The Grey Goose 10 Cocktail Competition
How Cognac D'USSE is Made

How Grey Goose is Made

This September I visited Cognac, France to judge a competition for Grey Goose vodka. While there, I learned about the production process. I'm sorry I don't have pictures of all this to share- you like reading, right?

Grey Goose is made in two parts: in Picardy, in the north of France, where the wheat is grown and distilled; and Cognac, France, where the wheat spirit and water are filtered and bottled.

 

Picardy
Picardy, France. Image from Wikipedia

The Wheat

Grey Goose is made from soft winter wheat grown in Picardy. In that region they grow tons of wheat for France (and you know how the French like baguettes). The temperature never goes below -5 degrees Celsius and in the summer not hotter than 25 or 35 degrees. Winter wheat is sewn in October and harvested in August, giving it 10 months to grow strong, as opposed to summer wheat that grows in 6 months and is more fragile. 

The wheat is grown by many farms, then sold to and classified by a co-op. They use only that classified as "superior bread-making wheat" for Grey Goose.  Soft wheat, as opposed to hard wheat, is better for distilling according to Maitre de Chai Francois Thibault. I takes about 1 kilo of wheat to make 1 bottle of vodka.

Milling and Fermentation 

Interestingly, Grey Goose doesn't own their distillery, yet they have an exclusive contract with the distillery and they produce only Grey Goose there. The distillery is also located in Picardy, and it sounds like quite the huge operation. The entire distilling process is one continuous operation - wheat goes in and spirit comes out with the whole thing in motion. 

The wheat, purchased from three different co-ops, enters the distillery, where it is cleaned and then milled. It is milled four times over the course of 24 hours. The husks, which won't ferment, are sold as cattle field. The flour goes through to fermentation. 

To break the carbohydrates in the flour down into fermentable sugars, enzymes are added. They add one enzyme that cuts the starch into random sized pieces, then cool it, then add another enzyme that cuts those pieces into evenly sized fermentable sugars.

Why use enzymes? I asked Francois Thibault that question. He said that unlike barley, which can be prepared to transform into fermentable sugars by the malting process, wheat doesn't germinate (see geeky explanation by Ben in the comments). However, as with bourbon, malted barley could be added to the corn/wheat to help transform its starches into fermentable sugars. Thibault says though they could use malted barely, using enzymes is more stable, efficient, and cleaner; and no undesired microorganisms will be added during the process.

Now the wheat is ready for fermentation. They use a commercial (non-proprietary) yeast strain that is prepared elsewhere. 

Fermentation takes place in a continuous manner - this is something I've not seen at other distilleries, though I think this technology is used elsewhere. Typically, the wheat/corn/whatever that is being fermented goes into a big vat, ferments completely, then the vat is emptied out. This is a batch process.

For Grey Goose, they use a continuous fermentation process over a series of six cascading tanks. Wheat and yeast goes in the first tank, then pours into each successive tank operating at a different phase in the fermentation process. At the end, the liquid is fully fermented in the form of a beer at 10% alcohol by volume. This takes about 30 hours. New wheat and yeast is constantly added to the first tank and beer is constantly pulled out of the last one. 

Distilling

Then the beer is distilled into spirit. They use a five column distillation process. Despite the names given to each of thecolumn stills, they're more or less the same stills, just fine tuned  with number of plates, pressure and temperature settings, etc., to do a certain job. 

  • The first column strips out the water and produces a spirit at 92% alcohol.
  • The second column is tuned for "hydro-selection," meaning the spirit is watered back down before entering it, and it is redistilled to remove certain components.
  • The third column is "rectification under pressure" and the fourth is "rectification under vacuum." Both of these strip out high and low oils.
  • The last column is tuned for "demethanolisation." 

The waste products of distillation are redistilled and sold off as industrial alcohol.

The entire process from when the wheat enters the distillery until it leaves takes four and a half to five days. 

 Filtration, Water, and Bottling

 I didn't have the opportunity to visit the wheat fields and distillery in Picardy, but I did get to visit the bottling facility near Cognac. 

