth soil analysis starts, using satellites to create ‘soil spreadsheets’. These colour code the soil with red telling Egret that the area is in need of more nitrates, while green indicates 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.”
Despite these fertile conditions, 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.
Grey Goose's distillery runs 24 hours a day - i was early evening by the time we arrived.
Fermentation and distillation
Grey Goose's distillery lies on the edge of the small town of Saint-Quentin in the heart of the Picardie region where the wheat is grown, so ensuring a plentiful supply of quality grain. 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.
Milling of the wheat on-site at the distillery maximises 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 is sieved, the dust is removed and then put through a vibrating machine to remove any stones or other foreign bodies.
Once the wheat has been soaked 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 and sieve the wheat through four different, progressively smaller rollers, so that the grain is ground to a fine flour. 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 and converting it into sugars.
François Thibault, Grey Goose’s Maître de Chai, 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 canvas, 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 the state-of-the-art continuous still comprises of five columns and that the rectification columns operate under a partial vacuum. And that the mash goes into the first column at 10% alc./vol. and emerges from the third and fourth rectification columns at 96.3% alc./vol..
Grey Goose's column stills.
Blending & bottling
The rectified high proof wheat spirit is transported the 600 kilometres from the distillery to Gensac-la-Pallue and Grey Goose's purpose built blending and bottling plant in the suburbs of Cognac.
Grey Goose's plant at Gensac-la-Pallue, Cognac.
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% alc./vol., 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.
Before Bacardi’s Gensac plant was completed in 2001, blending and bottling of Grey Goose was handled at the nearby H. Mounier's facilities. Just as the distillery is strategically sited in the wheat-growing plains of Northern Picardie, the bottling plant is purposefully located in Cognac, a region famed amongst distillers for its soft and slightly sweet spring water. This originates in the northeast of Cognac, passing through limestone to emerge in the Gensac spring.
This water is drawn from a well just outside the building. Although the water is very 'pure', excess minerals must be removed so there's no residue and sediment present in the finished vodka. No chemicals are used in this filtration process, instead the water is de-mineralised 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 de-mineralised water.
“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 to evaluate the water than the spirit.”
When molecules of alcohol and water meet, the reaction between the two releases energy, meaning the mixture rises 7˚C during the blending process. 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' ensure the spirit has a bright appearance.
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 flavour 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 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.