Traditional distillers or bouilleurs de cru are very difficult to find in France. Even though they work legally, their activity is strictly reglemented and as they don't sell alcohol but only provide the distillation service to those allowed to make alcohol from their fruits, they don't need to have a street shop in plain view. Many of them do that as a side job during the winter time and thus make the distilling in an outbuilding in their farm. In short, outside of their clients, the bouilleurs de cru rarely see visitors.
This story takes place in a lesser-known region of Burgundy, the Morvan. Morvan is a thickly-wooded and sparsely-populated region of central Burgundy. Its winters are known to be very cold, and as it is the only area in Burgundy with altitudes over 700 meters, it has features closer from the central plateau than from the rest of Burgundy, with many rivers and streams originating from the area (see on map, the green patch). Morvan is also an ancient Celtic land, the Celts having settled in these mountains as early as the last centuries B.C. (Morvan actually means "black mountain" in Celtic).
When I visited Joël Soilly's distillery in the Morvan, the region was thick with snow and along my drive from further east I went through beautiful landscapes with hills, forests and winding roads. I barely came across any other vehicule on my short drive as people prefered to avoid these side roads under the icy conditions.
The hero of this story is Joël, the man on the right on the picture above. Joël has a very busy life : in addition to his day job in the French Railways (so to speak, as he is doing the night shifts) and his position as city counselor in the village administration, he is a bouilleur de cru, that is, he distillates alcohol for people around his village.
Another thing about the bouilleurs de cru : You may have heard about the privilège : this is an ancient allowance for orchard owners to have their fermented-fruits distilled without having to pay the tax (in this case there will be only the fee for the bouilleur to pay). Privilèges aren't granted anymore and the number of exemption holders is dying off with time.
The linked page ends with an interesting consideration : it says that the distillery rights for orchard owners plays a positive role for the conservation of these old-time, rural orchards. That is an interesting subject that I addressed recently in my apple post. Now, that is a good slogan : let's drink booze to save our orchards....;-)
Joël Soilly was busy in the distillation room at the end of the long farm house. He welcomed me friendily in spite of the different tasks he had to take care of. Local people were present, some to check the process of their own distilling, some to bring their fermented fruits for the next batch, like this farmer on the picture above who is unloading from his pickup truck a plastic barrel full of fermented plum (there were two such barrels in the truck). The cow in the background must have been wondering what we humans were doing outside by such a cold weather...
The profession of bouilleur de cru is a very seasonal one : As the fruits have been put to ferment since the picking season by the orchard owners, they melt and ferment quietly in their plastic tank before the last stage, the distillation, can take place, in the middle of winter. This means that roughly, a bouilleur de cru is active between november and march. When they feel that the fermentation is completed, the vineyard owners contact the artisan distillery to set up a date for the distillation. These workshops don't have usually a big capacity and can't handle many clients on the same day. The orchard owners contemplating a distillation of their fruits must also get a permission from the French Customs.
To rewind back in the history of this family distillery, it all started with Joël's grandmother who came here long time ago with her alambics from another part of the Morvan (she had a privilège too). His father (her son) then followed suit for years until he passed away last march, and that's when Joël decided to keep the tradition alive in spite of his job and responsability in the village administration. To run such a distillery, you need to go to the Chambre des Métiers, an administrative entity overooking the businesses in France, and you need to get an agrément at the Préfecture and the French Customs. This agreement took 4 months to come, the administration checking that there is no morality problem or criminal record attached to the future bouilleur de cru. The agreement can be suspended by the Préfecture in case of breach of the rules.
On the Chambre-des-Métiers side, the administrative entity where he went for the setting up of his new business, the hassles and the delays were so huge before he could envision to set up shop that he nearly gave up, then a friend told him about a new governmental initiative to facilitate micro entrepreneurship (the "statut d'auto-entrepreneur") and he could legalize his activity overnight directly on the Internet.
Otherwise, there are two other, bigger distillers, each with its wood-boiler underneath and its alambic with cooling coil. You can see them better on the picture below. The boiler on the right has also its cooler/alambic (you can see it on the second picture below, it's the black thing behind Joël), Joël just disconnected the two as the distilling has just finished, and he let the thing coold down.
This bouilleur-de-cru distillery is very close in aspect from what would be a communal distillery operated by a village (named atelier public or alambic communal) except that the latter is owned by the village. In this case, the orchard-owner just reserves the distillery for a given day, makes a formal declaration to the French Customs (which is the administration in France dealing with everything alcohol-related), and makes the distillation himself when the appointed day comes. Look to this utmost interesting page with videos about the distilling done by an orchard owner at his village's public distillery.
Joël explains to me that the last people who were given the exemption from the tax for the distilling of their fruits (the privilège) got this right after WW2 (this right was also valid for their spouses and maybe their children). As this exemption is not heriditary anymore, there are less and less such benefiters as time passes. His mother still has this privilège, and at 72 today, she is probably one of the youngest having been granted this right. The privilège or tax-exemption is limited to a maximum of 1000° proof though, which is the equivalent of 20 liters at 50° proof. Beyond this volume, the tax will be levied.
The other people, the majority, pay the tax from the start. These orchard owners pay for example in 2010 to the French Customs a tax of 7,57 € per liter of pure alcohol, which comes actually to a tax of 3,78 € per liter with a alcohol content of 50° proof. When you know the quality of your fruits and of this whole distilling, that's not too bad a price. Of course, they also have to pay Joël for the service, something like 3,8 € per liter. This makes a total of 7 € something per liter, which again is good value, and you don't down this overnight. In French, we dont call this alcohol simply alcool, but goutte, which means also drop in French. So, if someone offers you une petite goutte ("je vous sert une petite goutte ?") after dinner, you'll know what this means. And it could even be one of these moonshines that are undoubtly made here and there in the country, even if in a smaller extent than in Russia. I had several times the opportunity to drink home-made moonshine in the Loire and even if you're not a hard-spirit drinker, this thing is so aromatic that it's worth a try.
It's easy to calculate the final alcohol when he has completed the first distillation : let's say he got 30 liters at 25 proof. It means a total of 750 ° As he will adjust the second distillate at 50 proof, these 750 ° will translate into about 14 liters.
On the moonshine-vodka subject, watch again this burlesque Soviet movie of the 1960s', Samogonshtshiki, it's a Soviet classic of the genre. It features three guys making vodka illegally in an isba in the middle of nowhere. The actors were very famous and are fondly loved by the average Russian until today. Watch how one of them calculates the amount of sugar...
The Chateau de Rochefort is in the slow process of being renovated thanks to a non-profit group made of volunteers who get a few subsidies from the region. Working on weekends, these people first cleared the trees and bushes which endangered the structure and they have already begun repairing certain parts of the building like the former drawbridge. Kudos to these volunteers who come here in summer to give their energy !
Link to the Chateau de Rochefort rescue group. Click on the different "Vue" pages above the plan to see how this place looked like in the past.