"Only dead fish go with the stream" - Interview, Maison Villevert CEO Jean-Sébastien Robicquet

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Earlier this week, Cognac-headquartered Maison Villevert unveiled the next chapter in the history of its G'Vine gin brand, with the relaunch of G'Vine's Nouaison expression. Ahead of the event, just-drinks deputy editor Lucy Britner sat down with Maison Villevert CEO Jean-Sébastien Robicquet to talk about why the brand needed to change and what the future holds for Maison Villevert.

 Maison Villevert CEO Jean-Sébastien Robicquet

Maison Villevert CEO Jean-Sébastien Robicquet

Jean-Sébastien Robicquet believes there have been three major launches that have shaped the gin category. The first was in the late 1980s with Bombay Sapphire. "They premiumised the segment," he says. Then, in the late '90s, we had William Grant & Sons' Hendrick's. "They took the liberty of not being a London Dry - and the brand is more eccentric."

Next, in 2006: G'Vine Floraison - the first and more floral of Maison Villevert's two G'Vine expressions. "Not only is it not a London Dry," Robicquet explains, "it's French and it's made from grapes."

The overall G'Vine brand now boasts volumes of 60,000 cases per year, split roughly three-quarters Floraison and one-quarter Nouaison.  

While Villevert has recently rolled out new packaging for Floraison - which touts 'small batch gin' in embossed writing, along with the words 'originally unconventional' - Nouaison, which first launched in 2008, has been given a complete makeover.

The expression, which is also made from grape spirit, was originally launched as a more traditional alternative to floral Floraison. Now, Robicquet has taken the brand even further into the earthy, spicy realm.

One will be drunk on the terrace overlooking the Eiffel Tower, the other will be drunk in the catacombs

"Things have evolved and Floraison has reinforced its position as a lifestyle gin - on the terrace, by the pool..." he explains. "With Nouaison, I think we had not gone all the way. If one is enjoyed in the sun, the other one needs to be underground - one will be drunk on the terrace overlooking the Eiffel Tower, the other will be drunk in the catacombs."

In less romantic terms, the gin now has a higher abv - up from 43.9% to 45%. The new product also sees the addition of four botanicals, taking the total to 14. The line up includes sandalwood, bergamot, prune, java pepper and vetiveria.

Last night's Nouasion launch took place in three cities - London, Paris and Singapore - and all events called upon bartenders to create a cocktail for the gin, cementing the firm's plans to win over the on-premise. However, there has been no shortage of gin launches since Floraison appeared on the scene in 2006. What if the bubble bursts?

"What I kept doing is trying to ensure that there is a point of differentiation," argues Robicquet. "The experience in general is so different that even if there is a burst, the brands will remain."

Beyond gin

Besides G'vine, Maison Villevert's stable includes Tequila, vermouth and now a Cognac. Robicquet is arguably most famous in the drinks world for creating Diageo's grape-based Ciroc vodka. It has to be said, though, that the company, which posted sales of US$60m in 2016, didn't get off to a flying start.

Veterans of the industry will remember that before Maison Villevert, Robicquet's outfit was called Euro Wine Gate. In 2001, following a ten-year stint with Moet Hennessy, he registered EWG to sell wine online in the US and make the most of the dot-com bubble. Yet, shortly after the company's inception, the bubble burst and then the Twin Towers fell. Cognac expert Nicholas Faith puts it best in his category encyclopedia when he says Robicquet's "timing could not have been worse".

And so, Robicquet returned to what he knows best; the Cognac region and making booze from grapes.

Grapes bring nobility to spirits categories

"The internet bubble exploding accelerated my willingness to work on spirits," he says. Moreover, he is a firm believer that "grapes bring nobility to spirits categories". In the early 2000s, the action was in vodka - cue Robicquet's creation of Ciroc for Diageo. 

"I had the opportunity to meet with Diageo and that's how we agreed on making Ciroc," he says. "And, soon after a vodka came a gin."

Then, in 2009 Robicquet made his next big category bet: Excellia is described by the company as a 'grand cru' Tequila. The brand is produced in partnership with Carlos Camarena - the Tequila heavyweight associated with several brands, including Ocho and Tapatio.

Of course, Robicquet had to add his 'Frenchness' - and the "nobility of grapes" - to the mix. Excellia is part-aged in ex-Sauternes and ex-Cognac barrels.

"Sipping Tequila did not exist," he says. "So, again we went against the stream - only dead fish go with the stream.

"I wanted to have a Tequila to the standard of a wonderful whisky or a wonderful Cognac," he adds.

Next, in 2012, came a vermouth, though the product didn't reach London until early-2014. "Here again, we are in advance of the game," he says. "Three years later, everybody talks about vermouth." He's not wrong.

We round off our time together at Masion Villevert, a couple of miles outside of the town of Cognac, with the group's most logical - and yet most recent - category launch: The Cognac Guild range.

It's impossible to describe the Cognac Guild as a 'brand'. The concept is almost the reverse of the tried-and-tested methods by industry leaders to blend a 'consistent house-style'. Instead, the Cognac Guild aims to take the concept of Cognac back to individual villages and distilleries.

The line-up, which is created by a co-operative of Cognacais (though the brand is owned by Villevert) comprises four iterations from the six crus of AOC Cognac. The bottlings come from specific villages within each cru. They also display a vintage and the selection changes periodically.

In his book, Faith hails the strategy for involving concepts that are "both sensible and fashionable - the ideas of authenticity and locality". The spirits industry will no doubt be watching with interest to see what Robicquet launches next.

What does the future hold for the global gin category? - Research in Focus

Sectors: Spirits

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