Meditations

Grey Goose’s Dimi Lezinska And His Magic Oak-Aged Cocktail


The French oak barrel and resulting bottle of Grey Goose L'Orange Negroski.

As the entire city of Vancouver was donning Canucks jerseys and settling in to watch game four of the NHL finals the other night, I was headed to 100 Nights at the Opus Hotel in Yaletown to meet with and enjoy a cocktail made by Dimi Lezinska, Global Brand Ambassador for Grey Goose Vodka, who was in town for their annual Pour Masters competition.

I arrived wondering how someone lands a killer job like “global brand ambassador” for one of the world’s super premium liquor companies and working directly under Francois Thibault, Maitre de Chai (cellar master) and genius behind Grey Goose’s flavour profiles. “When I was in the army, they asked me what I wanted to do,” said Dimi in his thick French accent, “I cheekily told them I wanted to work in a bar in London.”

While his duties as a soldier in the Armée de Terre had little to do with mixing cocktails, two years later Dimi was indeed living in London and working at some of the that city’s finest drinking establishments. “While in London, I was lucky to be involved and have some influence in the resurgence in popularity of the cocktail in London.” continued a humble Lezinska, who in truth made major contributions while mixing cocktails at some of the UK’s top bars including the legendary Atlantic Bar, Mash, Eclipse and as manager at LAB.

Dimi told me that his unique style and philosophy of  “not drinking more, but drinking better” attracted the attention of Bacardi, the new owners of Grey Goose, who has employed him ever since as their chief mixologist and brand messenger. I asked him about that titles like bartender, barman or mixologist and his response was “Meh, none of those titles mean much and anyone who does this well knows that you are actually a host.”

As is common with me, our conversation soon turned to food, Dimi explaining that his West Indian heritage left him with an affinity for spicy Indian food (although in the numerous times he’d been to Vancouver he’d never heard of Vij’s!) and admitted that he’s not even a good cook, which was a surprise. As I often ask those with refined palates, I wondered what Dimi’s earliest food memory was, to which he responded with a story of the sites, smells and tastes of his mother’s kitchen as she prepared “Dombré”, a West Indies dish of flour balls cooked with red beans and a curry-like gravy. Another contender for his earliest taste memory was another dish called “Boudin Antillais”, a Caribbean take on black pudding. The best part of the story was the look in Dimi’s eyes and smile on his face as he recounted it.

Grey Goose Global Brand Ambassador Dimi Lezinska recounts early childhood food memories and talks about his personal favourite cocktails.

When I prodded him further for his favourite cocktail, he said is depended largely on context, the people he was with and mood he was in, but he mentioned that he rarely asks bartenders to make classic drinks—and never those he specializes in or created himself. Instead, he prefers to explore the culture and cuisine of the place he’s visiting by ordering whatever is local and seasonal.

When at home though, he’ll often make himself a drink that emphasizes herbal or bitter qualities, which brought us to the cocktail he’d prepared for me: a take on the classic Negroni called L’Orange Negroski. While a typical Negroni is made with gin, the Negroski uses the orange-infused Grey Goose L’Orange, along with Martini Rosso vermouth and Campari bitters, but in this case Lezinska aged the pre-mixed cocktail for four days in a small French oak barrel. Yup, you read that right: he aged the cocktail in advance of our meeting.

I love a Negroni. It is easily on my top five list of favourite cocktails. So a version made with vodka seemed, I dunno, unconventional. L’Orange vodka left the drink a bit sweeter than I’m used to and Dimi’s recipe has less Campari than I normally use, but the time spent in contact with the oak added a subtle toffee/vanilla flavour, and additional time spent in the bottle had mellowed the bitters. “My advice is to make the cocktail the way you like it first,” instructed Dimi, ” then after some days in the oak (it depends on how many times the barrel has been used) store it in a nice glass bottle and it will only get better with time.”

After my first sip of this delicious drink I knew aging cocktails was something I had to try at home myself. But where does one get one of these obviously expensive little barrels of French oak? Dimi and our host Charlene exchanged glances and when our time together was wrapping up, they offered it to me as a parting gift! Cool, right? Stay tuned for a report (and if you’re lucky, a taste!) of the Foodists first barrel-aged cocktails, and if you want to try it for yourself, here’s the exact recipe Lezinska used:

Grey Goose L’Orange Negroski
This twist on the classic negroni has a bitter profile that lends itself to the agin process, resulting in a soft and mellow finished flavour.

Ingredients:
3.5 litres Grey Goose L’Orange
2.6 litres Martini Rosso
500 ml Campari

Method:
Combine all ingredients in an oak cask for four days. Garnish with orange twist and serve in a martini or coupette glass.

Obviously Dimi was in Vancouver to promote Grey Goose vodka for his employer, but it was so refreshing that he didn’t even mention their products until I asked. I explained that while I was quite familiar with their luxury vodka, that most people I knew didn’t even realize that it was made in France. “It says ‘Distilled and Bottled in France’ right on the bottle right above a French flag!” Lezinska exclaimed. “But it’s true that have to be careful about playing the ‘French card’ in our marketing in North America—especially the USA.”

While most Americans just assume vodka comes from Russia or Scandinavia, Grey Goose is painstakingly crafted from a special kind of French “winter wheat” only grown north of Paris in an area called Picardy. It’s then distilled using limestone-filtered water in the Cognac region of France. The flavoured versions, L’Orange, Le Citron and La Poire are all created with the aid of flavour houses that specialize in techniques to extract the most convincing and delicious flavours from carefully selected fruit. It was fascinating to hear Dimi explain in detail how different each process was for the different fruit. I guess there’s a reason this super premium luxury vodka costs $50 a bottle!

I have to admit that I often feel a bit hesitant accepting an invitation to meet with PR folks working with companies like Grey Goose, expecting more marketing speak and sales rhetoric than any genuine and interesting stories. But with Dimi Lezinska was a treat. And as clearly he understood that his job was much more than just mixing drinks—he was the consummate host. Oh yeah, and that little Pour Masters contest they were hosting in Vancouver? As I predicted while sipping Dimi’s cocktails like the Queen of France, local cocktail host to the stars Jay Jones destroyed the competition—unlike the Canucks who got trounced by Boston. Congratulations Jay!

2011 Grey Goose Pour Master Vancouver Champion Jay Jones with Dimi Lezinska.

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