Mid-january, somewhere in the Loire along a side road.
At about this time of the year in many regions in France, a remnant of the past discreetly lingers, before fading away : the mobile distillery has set up shop for a couple of weeks for those with a right to distillate their fruits, or the grape must and lees from their individual vineyard plot. You still can see such similar-looking mobile alambics, named "ateliers publics" in rural France, like the one on this page about an "atelier" in the "Pays d'Othe", a wooded region between Paris and Burgundy.
Making their own alcohol has been a millenary tradition for people in the french provinces, unregulated by the law until Napoleon. Then new restricting laws came in, like in 1914 when the "bouilleur de cru" status was created, allowing the people in the countryside owning an orchard or a vineyard plot to continue their family production with a 20 liter "eau de vie" maximum limit. The family right was passed down to the next generation, allowing the "bouilleurs de cru" to perpetuate the tradition. This right to distillate, called "acquit", is not inheritable anymore since 1953. The reason behind the ever-more-restricting laws was both the fight against alcoholism and the greed of the french state, which did not view positively the untaxed alcohol made in private homes. This has been a largely self-punishing policy from the french authorities because the quality of this millenary private production is well-known and the restrictive laws deprived us from a rich and diverse economic production.
The mobile unit seen on this page is one of the dwindling few still operating. It has the authorization of the french state, namely of the administration arm overlooking everything alcohol-related : the French Customs : The French Customs check everything in relation with wine- and alcohol production, and it collects the afferent taxes.
I probably passed this alambic every winter on the same patch of road without noticing its use. From a passing traveller, it looks like a trailer or a cabin used to store machinery, and in the evening, a bleak neon adds to its unattractiveness. I did notice that there were always a couple or more cars parked in the mud nearby but didn't look further, until a local told me about it maybe two years ago, giving me a chance to learn about this little-known french tradition. I mean, I knew like most french people the words "bouilleur de cru", but had no clue about how people made their "eau de vie" as it is very rarely shown or explained in the media.
There were several people there, in addition to the two who were working on the old machine. Imagine an old rusty machine sitting near heaps of dumped fruit-waste and must, with all sort of pipes, the rumbling vibrations from the heater, and a couple of steam leaks adding to the hellish picture...The man in charge showed us how the thing worked, beginning with where they poured the fermenting fruits or must/lees, how they manage to produced exactly the authorized amount (20 liter) with the authorized 50° (I'm not sure I fully understood how, but they can do it).
The 1930 alambic used to be heated with wood originally but a diesel heater has been adapted to it for better heating stability. Otherwise, it hasn't changed. When we dropped there, it was in the process of distilling plum, and we could look at the plum when it was still in its plastic container (icon pic on the upper right), when it was hosed down into the cauldron (picture on the left : look at the 3 bars holding the flat sieve in the bottom, it is used to recover the plum pits), and after the distillation, when the residues were being flushed on the ground (icon pic on the lower right) along with the other pear and must remains (may our European Lawmakers not see this...).
The fruits habe been put to ferment in big plastic containers (after having been crushed if possible) since autumn by the orchard owners and brought here in january with the state-sanctioned "acquit" (the paper proving that you own a right to distillate). The Acquit holder is supposed to have paid a 3,5 Euro per liter tax to the French Customs for his right, and he will pay an additional 3,5 Euro per liter for the distillation process, with a limit of 20-liter at 50° of course. When the fermented fruits or grape-must boil, the water steam separates from the alcohol steam which condenses slowly. Sugar can be added to the fruits, but it is closely regulated by the Customs and the man says that you must be careful in the dosage. He was not clear about how much sugar is authorised and how real and frequent are the checks by the French Customs. One thing is sure, the French Customs are feared in the french countryside, as going against the law in this field (alcohol distilling) may cost you your house or more. I saw several times in the region road checks in the middle of nowhere manned by well-armed French Customs officers. If you're caught with only a handful of unlabelled hard spirit bottles in your trunk, you're in big trouble... This post on a french regional website relates the story of a local Bouilleur de Cru who, even though he had the right to distillate, was fined 45 000 Euro for having distilled a few undeclared liters for friends. Although this post also evoques a 14,5 Euro per liter to the Customs to distillate, it concerns people without the priviledge (Acquit), and the fee for the Acquit holders as related by this mobile distiller page is closer to what I have heard during my visit (3,6 Euro/liter tax). Anyway, one thing is sure : don't mess with the Customs because you may loose everything you own.
Actually, since 2003, the law changed a bit. Realizing that alcoholism in France had little to do with hard liquor consumption and that restrictive laws were endangering a rich tradition, the french state somehow reversed the trend. Since a 2003 law presented by a UMP Assembly Deputy, the tax per liter due to the Customs has been halved. The new law also states that from 2008, everyone in France owning an orchard will have the right to have his fruits distillated in a 10 liters (at 50°) limit. The new proposition debated in the parliament explained at length that this would be in the interest of the regional identity and would not result in additional alcoholism.
Back to the alambic : As we watched the spirit flowing into the bucket, the guy offered us to taste. It wasn't hot, only lightly lukewarm maybe. Very strong indeed, and pure, with definitely a distinct plum aroma behind the alcohol. The client looked on with love as his Eau de Vie was poured into his demi-johns...
Here is a web page telling humorously (in french) how to prepare the plum fruits to make the best "goutte" .