Grey Goose's Flight

How a French spirit invented by an American mogul gave us super-premium vodka. By Robert Klara


Sidney Frank had a great idea for a new vodka, but he was missing a few things: the distillery, the bottle and the actual vodka.

But no matter. It was the summer of 1996, and 77-year-old Frank, a titan of the booze business, was a gambling man. For nearly a generation, Absolut had occupied the top shelf of the vodka category, commanding a (then) pricey $20 a bottle. Absolut had artsy ads, a cool bottle and, of course, very good vodka. But Frank was sure that the market would pay for better—if only there were something better for sale.

“Vodka in the 1990s was reaching its apex as a category,” recalled Grey Goose global svp Yann Marois. “Americans were ordering vodkas in night clubs and bars—but they weren’t ordering very good vodka. The moment was right.”

The moment came in 1997 when Grey Goose hit the market with crystal-clear ambition. Instead of going head-to-head with Absolut, Grey Goose simply flew over it, charging $30 a bottle for “super-premium” vodka. Today, the market is flush with luxury vodkas like Chase and Zyr, Reyka and Ketel One. But Grey Goose is the brand that whet the American palate for the good stuff—and taught them it was OK to drop a pair of 20s to get it.

Insiders will tell you that only a guy like Sidney Frank could have pulled it off. The son of a farmer, Frank grew up milking cows before marrying the daughter of liquor mogul Lewis Rosenstiel, who taught him the ways of the spirits business. In 1972, Frank began importing an obscure German liqueur called Jägermeister. A favorite with pensioners in the old country, Jägermeister had few prospects in America—until Frank promoted the viscous inebriant with a troupe of shapely young women called “the Jägerettes.” Before long, frat boys from coast to coast were doing shots of the stuff.

Much as Frank had sensed an opportunity with liqueur, he sensed a second one with vodka. Reasoning that Americans had seen enough of vodkas made in Eastern Europe, Frank decided he would make his Grey Goose in France—a country Americans associated with haute cuisine and luxury goods. The first step was hiring François Thibault, who’d cut his teeth at cognac maker H. Mounier, as his cellar master. Under Thibault’s guidance, the new vodka would begin with wheat from the Picardy region, distilled to a spirit at Vallee de l’Oise, then sent to Gensac-la-Pallue to be blended with the region’s limestone-filtered spring water.

The result: an uncommonly smooth and balanced vodka, though Grey Goose was likely a hit for additional reasons. With its frosted-glass bottle and high price tag, Grey Goose tapped into the zeitgeist of late-’90s prosperity, its timing confirmed by the HBO smash Sex and the City, which added a “Goose Cosmopolitan” to the script. A mere seven years after its debut, Grey Goose was moving 1.5 million cases a year—volume that prompted Bacardi to step forward and buy the brand outright for a cool $2 billion. It made Frank, who died in 2006, one of the richest men in America.

The category Grey Goose created is dense with competitors. Those, plus Americans’ growing taste for brown liquors, contributed to a 2 percent sales drop for the Goose last year. Even so, the vodka martini jumped 17 places in Drinks International’s list of best-selling cocktails for 2018—disproving the old saw that vodka taste doesn’t matter, since it’s just going to get mixed with orange juice anyway. “The vodka martini is the one cocktail,” Marois said, “where there’s no place to hide for the vodka.”

Grey Goose was the brainchild of spirits impresario Sidney Frank (above) who not only insisted on making his vodka in France, he hired one of the country’s foremost cellar masters, François Thibault, to create it for him.

Grey Goose was the brainchild of spirits impresario Sidney Frank (above) who not only insisted on making his vodka in France, he hired one of the country’s foremost cellar masters, François Thibault, to create it for him.

François Thibault

François Thibault

The spirit is made from winter wheat grown in France’s Picardy region (above), then mixed with Charente Valley spring water before being poured into Grey Goose’s frosted-glass bottle.

The spirit is made from winter wheat grown in France’s Picardy region (above), then mixed with Charente Valley spring water before being poured into Grey Goose’s frosted-glass bottle.

Frosted-glass bottle

Frosted-glass bottle

Publish date: September 4, 2018 https://dev.adweek.com/brand-marketing/how-grey-goose-made-americans-realize-that-the-taste-of-vodka-matters/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT