Today in New York City, Grey Goose vodka launches a four-day pop-up experience thing, with a storefront called Boulangerie that will serve pastries meant to showcase the French grains that go into the spirit, as well as some more private events. (The pop-up is at 632 Hudson St. in NYC, if you happen to be in town.) Too bad the marketers didn't just sit the man who created Grey Goose vodka, François Thibault, in a room and let him tell individuals why they should be drinking Grey Goose. It worked on me.
Thibault and I met over glasses of water (room temperature — he's French) at Soho House in Manhattan last week to discuss Grey Goose, the vodka he developed at the behest of Sidney Frank back in the 1990s, and why it's still relevant in 2013. Besides the pop-up, Thibault's also promoting a new short film-slash-ad by director Nicolas Winding Refn (the guy behind cult hit Drive), which tells the story about how a French master of Cognac had the nerve to create vodka in the very region where Cognac rules, eventually convincing his dubious neighbors and colleagues that vodka could be great. (The video's embedded below.)
So yes, the messages dovetail nicely (forgive me the mixed ornothological reference): Thibault is now trying to remind Americans of the same idea he convinced his skeptical countrymen about years back, only now his audience isn't snooty Frenchmen but Americans who've diverted their gaze from the clear spirit as bartenders mix up concoctions showcasing more flavorful gins, tequilas and what have you.
"This film recounts the difficulty I had in making this vodka," Thibault tells me in French (I'm translating, maybe a bit roughly). The world of Cognac was skeptical, to say the least. "Culturally, vodka was perceived as negative, a white alcohol with no soul, no face and often made from the lowly potato."
But Thibault's idea to use French grains and ingredients, along with Frank's prowess at brand-building, led Grey Goose to become the buzziest vodka, and one that helped turn spirits into a luxury category. In America, the Grey Goose Martini became almost a category unto itself, helping send vodka on its way to becoming the most consumed spirit by far in the U.S.
So why is Thibault sitting across from me, nattily dressed in a suit with the Grey Goose logo pinned to his lapel? I press him about it and he replies calmly, "I’m not here to do any advertising. For me it’s important to be back here to explain what the advertising stands for and to really show again I am behind the brand. There are two ways to talk about our product, through the ads and to come and tell your story. As far as we’re concerned we’ve decided to do both."
Fair enough, but surely the trendiness of other spirits is a cause for concern. "Non," is the essence of Thibault's reply. By now, I'm realizing that he remains confident in his product. Is he rattled by competitors who claim to make "luxury vodkas"? "There are two types of luxury. There is the type that’s exaggerated in the messaging, where I think the consumer can be fooled because of the image and because the product is expensive; and there is luxury that’s more pure and more authentic. There’s image and a price but also a quality. I believe in this luxury and it seems to me that Grey Goose belongs to this category."
But what about all these upstart competitors who flaunt their "multi-filtration" or "multi-distillation" processes? "There are no more multi-distillations or multi-filtrations to improve the product," he asserts. "If you like coffee, would you like to filter your coffee several times? No! Me, I’d buy a good coffee and make it once!"
It's a fair point, and while I've tried many luxury vodkas that have appeared since Grey Goose's inception, I'd choose Grey Goose over any of them when it comes to quality and flavor. (Thibault reportedly continues to monitor quality by tasting a sample from every batch that gets bottled.)
I challenged him on another pet peeve I have with vodka brands, who seem to launch flavored vodkas every quarter to pad sales. Thibault takes this in stride, reminding me in so many words that the French know a thing or two about aromatics, and that the flavors that go into any Grey Goose variants maintain the same commitment to quality. I'll buy that, even if I won't actually buy a flavored vodka.
And I do recommend watching this ad, which proves that when it comes to branding, few spirits companies can match Grey Goose.