Yesterday, as we were dropping the car off for a service, we noticed steam rising from across the disused railway line. Was it? Could it be? We decided to investigate.
We had heard about the little distillery and had identified the hut with its tell-tale pile of fruit skins and stones outside but we had never been able to catch it in action and were not in fact sure that it was still in use. (You really need to click on one of the photos to see them properly – sorry, this is not a very sophisticated blog!)
There are mobile stills which travel from village to village, setting up on the square for a couple of mornings before moving on, but this is the only permanent installation that we have come across. It was established here by Amédée Dumont in 1929 and bought in 1968 by one of his employees, Louis Chamblas, whose two sons, Dominique and Patrick, now operate it. In its heyday the distillery worked for four months, from the autumn fair in Lamastre to the fair at Grozon in early December and served the needs of over 1 000 clients. These days only around 70 farmers bring their apricots, pears cherries and other fruit, together with crushed grape skins from the vendange, which are called “geigne”, to be distilled into “gnole” and the distillery is only open in October and November.
The reduction in numbers is the result of a government decree of 1959 ending a farmer’s right to pass on his distilling privileges to his inheritors, which has inevitably led to a decline in production of hard alcohol and presumably a corresponding improvement in the nation’s health. The bouilleurs de cru, who are all obviously pretty ancient by now, have the right to distil up to 10 litres without paying tax. Other people are allowed to distil their own fruit, but must pay 17.18€ tax per litre. The distillery operates under very strict rules and the distiller has to keep meticulous records of each day’s activity. No spirits can be taken away until 6 pm so that the total amount may be accounted for in case of an inspection by customs and revenue officials. It can hardly be a viable commercial operation for anyone involved, but the annual event down by the river draws a loyal little group of clients who appreciate Dominique and Patrick’s efforts to keep the tradition alive. To see a little film of the distillery in action, which is in French, but very atmospheric, click here.