In this episode of “EOD Drinks,” the VinePair team is joined by Aleco Azqueta, vice president of Grey Goose North America. Azqueta initially worked with the brand in the early 2000s, before moving into his position when Grey Goose joined Bacardi’s larger portfolio. He has seen the brand evolve over the years, but emphasizes that its greatest strength remained its consistency. For a brand that celebrates quality ingredients, that consistency meant ignoring waves of confectionary vodkas and staying true to its branding.
Azqueta discusses the steps Grey Goose has taken over the years to become ingrained in popular culture, including the invention of the Grey Goose Honey Deuce. This cocktail has become a staple at the U.S. Open, rivaling the Kentucky Derby’s Mint Julep in terms of game day staples.
As the USO was held virtually this year, Grey Goose put together a Honey Deuce cocktail kit that consumers could assemble in their homes. Here, Azqueta discusses the other steps the brand is taking to keep up with RTD cocktails, preserve its place in the premium spirits world, and appeal to what he calls the “home premise” sector.
Or Check out the conversation here
Adam: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, this is “End of Day Drinks,” where we sit down with the movers and shakers in the beverage industry. So pour yourself a glass, and listen along with us. Let’s start the show. On today’s episode of “EOD Drinks,” we’re talking with Aleco Azqueta, the vice president of Grey Goose North America.
Aleco is going to tell us all about how Grey Goose was invented in the first place, and why they made the decision to produce the vodka in France. We’re also going to hear all about the really cool new innovations that may be coming down the line for the brand. And we’ll just get a really deep, intimate understanding of the brand. So let’s start the show. What’s up, everybody? I’m VinePair co-founder Adam Teeter, and this is “End of Day Drinks.” And today, I am really thrilled to be joined by the North American head of Grey Goose, Aleco Azqueta. Aleco, what’s going on?
Aleco: Hey, Adam. How’s it going? Excited to be with you guys.
AT: Good, man. Thank you so much. Yeah, I’m really excited. And it’s not just me and you on the podcast. As always, I’m joined by members of the VinePair editorial team. First of all, joined by my co-founder of VinePair, Josh. What’s up, Josh?
Josh: Hey, how are you doing? Glad to be on one of these, finally.
AT: I know, seriously. Well, it’s the third. You only missed the first two. Also joined by VinePair tastings director, Keith Beavers.
Keith: What’s going on? And glad to be on here for the first time.
AT: Yeah. And VinePair staff writer Tim McKirdy.
Tim: Last but not least, glad to be here.
AT: Yeah, I know you were going to say that. So Aleco, I was really excited to have you on because I feel like Grey Goose is this brand that is just iconic. So I’m not going to give a lot of nostalgia in this conversation, but just a little bit. So for those unfamiliar with how VinePair started, Josh and I co-founded it in 2014, but we actually go way back. We were actually college roommates. And I will never forget, one of the coolest things ever was when we went and bought what Josh liked to refer to as Mother Goose, which was the large bottle of Grey Goose. It was always like that thing where you felt like you really had a ride, when you brought Mother Goose to a party or you drank it with friends. And it was this brand that I feel like for me was one of the first that I really knew as I was learning about drinks as a premium brand. So I’d love it if you could start off by just sort of telling us a little about how that happened. How did Grey Goose sort of come out of nowhere and become this brand that is now recognized by so many people as the pinnacle of vodka?
