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Making Moonshine is Illegal in France but…

Making moonshine is illegal almost everywhere. However in France if you've a few orchards of unsold peaches or apricots and can find a licensed itinerant distiller you can still enjoy the fruits of your labour in a spirit-warming form. But for how much longer, asks our Grumpy Gardener Mike Alexander, who could be found recently sampling the production of one of a dying breed - all in the interests of journalism of course.

Alambic Still

A Dying Breed

André Jouclase is one of a dying breed.

This writer first came across him in a tiny hameau on the banks of the Lot River where he was brewing eau de vie from his mobile still. He's been doing this for the past 35 years, towing this ancient wood burning still from village to village where he is eagerly awaited by local farmers with barrels, drums and dustbins filled with apples or pears they have carefully hoarded for weeks in anticipation of the terroir-flavoured alcoholic nectar it is his arts et métier to create.

For a fee André Jouclase turns the fermenting fruit into that infamous breath-taking alcohol that the French and many of us relocated foreigners are so fond of. It takes approximately six hundred litres of fruit and a cubic metre of firewood to produce twenty litres of "gnôle" (booze or hooch) as the eau de vie is known around France. The spirit will have an average alcohol content of 50% although André can turn up the heat, as it were, to percentages as high as 55% if the client so desires.

In the Good Old Days
Back in the good old days he would often produce a heart-warming, liver-shaking concoction 80% proof but these days 55% is as high as he is allowed to go, he tells me, with a shake of his head, suggesting government medical advisors have got the upper hand.

Moonshine Stiull
Good old days? Moonshine still

In fact I get the distinct impression that the good old days are soon to come to an end altogether. André no longer has the right to move around the area towing the ancient "alambic" as the still is known in French. He must now stay on his own site and his clients have to come to him. He is a licensed "brûleur" or distiller but he cannot sell the license, although he may pass it on to his son who is keen to take over the ancient profession even though Paris (and probably EU) bureaucrats are constantly ratcheting up the pressure. Surprise inspections both by gendarmes and douanne or tax collectors are now more frequent and they have taken to searching surrounding fields and bushes for any "mislaid" bottles of the final delectation. His license for production is restricted to the 6 months between September and March, although if he agrees to pay an additional fee he can get this extended to April.

alambic still
Today's alambic still

Bureaucratic Coup de Grace
The bureaucrats have now come up with an even more severe form of control that I fear will spell the end, if not of Andrés métier then at least that of his son and distilling heir. The farmers who grow the fruit they wish to distill, are known as "brûleur de cru" and they too have been told they need a permit before their produce can be boiled up in the alambic and, hours later, dribble out as prized firewater. These permits however are no longer being issued at all although present license holders have the right to use their existing licenses for their life times. As nearly all the "brûleur de cru" are pretty elderly it cannot be too much longer before the days of the road side "brûleur" will be over and an era so very much a part of France's patrimoine will have fallen victim to over zealous and meddlesome fonctionaires.

"I felt privileged to have seen the old wood burning "alambic"
in operation that day."

I felt privileged to have seen the old wood burning "alambic" in operation that day. I was not the only person to feel that way and several locals had turned out to watch not only the still but also the performance of an old and skilled profession that, like so many others, will probably will be lost within a few years.

Gnôle, but not as we Know it
You will of course still be able to buy your bottle of "gnôle", only now it will come from the supermarket, shipped in from an industrial distillery where perhaps the bureaucrats can be a little more assured of getting their hands on a greater share of the revenue they are so keen to collect.

Perhaps, if you're in luck, the label will bear a picture of a real ancient alambic.

Licenced to Still
The video below shows: Jean Roulet, a Bouilleur de Crus filmed in the local town square and describing his métier for TV8 Mont Blanc:

"I distill for clients across 15-18 communes in Haute-Savoie. I've been distilling my daily remedy for more than 60 years - my medicine is good for cholesterol. But my métier is likely to end with me even though I'm a third generation distiller."

click here to pop up a video of an alambic still touring the Haute Savoi
Licenced to Distil
But for how much longer?

- click image above to pop-up the video -

This video clip (click the image above) shows an itinerant Bouilleur de Cru Jean Paul Mugnier during a three day stopover in Servoz with his alambic distilling eaux-de-vie (gnôle) for the locals....

To pop-up the video - click here
Gnôle - it's dynamite!

- click image above to view video -

Or have a look at this DailyMotion video (click the image above), for a slightly different take on the subject!

Licensed to Distil - TV8 Video - This website
Gnôle - it's dynamite! - DailyMotionVideo - This website
Warning - Don't Try This at Home... - This website
Les Louches & Servoz - Tourist website

Article: Mike Alexander
December 2011

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