SB meets… Jean-Sébastien Robicquet, Maison VillevertBy Nicola Carruthers
The master distiller and founder of G’Vine owner Maison Villevert tells us about his plans to establish new distribution arms and the company’s ambition to become a key player in French whisky.
What do you have planned to mark Maison Villevert’s 20th anniversary this year?
“Well yes, we are nearing the end of our teenage years and becoming an adult. Maison Villevert has been completely focused on creating spirits using French grapes but as all conscientious 20 year olds must do, it is time to plan for the future.
“That future is a vision that goes beyond grape while maintaining our philosophy of championing French premium spirits. We have already started this by looking at other categories, like whisky, hence the recent purchase of Celtic Distilleries in Brittany, France, a perfect example of how we are continuing our modern vision of producing spirits with elegance based on roots and history.
“We also have some timely celebrations recently adding 12 medals and four additional awards across our portfolio as well as my induction into the Gin Hall of Fame as recognition for being dedicated to innovation over the past 20 years.”
How do you plan to achieve your goal of reaching €100 million (US$119m) in revenue by 2023? What other targets have you set?
“I touched on external growth and our ambition for new brands which is one of three points we are focusing on to grow by 2023. The second point is diversification in our B2B [business-to-business] with the intention to be less dependent on others by opening our own distribution units through mergers and/or acquisitions.
“I can exclusively reveal to you that we are exploring several options including one in Great Britain that could soon come to fruition. Moreover, we have set our sights for the long haul and are looking at distribution growth in the USA and China.
“The third is leveraging our existing brands, G’Vine Floraison and June by G’Vine, in particular with the off-trade and on a consumer level with our Voulez-Vouz G’Vine Avec Moi and Spirit of Summer campaigns respectively.”
What is in the pipeline for the company over the next few years?
“Quite simply, growth in all areas. Growth in distribution, growth in consumer awareness for our existing brands and growth in our Maison Villevert family of brands, and significantly growth beyond grape.
“Celtic Distillery is our first activation and we may investigate further brand purchases compatible with Maison Villevert’s DNA. My induction into the Gin Hall of Fame recognised my input into the gin industry, and we have focused on product, innovations building assets and structure, developed production and created brands.
“Now we will focus on the customer. Our own studies have shown us that the UK market shows a lack of knowledge and distribution and these two things are being addressed head-on.”
How was the company affected by the pandemic and tariffs?
“I was not disappointed with the financial results of the past year; despite the crisis 2020 has seen stability for us versus 2019. The trend for this new fiscal is really positive, in fact as we start our fiscal year in October we are six months in and already 30% up from the previous year.
“We were strongly supported by our French market that has, quite timely, turned to more premium offerings. Historically we experienced a strong on-trade market in Spain and of course, like us all, could not count on this.
“In regards to tariffs, our business is not affected by the tariffs because our profile is focused outside the US. We also anticipated stock levels and with no change on the UK tariff so, as they say, so far so good.”
Do you have any new products planned for the coming year?
“Yes. We have the consumer launch for June by G’Vine. June is our gin made from a G’Vine Floraison base infused with fruit. We launched the brand with June Wild Peach, which will be followed by Pear and Cardamon in the coming months.
“Cardamom is one of the botanicals in G’Vine Floraison and together with pear creates an intense flavour, less sweet than our Wild Peach, and embodies the spirit of summer, a summer we are all about to very much enjoy.
“We are working on a very special project that is not a product but is interwoven into the fabric of Maison Villevert; the largest private collection of historical books on relevant subjects such as distilling, bartending, perfume and cocktails.
“We have recently acquired this incredible reference and resource and during recent weeks it has been a joy to place them in our library at Maison Villevert alongside the existing artefacts and historical items we already safeguard.
“My particular highlights are two books, the first is from 1698; Le Parfumeur François (qui enseigne toutes les manières de tirer les odeurs des fleurs) by Simon Barbe. The second is from 1646; Traité de L’eau de Vie (ou anatomie théorique et pratique du vin by) by Jean Brouaut.”
Last year Maison Villevert acquired Celtic Whisky Compagnie. What are your plans for the firm?
“Our goal is to become the undisputed reference in French whisky. We have taken on a brand that has exceptional history built with precision and is already well known and well rated. Whisky writer Jim Murray said Celtic Whisky is ‘probably the best distillery in mainland France’ so our utmost importance is maintaining the authenticity and protecting all that has been built before.
“Amazingly, Dave Broom in his World Atlas of Whisky book took one product picture to illustrate whisky produced in France and it is our brand, Kornog.
“What Maison Villevert will add is heavy investment in infrastructure and secure the future for the distillery, we plan to extend the range and apply the same philosophy we have applied in our 20 years, but in an established footprint. Our plan, in a nutshell, is to be the key player in the French whisky market and in a wider view, on the world whisky market.”
Would you like to move into any new spirits categories?
“Aside from already doing this with whisky, the answer is yes. Our future is growth and championing French premium spirits in other categories.
“If you know me a little you won’t be surprised to hear that we are already investigating certain opportunities on this new path we are creating, all I can say for now is yes we might move into a new spirit but not in an existing category. Maison Villevert has always innovated and created new categories but for the moment we will build and consolidate.”
What challenges face spirits producers?
“That is a simple question with a complicated answer. Right now external elements are making the spirits world evolve very quickly. You’ve already touched upon tariffs, add to this the nightmare and legal aspect that is prevalent with European departure for the UK and on-trade disappearing overnight… the list goes on.
“In truth the life of a producer is a nightmare, external challenges are on a global scale. And then we have the no/low trend. While I strongly advocate responsible drinking the very notion of spirits is that they contain alcohol and this is a huge challenge that producers face.
“We are spirits makers and we follow the rules and regulations of the AOC [appellation d’origine contrôlée] collective trademark including the requirement that alcohol must have a minimum strength. For example gin has to be 37.5% ABV to be called gin, so low/no vodka or gin etc cannot be called as such.
“It is, in fact, an abuse of the work of more than 300 years producing spirits and respecting these clear definitions. Spirits should be protected as they are in food or wine. We all understand that Bordeaux wine cannot be made elsewhere so why is the industry accepting these infringements?
“Considering the excellence I insist upon in making our spirits, how can I be open minded about this trend? And while the trend continues, this challenge is not going away unless regulations are, quite rightly, enforced.”