A: Yeah, no, for sure. I’d love to. So Grey Goose, it’s just this phenomenon, really. It was founded in 1997 by just an industry legend, Sidney Frank. For those of you that have heard of Sidney, he was just larger than life personality. He just would wear these colorful outfits, always had this giant cigar and bon vivant. Just loved the epicurean world. And if you remember during this time, in the late ’90s, a little bit of that bling era. Right? The economy was soaring. Luxury goods were soaring. And we started seeing luxury vodka at the time. And Grey Goose was part of a set that initially saw, like Belvedere and Chopin, and there were some other vodkas to come out. And then a lot of others that aren’t even around to this day. But most of those vodkas have kind of Eastern European feel. They might have had the frosted bottle, but it didn’t have all the colors of Grey. I think when you see Grey Goose, it’s just so iconic because you have the warmth coming through the bottle. You look at it like the flying geese, which we call the flock. So I think there’s a social aspect to it. So just from the bottle itself, I think it was striking. Even Adam, to your point, when you were saying, when you first got that Grey Goose magnum, it’s like “I’ve arrived.” So I think the bottle was really unique. And then what Sidney Frank did, which I think it just really kind of turned the category on its head. I think back when you thought “vodka,” you would think, like, “oh, Eastern Europe, that’s where vodkas come from.” But Sidney Frank was like man, all the best things come from France. From a gastronomical perspective, the best wheat, the wines, the cheeses. So he almost did something like philosophy: “I’m going to create a vodka from not just France, but from the Cognac region of France,” which is pretty incredible and paradigm-shifting at the time. And then almost coming out like if it was a wine. So one of the original Grey Goose ads is like this wine rating where it actually won these competitions, world’s best tasting vodka, and that’s how it was marketed. And he was also a very generous person. So he would put Grey Goose every time he did like a charity event. And he would feed it. And he’s like, “Listen, I don’t really want to price it a little bit premium.” He went and he was almost like $10 higher than the nearest competitor at the time. So the brand just started taking off and then it just started ingraining itself organically in popular culture and really just becoming a cultural phenomenon. And I’m very fortunate. Adam, because I actually got to work on the brand right when Bacardi purchased it in 2004, so I was the brand director from ’04 to ’08. So the brand at this point is still a relatively young brand. And now I have this amazing opportunity to come back to the brand, which has this iconic status in 2020.
AT: Cool. Very cool.
K: Hey, man, I have a question, this is Keith, the tastings director. I don’t really know much about vodka. Is this the first French vodka, or there always have been, but this is just one of them?
A: Yeah, I think obviously vodka as being a grain spirit, I’m sure that there were others in France. But Grey Goose is really the first one to really promote France as its origin, as its sense of place and particularly Cognac. So, yeah, that’s definitely, I think very unique to Grey Goose.
AT: Interesting. Very cool. So when did the brand come to Bacardi? And do you know what the decision was? I mean, obviously it was an explosive brand at the time. But like when the brand came to Bacardi, had Bacardi been looking to have a vodka for a while, do you know that backstory a little bit? What went into that decision-making process and how the brand evolved once it came to Bacardi?
A: Yeah, for sure. So for sure, Bacardi was looking for a vodka. I think when you look at the spirits industry in general, a lot of the big players, naturally being one of them, you’re looking to have a representative across multiple categories. And in fact, when I started at Bacardi, we had just purchased Dewar’s Whisky and Bombay Sapphire as the result of the Diageo merger that took place. So now we had the rum, we had our gin, we had a Scotch. But vodka was just this huge category, and we still had a void. And really, I remember clearly, when we were able to work this deal out with Sidney Frank, it was just this is the absolute perfect fit. One, Sidney Frank is a family company. Bacardi is a family company, integrated very well. But then we also have a very premium portfolio. So it fit in really nicely with everything that we’re doing, and the brand just created such emotion, such a part of culture, that we were all just ecstatic when we were able to purchase it and bring the brand in-house and have the opportunity to market and sell it. And then also what we were able to do was there was also a massive global opportunity with the brand as well. So at the time, it was very much a U.S. brand with some presence in France. But we were able to take it throughout the world, which is also a fantastic experience.
T: Hey, Aleco, Tim here, staff writer. I was wondering so given that, like you say, I think Grey Goose really does when you look at Bacardi’s portfolio, really does have a natural fit there. But I was wondering how have you experienced vodka sort of evolving during your time there or maybe more like the vodka market? What have you seen? What have you witnessed, and where do you feel like the category is now?
A: Yeah, no, so I think the category is in a good place, and I think it’s actually getting even better because vodka went through a little bit of a phase kind of in the 2000s where you started getting a lot of artificial brands coming in. There was like confectionery vodka. I mean, I remember everything from cotton candy vodka, bacon vodka, like anything you could think of. Right? There were different vodkas. And Grey Goose has always just been really true to itself. I mean, my other passion, I love whiskey as a category — particularly single malt, because it’s so pure. It’s malted barley, water, and yeast. And Grey Goose is very much the same thing. When I think of vodka, Grey Goose to me is kind of the vanguard brand in it because we truly are across-the-cork brand. Terroir is very important. So although image plays a big part of vodka and mixability, from a brand standpoint, Grey Goose really has it all. We know our wheat, we know exactly where it comes from. The Picardy region of France. We have our Genset spring water and although a lot of vodka, they talk about all these like 20 times distilled. Right? We’re actually very proud. We actually have one distillation because we’re using the best ingredients and we actually want our vodka to have a taste to it and be distinctive. And so I think as people learn more about vodka as a category it really has just as beautiful and interesting a story as the other categories that are out there.
