Invention is one thing, but re-invention requires a true master. Taking a product that already exists and transforming it into something new seems almost impossible, but it can be done. Think about the mobile phone. Before the iPhone, our perception of communicating on-the-go was limited to plastic buttons and “Snake II”. In 2007, Apple changed the game. The same could be said for Grey Goose with vodka.
In 1997 a man named Mr Francois Thibault was tasked with a mission to create the world’s finest vodka, and in the process he created a drink that had truly never existed before. Francois decided to switch from potatoes in Russia to try soft winter wheat from Picardie, typically used to make France’s iconic bread. He designed a new method of production that entirely changed the distillation process and the result was a vodka that no one had seen before.
Despite this success, his humility and intense attention to detail is overwhelming. He still conducts over 500 quality control checks each day and as we walked the grounds of the atelier, I could sense his pride and excitment that is rare after 37 years in the business. There’s something about the French passion for the artisan which I find fascinating, so I asked him about this, his idyllic rural childhood and where he gets him motivation from.
As part of a new series with Grey Goose vodka, I sat down with Francois to discuss how he became the man he is today. We talked about his childhood in rural France, what drives him and developing his craft.
Describe yourself in 5 words.
Passionate. Rigorous. Sensitive. Gourmet. Enduring.
Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I grey up in a small village between Cognac and Angoulême. It was my parents’ agricultural farm in Charente. Today I still live in the region, in the small city of Jonzac with only 3500 inhabitants, located 25 kms in the South of Cognac. I live in the countryside, in the middle of vines.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
Nothing really defined. I knew I wanted to practice a trade in which I could express myself but family tradition meant I should become a grower like my father. Passionate about wine, I studied oenology for 7 years and moved on to work with Cognac after. It is quite a tradition here in the region. Everyone knows someone who works with Cognac.
What’s your horoscope?
I was born a 10th of March, so I am of the ‘Pieces’ sign. It is said we are inspired, sensitive, sensual, receptive and imaginative. All of that suits me. Our strength is intuition and our weakness is indecisiveness and fragility. I like to take my time when when I decide, it is always a good choice. What is certain is that if I was a real fish, I would not ‘bite the hook’. That’s a French expression that describes someone who won’t let himself get trapped.
How did your vision for a Vodka developed in Cognac come about?
I was approached by Sidney Frank, the American business who brought Jägermeister to the world, to create the world’s best-tasting vodka. This was the 1990s where vodka was dominated by eastern-Europe and Russia. It was almost unthinkable. As someone who loves a challenge, I wanted to see if I could turn my Cognac-blending abilities to this new sphere. I went back to the drawing board and started from scratch developing new raw materials and fermenting process. By 1997 we launched Grey Goose and our dreams were realized.
What does the Grey Goose brand mean to you?
Grey Goose is an ‘art de vivre’. It’s the art of living. It conquered the whole world and seduced the most exacting of consumers. Served in the best venues in the world, it sublimates all cocktails. I am proud and glad it became the world reference in vodkas.
Where does your desire to achieve greatness come from?
My mother always considered me to be the most manic of her children. From an early age, I had this urge to always express my opinion about my mother’s cuisine. She was an outstanding cook. We ate a lot of fresh products from the farm but I was clever with my criticism. All I would say is that it was tastier last time. This concept of creating the perfect taste remained and never leaves me. I am obsessive on details. I would be bored without it and my work would be monotonous.
What makes you good at what you do?
I grew up in nature and that taught me to appreciate and measure the quality of ingredients. After studying oenology, I became a “Cognac Cellar Master’. For this I needed to learn technical responsibilities in order to create my own product from beginning to end. Jobs that offer this opportunity are rare, particularly in today’s world. Like in life, to create something great you need the best ingredients and experienced know-how. What I add is a touch of inspiration, attention to detail and finally passion.
How has the world changed since you first started your career?
Over 37 years, the world has inevitably changed a lot, even if some countries are still in war. The consumers habits have changed undoubtedly. The number of new products, new brands and powerful marketing has increased choice dramatically. Today’s consumer is more versatile and no longer in a position to decide all by himself. Thankfully, a strong portion of these consumers withstand this growing diversity. In the vodka market, Grey Goose arrived at the right time. Sold for the 1st time on the “super premium” segment, it broke all the codes by demonstrating that it was possible to associate it with the most refined luxury spirits. This created a consumer who became more exacting but more faithful.
Why do you think France has developed such a culture and appreciation of the artisan?
Craftsmanship is a genuine French signature. Many fields of activity exist around grown products. France is known for the reputation of wine, cheese, foie gras, champagne. By the desire to cook and express taste, these good local products gave birth to great Chefs. It was around the 1930s that the Appellations of Controlled Origin was born to protect the region by law, defining the production conditions. This guarantees the origin and finally imposes transformation and marketing rules. Passionate about their craft, the creators of all these specialties transmit their know-how from generation to generation. That is what France is made of.
What advice would you give you 18 year old self?
To be oneself and believe in one’s destiny. It is not important to necessarily know who we are but more to know who we want to be; We must play with fortune and work with opportunity.
Leave us with words of wisdom.
Learn to consume less and better, since pleasure is not in excess but in sobriety.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be photographing other inspiring men who share the spirit and energy of Francois within their own field. This is a paid collaboration with Grey Goose, see more from their via Instagram on @GreyGooseUK.