Francois Thibault, the cellar master of Grey Goose vodka, is a renaissance man in alcohol circles. He graduated from the University of Bordeaux II with a degree in winemaking in 1982, and was known for his work at cognac maker H. Mounier when he was hired by Sidney Frank, the billionaire entrepreneur and Jagermeister mastermind. To fill a hole in the market for high-end vodka, Frank and Thibault created a spirit, made with a precise recipe, that would come to be known as “the world’s best tasting vodka.”
Though he spends his days making vodka, wine was his first love. Thibault still lives in the Cognac region of France, where he grew up, and his father was a winemaker. As a student, Thibault participated in the annual harvest at the Burgundy vineyard of Clos de Vougeot. The region is home to some of his other favorites, such as whites from Meursault and reds from Gevrey-Chambertin.
He discovered the wines of Bordeaux when he moved there to finish his studies, and he is a fan of Saint-Émilion reds in particular. “But at the moment, I’m really enjoying the wines of the Côtes du Rhône, which are less oaky but with a richer taste,” he says. And, as a side note, he considers Chateauneuf du Pape, as well as the southern Rhone appellations Vacqueyras and Gigondas, to be staples in the wine drinker’s arsenal.
For your upcoming summer parties, Thibault recommends Sancerre Blanc Les Monts Damnés, a white aromatic wine from the Loire Valley, or Château Reynon Sauvignon Blanc, made by a winemaker who was his college professor.
The biggest mistake that non-oenophiles make, he says, is missing out on the ritual moment of opening a bottle. “It’s a gesture, and it shouldn’t be overlooked or too brief,” he says. “Opening up a bottle with a corkscrew is a really important moment that’s vital to the guest and the sommelier.” He favors his father’s manual corkscrew, but if you don’t have a treasured hand-me-down version, he suggests ordering one from Pulltex.
Bartenders, though, should beware: Thibault is a picky customer. “I’m not impressed by a cocktail that’s very complicated to make. I prefer three to four ingredients, with adjustments that let the talents of the bartender really shine through.” One such example is the Grey Goose-created summer cocktail known as Le Grand Fizz, which is light and refreshing and uses lots of limes.
He also has a very specific recipe for a dry martini, which he takes with vodka, of course. It’s a good way to divine the dexterity of the bartender,” he says. “Though it’s a simple cocktail, it’s complicated to do it right.”
Thibault’s ideal martini is stirred, not shaken, “and the ice has to be really cold. You have to make sure that the integration of the cocktail and ice is right, without shaking it,” he says, which is why it should take no longer than 40 seconds to mix the drink. “The bartender has to be very precise.”
If you like it with olives, he recommends Lucques, which are mostly grown in Languedoc, France. But if you garnish with a lemon peel, he suggests using a knife to cut off the white pith, as it creates unwanted bitterness in the drink. The larger point: “Every part of a martini has to be very well thought out.”
2.5 oz Grey Goose Vodka
.5 oz Noilly Pratt Original French Dry Vermouth
1 Dash Orange Bitters
Lemon Zest or Olive
Build ingredients in a mixing glass and top with cubed ice. Stir for no more than 40 seconds. Fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with the peel of a lemon.
(Corrects the Sancerre region in fourth paragraph )