J: Hey, this is Josh here. Aleco, you mentioned “international.” So I was wondering, I guess a twofold question: I assume the U.S. is the biggest market for Grey Goose, but where else are big markets? And what’s Grey Goose like domestically in France?
A: Yeah, so the U.S. is the biggest market for Grey Goose still, but the share, we’re continuing to diversify it. So in France, it’s basically, you’ll find it at all the top accounts in France, and the serious mixology accounts and people know it in France. It’s not as big of a category, vodka in France. So whiskey is still a dominant category in France. But Grey Goose as a brand, I think there’s a lot of pride to it. And especially I think when you go to the Cognac region, there’s one of the things that’s unique to us is we actually have our own cellar master François Thibault. And he’s been with the brand since the inception. So in that sense, I think the brand is very French. There’s a lot of pride in the craftsmanship of it, and then other international markets where the brand does very well, just throughout Europe, U.K., Germany, Israel does great with the brand. So it really is trying to get a global footprint, Latin America as well. So I think that’s what’s just awesome to see, coming back to the brand almost like a decade later just seeing how iconic it is and it’s truly a global brand.
AT: So a question for you really quickly, Aleco. So, we thought about this a bunch internally, and I think we could talk about this with you for a long time. What causes certain brands to win and continue to win, and what causes other brands to sort of never get quite there? And I know you have experience being at Bacardi, but you had your own brands for a while. What has really allowed Grey Goose to maintain this iconic status as the top premium vodka, especially at least among American consumers, for so long? A ton of brands have run at you guys, a ton of brands have tried to look like you guys, and no one’s ever been able to do it. Why?
A: Yeah. No, that’s a great question. And it’s a little bit like “what’s like the magic in the sauce?” But I think with Grey Goose, when you look at it, I mean, it starts with the consumer. We have such a very fanatical consumer base. They’re just so passionate about Grey Goose because it just reminds them of celebration. Good times, right? The brand has this positive aura to it. Also, we’ve been incredibly consistent throughout the years, just like everything that we’ve done. So always maintaining the image of the brand and one of the benefits of being within a bigger organization is that we can really, form a production capacity as well, just maintain the integrity and the consistency of the product. But I think more than anything, it’s just the consistency of the product. Everything that we’ve done, just maintaining our relevance with the consumer. And a lot of times, just letting the consumer tell the stories and just really being a part of those occasions where it’s about celebration and feeling good, which obviously has been very interesting this year. Because I think special occasions and the celebratory moments that Grey Goose is known for, this has definitely been a year like no other.
K: Interesting. I have a question— this is Keith — is vodka when you’re out there in the market, is it a mixology thing or is it a straight-up thing? Are there two categories of people that dig vodka? Like “yeah I want this straight up, I don’t want to put anything in it.” Then there’s people that like the cocktail movement?
A: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it’s obviously such a massive category because you can kind of play on both sides. But I think when you get into a brand like Grey Goose where people that consume it, they really care about what it is either if it’s a cocktail, what is the base ingredient? Or if you’re drinking it on its own. So you have the Martini aficionados, they’ll even be putting the thermometer in their Martini to make sure it’s at the temperature that they want. So they really care, right, about what vodka am I using? And again, the purity of it. And I think with Grey Goose, like I mentioned, of course, also it has a certain taste. It’s unique. But I think there is this misconception that, “Hey, all vodkas are the same.” But it really depends on how it’s made, the taste profile of it. But then the mixology movement is massive. And I think as that evolved, you want to be using the best base ingredient that you can no matter what cocktail you’re making. And again, this year, it’s just been really interesting just because now the mixology movement has now gone residential. It’s not just at a bar. We’re seeing our consumers now becoming expert mixologists in their homes.
