Beyond Grey Goose: the new wave of French vodka inspired by wine
French vodka producers are all turning to their new favorite ingredient: the grape. It’s the symbol of French wine, but also an ingredient which brings incredible sweetness and beautiful fruity notes to vodka. Discover six brands which are testament to this new trend
With France as the Country of Honor at BCB this year, we’re highlighting some of the trends in French spirits. French vodka has never been more successful – both internationally and in France. Today, this prestigious clear spirit represents 11% of total French spirit production, or 650 million euros, according to trade fair France Quintessence, surpassed only by cognac and aniseed spirits, like pastis. The star brand, Grey Goose, is made from wheat, but especially in the United States, it’s now followed closely by Cîroc. The first French vodka made from aromatic grapes gave the bright idea to several companies to follow suit. Now, grape-based vodkas are becoming their own category.
Cîroc: the pioneer of vodka made from grapes
In the early 2000s, Diageo is struggling to compete with the two French vodka stars, Grey Goose and Belvédère. So, the company approaches Jean-Sébastien Robicquet, owner of Maison Villevert to develop an innovative vodka. This talented oenologist hits upon a genius idea: a vodka with an original character, silky and fresh, based not on grain or potatoes, but from French grapes – the Ugni white and Mauzac white. Once Sean “Diddy” Combs becomes the brand ambassador in the United States, success is immediate. Faced with the wrath of other European producers, Cîroc must fight to be recognized as a real vodka. In 2007, the European Parliament rules that spirits made from any agricultural products can be called vodka.
In 2017, Cîroc is produced in the Adeona site in Salles-d’Angles near Cognac at the Maison Villevert. The second most popular French vodka in the United States, and number one in England, the brand has been investing since 2010 the flavored vodka market with six options, including mango and limited editions such as Cîroc Colada in summer. Ironically, because of its hard-partying image and association with American rappers, Cîroc is struggling to find a place in its home market. “Today, we are looking to go up the line in France through events and the fashion world,” says Daphne Quenot, brand manager at Renaissance Spirits, Cîroc’s distributor in France.
Thompson’s: a French vodka created by a British man
Thompson’s vodka is the result of the hard work of English aesthete Simon Thompson. From his childhood, this Englishman lived in the beautiful French wine country, ever since his father was named director of the house Hine cognac distillery in Jarnac. Inheriting this family passion for spirits, Simon Thompson did consulting for alcoholic beverage brands and taught marketing. In 2010, he launched his company and brought to life the “Fine de Bordeaux,” a forgotten protected designation (AOC) made from Bordeaux grapes.
The vineyard adventure continued in 2012 with a vodka made from Bordeaux grapes “I’m not looking for purity in vodka but character above all,” Thompson explains. He’s certainly reached his goal. Distilled only twice in the Bordeaux region, Thompson’s vodka reveals subtle notes of litchi and white flowers, while keeping a certain roundness. Today, Thompson takes care of his own distribution with his other brandy, whisky, or gin products. And of course, Thompsons’ appears at renowned cocktail bars such as Le Cancan in Bordeaux, which specializes in French products. Like his vodka, Thompson’s operation is a gentle success.
Cobalte: a spirit for summer cocktails
Created in 2014, almost 10 years after Cîroc, Cobalte opened the door to the subspecies of vodkas made from Champagne grapes. Cobalte’s co-founder, Valentin Lefebvre, managed a trade company with his partner Kim Yonghwa, selling grape seeds for parapharmaceutical companies. One day, Lefebvre decided to exploit the raw material not used by the Champagne winemakers to make his own vodka using three aromatic grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
In collaboration with a local distillery, the two partners Levebvre and Yonghwa started their first production with 5000 bottles of vodka at 40% ABV. Three years later, Cobalte won notoriety with the support of one of the biggest French distributors, Dugas. The distributor has over 400 outlets throughout France, 10 countries in Europe and ventures in Hong Kong, China, and Brazil. Characterized by astringent notes and a beautiful roundness, this gluten-free French vodka claims to be ideal for health-conscious cocktails and mixtures based on seasonal products. Cobalte may just make the perfect cocktails for the summer!
Veuve Capet: French vodka chic
Veuve Capet is the story of two engineers, Timothée Duguit and Côme Simphal, who met in 2013 and were guided by the same passion for spirits and the desire to create a product in their home region – Champagne. Their project: create a vodka made from the grapes of their region. In June 2016, their goal was realised with the launch of Veuve Capet. It’s a name that nods to a great personality in the history of France, Marie Antoinette – a queen who has fascinated many for her elegance, and who now lends that elegance to this French vodka. In partnership with the Jean Goyard distillery, Veuve Capet is made from only the famous Chardonnay grapes collected in the Côte des Blancs. The other characteristic of this French vodka: its low degree to 38% which gives this alliance of roundness and fruity. But Veuve Capet also makes a version bottled at 42% specifically for bartenders to mix with.
Dressed in a refined bottle resembling an eighteenth century carafe, Veuve Capet can be enjoyed simply, but also with more audacious drinks at trendy bars like Le Syndicat. The next aim of this young company? Exporting to Europe to cement its image as an elegant French vodka – a red carpet welcome for this new queen of vodka.
Guillotine: the French vodka set to revolutionize the world of spirits
Behind Guillotine (a name that speaks volumes about the attitude of this brand), stands Paul Berkmann, a former senior executive of the TV channel Canal Plus. His passion for spirits led him to leave his job to create his company, called Bastille Day, in 2015 and then his first vodka, Guillotine. His ambition: “I wanted to shake up those codes. I wanted to dispose with everything that had been done so far,” says Berkmann. During his training at the International Center for Spirits, the entrepreneur found his concept: the first vodka aged in barrels.
To tackle this innovation, Berkmann appealed to a renowned cellar master Jean-Luc Braud. The choice of the grape as an ingredient seemed obvious, especially those of Champagne, which are very mineral and loaded with tannin. Perfect for aging. Guillotine is then distilled at Aÿ-Champagne from three grape varieties. Part of the production is reserved for pure vodka at 40%. The other part rests in oak barrels previously used for French spirits like cognac and armagnac for a few months to create Guillotine Heritage, which is bottled at 45%. The barrel-aged Guillotine is a spirit with a nice amber color and notes of umami, with a hint of licorice and Sichuan pepper. Launched in spring this year, Guillotine is already on the shelves of bars such as Le Crillon and the Hemingway Bar at The Ritz. Its next battle is to take on the largest market for vodka, the United States.
La Grappe de Montpellier: a French vodka with a Mediterranean accent
For a vodka in the land of pastis, it was necessary to take risks. It is the challenge of the distillery of Montpellier based in the south of France. An innovative creation that goes along with the history of the city of Montpellier, the birthplace of the distillation of French wines and the modern alembic still, first presented in the early nineteenth century. Known for its regional anise spirits since 1923, this cooperative distillery and its president Richard Burton embarked in 2014, after several years of research, on GM Vodka, which is produced from Muscat grapes from local winegrowers. Distilled 5 times, and bottled at 40%, this vodka is distinguished by its premium quality which has won many awards.
To show off this cocktail vodka, La Grappe de Montpellier has chosen the famous bartender Julien Escot, founder of the famous bar the Papa Doble, the first cocktail bar in Montpellier. According to this maestro of the shaker and native of the south of France, “this very qualitative vodka reveals beautiful notes of exotic fruits. I like working with seasonal and local products such as garrigue or bouquet garni in long or short drinks.” Both those products are perfect symbols of Mediterranean France – just like this vodka.
Foto: itor via Shutterstock