The distinguished Frenchman starred at me from across the table as I brought the wine glass up to my nose and took a few short whiffs of the clear liquid. He knew what my response was going to be; he has witnessed it again and again. His name is Jean-Sebastién Robicquet and he is the master distiller behind a wine based vodka named CÎROC, the third most consumed vodka on the market and now only footsteps behind the top two “Luxury” vodkas in the world, Grey Goose and Belvedere, respectively. An impressive feat considering the product was only launched in 2003. What makes this vodka different, and how was it able to achieve success so quickly? Is the “from wine grapes” moniker just good marketing?
I reclined at a table in a private meeting room downstairs at the E&O Trading Co. in San Francisco. Jean-Sebastién and the entourage sat across the table and we began.
First the neutral: a grain based vodka cut to 20% abv. (note: when tasting vodka’s, you can add the identical amount of distilled water to your glass to neutralize the ethanol making it easier to taste through a flight and pick up nuances.) Even though the ABV was cut, the aroma was still overwhelmed by a rubbing alcohol like smell with a sharp finish. This is your typical grain vodka that I’m guessing retails for under $15.
Then we tasted two separate CÎROC vodka’s, each distilled from the two grapes that are fashioned together to create the final product. First was Ugni blanc (pronounced eew-knee – blaunk), a more neutral aroma that was less harsh than the grain neutral, but surprisingly velvety on the tongue with a fantastic finish that seemed to linger. Then the Mouzac (pronounced Moe-Zach), a rare grape only found in two parts of the world, Gaillac and Limoux France, and only 5%-7% of which is used in the final CÎROC blend. This is where the incredible aroma is fused into the spirit, with fragrant notes of citrus, apricot, and crushed rock that finish with a full bodied mouth feel.
Finally the last vodka poured was CÎROC, the final blend of Ugni Blanc and Mouzac.
The infusion of what Jean-Sebastién likes to call the DNA or soul of the grapes is apparent. The story is written with the alcohol, and water is just used to cut the 96.4% abv product down to the much more manageable 40% abv or 80 proof on the label.
The name, like the product, is a fusion of two names: Cime or Summit, and Roche or Rock, inspired by the town Gaillac in France where it is produced. The blue color on the bottle is a throwback to bleu de pastel, formerly used in Gaillac as a dye that now lives on in the pastels used to paint doors, windows, and various items throughout the town. The rooster on the bottle helps one associate the vodka’s origin. France is the area that occupies what was once referred to as Gaul, and a similar variant on that name is used to describe a rooster.
The latest creation are two flavored Vodka’s, Coconut, which reminded me of Malibu Rum without the bite, and Red Berry, which has a beautiful aroma of fresh strawberries, cherry and raspberry. Both of these options are worth trying and are much smoother than most flavored vodka’s I’ve tasted.
From the early morning grape harvest and cold fermentation, to the steam heated coil stills that provide indirect heat during distillation, CÎROC is made with great care and attention to quality. No wonder the company expects to dethrone the overhyped and overpriced competition within the next few years.