AT: So obviously, the brand is really iconic in pop culture — from hip hop to country R&B. What does the brand think about its prevalence in pop culture? And I think is that something that you guys have also cultivated? Did that happen just by chance? And if you did cultivate it, how do you continue to cultivate it now?
A: Thank you for that question. It’s a great question. Yeah, I think, to be honest, is a bit of a combination of both. So I think organically, we’ve seen Grey Goose end up in hip hop songs and films from product placement, completely unearned. I also think over the years we’ve had consistent campaigns where we’re showing up with that influential consumer, so we’ll see where they are in the funnel to whether it’s what films they’re seeing, on the digital side, where are they? We want to be present to make sure we’re tapping into those influencers. We do things like the U.S. Open event, where we have the Honey Deuce in New York. And we’ll see some of our influencers, like we have Jay Ellis and Yvonne Orji from Insecure. And they’re actually creating their own Grey Goose. And then we help promote that through social channels as well. So I really think it’s like a combination. To be honest with you, I think the way the brand is positioned, we’ve also been very active historically in film, sponsoring the Vanity Fair Oscar party, for example. And I think things like this, driven by the PR, have kind of led to that whole iconic status. And just like the cultural phenomenon that Grey Goose is.
J: Hey Aleco, this is Josh again. I was actually about to ask about the Honey Deuce. The last time I was at the U.S. Open, I was not of drinking age, growing up in New York. And it was something that was awesome to do in the summer, end of summer. How did that come about? I really don’t know the history at all. Was that a vodka-based drink that was served at the Open before you guys came in, or is that something you created together? I’m just really interested in how that came to be such a signature thing for the brand.
A: Yeah Josh, you’re talking to the right person, because I can tell you exactly how it was created, and it’s going on to 15 years already, which is amazing. So there was a gentleman by the name of Nick Moton that helped us create it. And really the genesis of the cocktail, obviously we wanted something delicious, something that would feature Grey Goose. But we’re like, how do we get this to actually tie back to the whole tennis experience? And so that’s where the melon balls came in, so they actually looked like tennis balls. And really the idea was to almost create like what the Mint Julep became for the Kentucky Derby. And it’s really just been a phenomenon, if you go on Instagram, #honeydeuce, you’ll see like just thousands of pictures to the point, I don’t think the U.S. Open experience these days is complete without having a Grey Goose Honey Deuce. And this year because of obviously the Covid restrictions and the U.S. Open was virtual we were talking like, well, how do we still maintain this tradition? And lo and behold, the one thing that Covid did for the spirits industry was really accelerate the e-comm component. And we were able to partner with different e-comm groups to actually create the Grey Goose Honey Deuce kit. And people could order that to their home and actually at least have the closest thing to their U.S. Open experience at home that they used to have on site.
AT: That’s really interesting. So question for you, Aleco. So obviously, I know you’re a fan of VinePair, which I’m very thankful for and appreciate. So you may be aware of this, but it would not be a VinePair editorial meeting if we didn’t talk about hard seltzer. And so my question for you is, how has hard seltzer impacted the vodka category, or how have you seen it? And due to hard seltzer’s meteoric rise, has Grey Goose considered RTDs or things of that nature for the future? I mean, I know I’ve only seen it a few times recently with other brands, but Grey Goose being so premium, I’m curious if you’ve considered it, too.
A: Yeah, thanks for that question, Adam. So, I mean, obviously, like every major liquor company, we have a robust pipeline of innovation ideas that we look at. I think when you talk about hard seltzer, we usually refer to them as like the RTD category or ready to drink. And I think it’s really tapping into that trend just a convenience, just people looking for a different alternative. A lot of the research that we see, it really steals a lot of share from beer. But there’s no doubt that it also increases the occasions of the penetration of brands. So within our company Bacardi, for example, launched an RTD and it’s been incredibly successful. And the Bacardi RTD is unique, it’s actually rum-based versus malt-based. So we don’t have any plans for a Grey Goose RTD. Again, I would never say never, but I do think whatever we did, because just being Grey Goose, we would have to do something that was in line with Grey Goose itself, with what people come to expect from the Grey Goose experience. But yeah, and I think even now, again, with Covid, the RTDs are taking off even more just because you have your cocktail in a can already, you don’t have to worry about preparing it or having someone else prepare for you. So it really is just a massive phenomenon that’s going on right now in the industry.