The water used to bottle Grey Goose comes from a well 500 feet deep beneath the bottling plant. As the soil is full of limestone (just like in Kentucky), the resulting water is full of calcium. 

The water is filtered to remove the minerals using double reverse osmosis. Thibault emphasized that the machine can't make great water out of bad water, so they have to start with good stuff like they have. Furthermore Thibault says they don't filter it to 100% pure H20 - they do it to their specifications and leave in the rest for character. 

The water is mixed with vodka to bottling proof and then filtered again, this time through pads of cellulose and carbon. 

I was curious as to why they don't just bottle the vodka up in Picardy. Thibault says they didn't really consider it - he was based in Cognac (he was a cognac and other spirit maker) when Sidney Frank asked him to develop Grey Goose, and he knew the water in the region was good. He says it was a practical decision to grow the wheat and distill in Picardy and transport it Cognac rather than ship the water of Cognac to Picardy or to try to grow wheat in the Cognac region. 

Finally, the bottles are also produced in France. At the bottling facility they only bottle Grey Goose, no other products. 

The Glycerin Question

Grey Goose has long been the victim of rumors that it has something added to it to make it smoother. Darcy O'Neil tested Grey Goose for glycerol and found none. But other additives are allowed by US law (sugar, and I think citric acid, for example). So I asked Thibault directly if anything was added to Grey Goose after distillation besides water. He said "Absolutely nothing," and I believe him. 

Comments

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Dusty

Great article for National Vodka day. Grey Goose is a standard in my cabinet. I must say that I assumed something was added as well.

Hearing that there isn't straight from the horses mouth means a lot though.

I'll be having some Grey Goose in a Vodka Collins tonight in honor of National Vodka day.

Stephen

if you want to test for additives. put 2 oz. in a canning jar in a food dehydrator such as an Excaliber. in theory if they are just ethanol and water there will be nothing left.

if you test a product and it has something non-volatile that is left over in your jar, reconstitute that residue with another portion of the same spirit to double the non-volatiles and hopefully upon tasting you will be more aware of their contribution.

do this with spirits that have desirable non-volatiles such as campari or an aged spirit such as bourbon then reconstitute the residue with something else and start mixing and matching..

if you play with spirits 2 oz. at a time in such a manner the amount of stuff you can learn about spirits, aroma, and volatility is pretty amazing.

cheers! -stephen

Camper English

Sounds like a fun project!

Ben

Wheat most certainly *does* germinate, otherwise it wouldn't grow. But wheat doesn't provide the diastatic enzymes that barley does, so its starches won't convert to sugars without help.

Camper English

Thanks- I thought that sounded wrong, but also guessed that one of my brilliant readers would catch the error!

Wade Woodard

"But other additives are allowed by US law" - actually additives are allowed only by EU laws. If you make Vodka in the US, nothing can be added to it (except water). If you make in a EU country, then you can add a small % of the chemicals you mention such as sugar, or citric acid or glycerol - then you can export that to the US.

I love your articles but in this case if only thing you did was see a bottling line, it's a stretch to write an article on how Grey Goose is made.

Wade - Certified Spirits Specialist

Wade Woodard

Correction, Citric Acid is allowed by US law to a point where it is not detectable - 1000ppm. EU law specifically allows flavoring to be used so product has special organoleptic characteristics - which above the level of being detectable.

Camper English

Thanks - One of these days I need to review the laws in various countries side-by-side.

Camper English

I think the two days of learning how Grey Goose is made by the guy who makes it gives me a good base of information to share. (And that going to a distillery doesn't answer every doubt.) Is there something in the write-up you find implausible or want to know more about? Glad to fill in more details.

Wade Woodard

There are so many "fake" vodka distilleries that I always would want to see with my own eyes. I'm sure that's not the case with Grey Goose. In the US, it's way too easy buy bulk GNS, cut it with water to make it Vodka, come up with some marketing gimmick and voila your "fake" distillery is born. I can name way too many of these.

Camper English

Absolutely. Heck, even some of my favorite US vodka brands are fake.

