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  spirit-warming fruits of your labour.

Alambic still for eau-de-on display at Esse, in the Charente (Credit Wikipedia)

Alambic still for eau-de-on display at Esse, in the Charente (Credit Wikipedia)

But for how much longer?  This was the question that prompted our Grumpy Gardener Mike Alexander to set off recently to sample the production of one of a dying breed – all in the interests of journalism of course.

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 douanneor 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.

Alambic still at Echoisy in the Charente (Credit Wikipedia)

Alambic still at Echoisy in the Charente (Credit Wikipedia)

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.”

Licenced to Distil – But for how much longer?

This video clip 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…. LE DERNIER BOUILLEUR DE CRU by occe67

Home Distilling and the Law

moonshine still, america
Moonshine – American Style

If you are going to try this at home… best know the law in France as regards distilling. The law relating to home brewing is explained in this article – Distillation Familiale: Les Bouilleurs De Cru Conservent Leur ‘Privilège’

Among its main points it makes clear that exemptions to the amended regulations introduced in 2003 affect mainly an aging and retired group of brewers – clearly a way of phasing out the practise without provoking too many waves in La France Profond which is where such distilling has its largest following.

The writer of the article, one Daniel Roucous – ( says: “The privileges allowed distillers did not come to an end as planned on January 1st 2008. Parliament opted to extend it rather than as provided for by the Finance Act 2003 cut the rights by half. “The so-called distillers privilege gives them the right to distil up to 10 litres of pure alcohol without paying excise duty. This is called the free allocation. Excise duty is an indirect consumption tax and for the type of brandy produced by the affected distillers is currently set at 14.50 euros per litre of pure alcohol. It is this “privilege” that dates from 1923, that the amendments introduced by the Finance Act 2003 (Section 107) had planned to remove from 1 January 2008. In fact the privilege was halved since the law provided that in removing the exemption it would be replaced by a 50% reduction in excise duties for an upper limit of 10 litres of pure alcohol per year meaning the affected distillers would have paid excise tax of 7.25 euros per litre of pure alcohol distilled in their traditional ‘alambics’.

“The affected distillers are not those with a large distilling portfolio. They are small farmers pensioners, war and military service veterans over 75 years and for the most, owners of a few hectares of fruit orchards. The law (sections 315 and 316 of the General Tax Code), defines the distillers as : owners, tenants, sharecroppers or tenants who are distilling or distilling of wine, cider or perry, marc, lees, cherries, plums and sloes exclusively from their harvest, owners, tenants, sharecroppers or tenants who practice the distillation of wine, lees and marc from grapes or chaptalised must within the limits and legal requirements, orchard owners, farmers , tenant farmers who implement fresh fruit exclusively from their harvest to distillation. The list of materials that can be distilled is limited to those listed, and thus excludes potatoes, beets and others. Note that to be considered “distiller”, it is know no longer necessary to meet the following conditions: be affiliated to the MSA or agricultural system of family benefits, practice farming as a principal activity, refrain from marketing alcohol in the canton and the surrounding communities where the distillation occurs. Registered companies are not entitled to the benefits under the system of distilling shown above.

“The beneficiaries of the “privilege” : having identified the distillers, it is important to distinguish among them those who exempted from excise duty and those not partially benefiting from the Finance Act 2003. Here’s what Article 317 of the General Tax Code says: the distillers as mentioned in the previous paragraph that could qualify for this benefit during the 1959-1960 campaign are exempt from excise duty on the first 10 litres of pure alcohol. This also applies to distillers who were eligible during the 1959-1960 campaign, but unable to benefit because they were doing military service. The “privilege” is a personal right of the distiller. It is not attached to land but to the person who cannot pass it own to a surviving spouse. Equally it cannot be passed on by inheritance laws, to heirs and especially to the children of distiller beneficiary.

“All other distillers who do not meet the conditions above and especially orchard owners, tenants, sharecroppers whose harvested produce is exclusively for distillation, have since 1 January 2003 (Article 317 of the General Tax Code) benefited from a 50% reduction in the right to the use of a maximum 10 litres of pure alcohol per year. But this reduced duty 10 litres cannot be sold on in any way.

“Ban on home brewing. Note all home brewing is prohibited. Bouilleurs de cru must distil or have distilled on their behalf and in a public workshop or on the premises of coops of the itinerant (now of fixed abode) professional distiller meeting the conditions set down by Customs and Excise. Municipal councils or farmers unions may request that at least one public workshop distillation is open in their commune.”

: Mike Alexander

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