AT: Yeah, totally.
T: And can I follow with something sort of semi-related. So obviously, hard seltzer has been this incredible trend over the past few years. But I think when we typically look at drinks trends, we see those as kind of being born out of like on-premise experiences kind of across the board. And given that we were really kind of robbed of that for the most part of 2020, Aleco, I was wondering what you think we can expect to see in terms of drinks trends in 2021? Maybe within vodka or even without, just given your experience.
A: Yeah, I’ll be honest, I’m a very optimistic person, so I’m actually very excited about some of the trends that I think are going to come out of this. So first and foremost, one of the things that’s really interesting is that I feel like what we call it, “the home-premise” internally now, because it’s almost like you take off-premise, on-premise. But now there’s this whole new avenue, which is the “home-premise,” whether it’s the rise of the home bartender or the home mixologist. So now you have people making Old Fashioneds, Negronis at home. So I think now when the on premise does open up, when people go to the on premise, they’re going to be looking now for a kind of “next-level” type of experience with cocktail making. So I think that’s going to be one thing. One thing that we’ve seen, too, come out of it is the whole rise of what we call to-go cocktails, right? Where we know how many people now are like ordering food delivery. But a lot of these higher-end restaurants are also having cocktails, and you have the ability to have cocktails delivered to your home. So I think that that’s going to be a massive trend. And then I think the other trend that we’re seeing is the kind of “mindful drinking” movement, like lower-ABV spritzes. And I think as people are just a little bit more conscious of what they’re consuming, I think that also is going to carry over to spirits. But I do think people are going to continue to go for quality. And I think that really positions Grey Goose well for 2021.
AT: So what cocktails do you guys see or do you think are going to be made more at home moving forward? Or what cocktails, especially with Grey Goose, are people embracing? Is it just Grey Goose with tonic or some other mixer or are you seeing people get a little bit fancier making Grey Goose Martinis? And what are you guys circling around in terms of cocktails? Because Honey Deuce is great. But I would assume most consumers aren’t making that at home.
A: Yeah I think it really depends a lot on the occasion. And that’s what’s great about Grey Goose, is that it’s not limited to an “after-dinner” cocktail or an aperitif. I think it can play in a lot of different occasions. So, for example, this past holiday, we teamed up with one of these cocktail delivery companies and created a Grey Goose Holiday Punch kit that actually arrived at your house via cocktail courier. You could create your own holiday punch, which was great. In the summer, you could do something refreshing. Fever Tree, for example, making its amazing mixers and that great product. I live in Miami, Adam. So even in the dead of winter, it’s warm. So I’ve discovered that this Grapefruit Fever Tree, just mixing that with Grey Goose is amazing. And then you have, as we were talking about earlier, your purist that they really just want their Grey Goose Martini and they’re like maniacal about how they want to prepare for them. So I think that’s why vodka, there’s so much opportunity for it, it’s such a massive category. It can really play in every occasion that there is.
AT: So there used to be this movement among bartenders, I don’t know, maybe five years ago, where we’d hear bartenders be like, “Oh, I don’t use vodka for cocktails.” Are you seeing that change? I feel like I’m seeing a lot more vodka cocktails, especially like the high-end cocktail places, on the list than I used to. Or was that just like snobby Brooklyn bartenders that would always say that five years ago, everyone else was always using vodka in cocktails?
A: Yeah, Adam, I don’t think it’s necessarily, I would say, snobby bartenders. I think it’s just like vodka just almost became so ubiquitous in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. And then with different categories, people started learning about different categories and it was kind of this almost back to the Prohibition-era-style cocktails when he had all the speakeasy type of accounts opening up and so they were trying to go back to more of those Prohibition-style cocktails. And that’s also when you had the whole rise of the mixology movement. And then I think what we’re seeing now is a lot of mixologists, they don’t even like that term anymore. Right? They’re like, “I’m a bartender.” And I just like to make drinks that people like. And I think that’s why we’re seeing vodka is starting to make a comeback. And I think also, as you get into more elaborate cocktails with natural juices and different purees, vodka is just a great complement to those cocktails that they’re creating. There has almost been like this blurring of the line between the bartender and the chef as well.