Goose has been doing press trips that do take writers to the distillery and the wheat fields- here is one:
http://cocktailenthusiast.com/2012/07/27/grey-goose-le-voyage-day-two/

It just wasn't this one as it was centered around the cocktail contest. (I think next year they'll do the distillery also.)

I think these trips are all around the initiative to not just say "it's the best" but to try to show that. It's the new era of accountability and consumers wanting to know where their food and drink actually comes from. It's a good thing for all of us.

Todd

Just saw Ben's explanation. There are wheat malts and rye malts available, but barley does have a better ability to convert.

Also, Rev. Ruling 56-98 states that sugar not exceeding two-tenths of one per cent and a trace amount of citric acid is allowed in the production of vodka. Not sure about glycerin.

If more than the above amounts are used, it must be designated "flavored vodka."

Todd Price

So what you're saying is Grey Goose is totally worth the price.

M.

I'd love to know which "fake" vodkas you like.

Camper English

Ones that aren't just bottled from industrial distillers, but locally redistilled/blended...

Andrewsalcohol.blogspot.com

I love reading about how the magic happens! So good to hear the dedication to a fine product. It also seems like you have an incredibly on the ball following. Think I'll have to go get some Grey Goose now.
Thanks for the review! Cheers!

sean

does anyone know of a process to test the exact chemical compound of the wheat used in grey goose? i would love to know if it is possible to test different vodkas based on their ingredients easily? would a test of the water work better?

Much appreciated,

seanmichael.nugent@gmail.com

Camper English

What would you be looking to test for? There are certainly tests for the wheat initially (water content, starch, etc), the impurities in the water in fermentation and distillation, and then the vodka afterward for anything from ABV to pH to additives. I guess the first step is to identify the goal then find the test for it.

Camper

sean michael nugent

Thanks for the reply!!! will email you ...

Much appreciated,

Sean Michael Nugent

Pascal

Hello,
I'm a bit late to this posting. I was wondering if you knew where the water used for the distillation process came from. Is it local? Mains or groundwater?

Camper English

Good question and one I'm surprised I didn't think to ask. In short, I don't know. However I would guess it's local ground/spring water as that's typical and for effective fermentation you need the minerals found in water (though you can buy them and add them to reverse-osmosis filtered water if you want). But there must be decent enough water around if they're growing all that wheat!

Fred Van Liew

Grey Goose smoothness is due to a vortexing of bubbles in an upward spiral during each of the five distillation processes. This vortex structures and energizes the final product, neutralizing the free radical nature of the product. This is also why hangovers are virtually non existent from Grey Goose.

Josh Miller

Very late comment, but this section...

"The water is filtered to remove the minerals using double reverse osmosis. Thibault emphasized that the machine can't make great water out of bad water, so they have to start with good stuff like they have. Furthermore Thibault says they don't filter it to 100% pure H20 - they do it to their specifications and leave in the rest for character."

...is total bullshit. RO is not selective, and a two-pass RO is doubly non-selective. It removes both multivalent and monovalent compounds down to around 30 Daltons, so it's basically free of anything besides H2O. RO permeate is pure. If you want to not "filter it 100%", you'd have to blend back some of the source water with the permeate. Also absurd is the notion that you can't use RO to make good water out of bad water--that's why it exists: to make pure water out of impure sources! LOL

As you correctly state above, water characteristics matter for fermentation, but when it comes to proofing water, the last thing you want is "character". This dude should have just admitted he didn't know what he was talking about instead of making it up on the fly. #TheMoreYouKnow

Camper English

Thanks - I was reporting on what I was told but it didn't make total sense to me. So, RO is an all-or-nothing process? I still need to learn more about it.

NoMoreLuke

Oopsie, you may want to rewrite the "gycerol" section, since it has now been conclusively proven that they DO add it - the original tests were not sensitive enough to pick it up. Other "vodkas" which add gycerol are... Belvedere and Ciroc.

Camper English

Please share those studies and I'll have a look!

Henry

I just came to this site. Any information about the activated charcoal filtration? What charcoal? What porosity predominates? H

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