AT: Yeah. You think it was all just like the Cosmo had become so ubiquitous that people were like at some point, “We’ve got to find something else,” and vodka kind of became also something to take the fall because it was one of the main ingredients in the drink?
A: Yeah, that’s a good point. I mean, we all remember, like “Sex and the City” and the Cosmo, and Grey Goose was in that in one of the episodes of “Sex and the City.” But yeah, for sure I think the Cosmo just kind of became part of bartender fatigue with the cocktail and they were looking for the next thing and to elevate their craft. I definitely think that played a role in it. But I think now we’re seeing also people are kind of back to simplicity and trying to really just work with the best ingredients that they can. And I think that’s a very favorable trend for Grey Goose and vodka as a category.
AT: Well awesome, so this has been a really important conversation. Before I let you go, I would love to hear if there’s anything on the horizon, all of us would, for Grey Goose in 2021. Obviously, we’re in a new year, finally, which is awesome. 2020 was a rough one. Is there any really cool stuff on the horizon that you guys are working on, or anything you can share with us or for the big brand plans this year?
A: Yeah, I mean, more than anything, I’m looking really forward to just kind of the return of the on-premise and how we can play a role in it, because any way you cut it, this has been a really difficult year. I think all of us working in this industry, we have a lot of friends in the hospitality space and they’ve really been hit obviously very hard. And we’ve tried to do a lot of initiatives as an organization to help with that. From the tip-your-bartender program that we had where we would match the tips that people gave bartenders, when we featured them on our social media accounts. Also basically, I think just people wanted to get back and experience the on-premise, so one of the trends I’m really looking forward to is I think this whole concept of like al fresco cocktail and dining. I’m really set to be a part of that, creating these refreshing, really playing a role and in these spritz-style cocktails that are refreshing and really tie in well to the whole outdoor experience, which I think will be a big trend — especially going into spring and summer of next year.
AT: Makes a lot of sense. Well Aleco, thank you so much for taking the time to join us all for drinks. We also appreciate you guys all sending us a bottle of Grey Goose. It has been delicious to sip on. Actually, I am curious if any members of the staff have made a special cocktail with their Grey Goose since we joined.
K: I must be a purist because I’m just drinking it straight.
T: Well, I went for a miniature Martini just because it’s not quite that time of afternoon yet. But you know, it helped. It was lovely.
AT: Josh, what did you make, man?
J: So my bar is pretty bare right now. And I was rushing home to get here on time. And I got to say, it’s delicious. I took a lemon Spindrift, put it in my Cocktail Kingdom Tumbler with some ice and some Grey Goose. And it’s a very tasty, refreshing drink.
AT: I dig it. Well, I actually made a Cosmopolitan. I felt like I had to. I was feeling nostalgic, and it is a delicious drink that I think everyone just got sick of. But it is actually going to make a comeback, I think, because it’s really quite good.
A: Adam, I agree with you. I mean, we have “Top Gun” coming back this summer, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a retro Cosmo makes a comeback.
AT: I got to say, I think it’s going to. Well Aleco, thank you so much again for joining us. This has been really, really awesome to get to know you and the brand. We really appreciate it. And yeah, have a great 2021.
A: Likewise. Thanks, everyone. Appreciate it.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of “EOD Drinks.” If you’ve enjoyed this program, please leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps other people discover the show. And tell your friends. We want as many people as possible listening to this amazing program.
And now for the credits. “End of Day Drinks” is recorded live in New York City at VinePair’s headquarters. And it is produced, edited, and engineered by VinePair tastings director, yes, he wears a lot of hats, Keith Beavers. I also want to give a special thanks to VinePair’s co-founder, Josh Malin, to the executive editor Joanna Sciarrino, to our senior editor, Cat Wolinski, senior staff writer Tim McKirdy, and our associate editor Katie Brown. And a special shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, VinePair’s art director who designed the sick logo for this program. The music for “End of Day Drinks” was produced, written and recorded by Darby Cici. I’m VinePair co-founder Adam Teeter, and we’ll see you next week. Thanks a lot.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.