You may recall my post about the gourmet walk in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois – if you missed it you can find it here. When I returned to the reception area at the end of the walk, there was coffee and a tasting of spirits from the Distillerie du Petit Grain in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois. I did taste the gin from the distillery that day, which was wonderful, but with the heat, and after all the food and walking, I could not really do it justice.
The occasion to go for a (proper) tasting presented itself this summer, when I had friends visiting. My friends are connoisseurs of fine spirits, and so I called Patricia and Laurent Gaspard, the owners of the distillery, to make a date.
Patricia and Laurent are both teachers, and the distillery is a hobby for them. They are both passionate about what they produce. To visit the distillery and to discover their products is to share in their passion. The distillery is installed in a former stable, right next door to their home. On the ground floor, the old manger is still on wall, joined by the some very up-to-date stainless steel tanks, where the fermentation and maceration take place. When I first visited in the summer, the apricots were in the process of fermenting!
The smell was delightful – but unfortunately the picture doesn’t really convey that! I had expected it to smell of alcoholic fermentation but it was more like apricot jam!
Very steep wooden stairs lead to the first floor, where the boiler and still are located.
The still was made by Jean-Louis Stupfler from Begles, who is renowned for his unique stills. The process allows remarkable spirits of great elegance and finesse to be produced by single distillation. The copper boiler is encased in a stainless steel base, and is heated by a gas burner located directly underneath the copper. The copper columns to the left of the boiler separate and concentrate the alcohol.
All parts of the still gleam and shine – lovingly (and no doubt laboriously) polished by Laurent! The wooden crates in the picture below hold glass demijohns or carboys, which are used for storing the spirits between distillation and bottling.
Patricia and Laurent’s production is 100% artisanal – everything is done by hand. To them, the quality of their spirits is everything, and they go to great lengths to capture the flavours of the fruits which go into making their eau de vie. Not long before my visit, they had carefully sorted through 1000 kilos (that’s a ton!!) of apricots, using only the perfectly ripe fruit, from which they removed the stones. Laurent had to return around 200 kilos to the producer, as the fruits were not ripe enough! When they prepare the Williams pears they remove the stalk and blossom end from each fruit before cutting it up, and of course only perfectly ripe pears are used.
The results are worth all that work!!
The apricot eau de vie has an amazing smell and taste of apricots, and the same goes for the pear eau de vie. The taste of both lingers in the mouth long after you have swallowed the alcohol, and develops and changes with time – just like with a good wine.
Two gins are produced: one with locally collected herbs and aromatics and the other with citrus fruits. To my mind, both of them are far too good to mix with tonic water, but then why not? It would make for an outstanding gin and tonic, no doubt! The muscat eau de vie was out of stock at the time of my visit :( I’m not a great connoisseur of spirits, but these were delicious. I came away with the very last bottle of apricot eau de vie from the 2014 production :D, and it has been the delight of my dinner guests ever since.
I was very intrigued by what Patricia and Laurent were doing with the distillery, and asked them if I could possibly come along on a day when the still was in operation. They kindly agreed, and I went to Saint-Jean-de-Minervois again on a beautifully sunny but cold day in October, to watch the distillation of pear eau de vie.
Laurent had already fired up the boiler, but the alcohol had not yet started to flow when I arrived. It wasn’t long though, before the first stream of clear alcohol started to pour from the spout.
Laurent caught some in a glass and held it out for me. “Smell this”, he told me. I had a bit of a cold and my sense of smell was deserting me, but I could detect a distinctive smell of acetone. “That’s right”, he said, “that’s the poison!”. He explained to me that this was the “head”, the most volatile of the alcohols, and that it was not to be used in the eau de vie. Instead, he uses the “head” for rinsing out the demijohns, before rinsing them with filtered water.
Laurent kept sampling the alcohol, and every so often he would hold out the glass for me to sniff. Sometimes he would instruct me to taste as well. From time to time he made adjustments to the still, cooling it to increase the purity of the alcohol. All the while a steady stream of alcohol was running into a large jug.
Here is a video for you – e-mail subscribers, please visit the website to see the video.
I am so sorry that this is not a “scratch-and-sniff” post, the aromas were really wonderful!
After about an hour or so, Laurent detected a change in the alcohol and told me that he had now arrived at the “tail” of the distillation. Some of the tail gets mixed in with the spirit. The remainder is not used for the eau de vie, but added to the next batch of fermented pear pulp. After another 15 minutes or so, Laurent turned off the gas, emptied a valve to drain the contents of the boiler, and started to unscrew the brackets which hold down the top of the boiler. First, the pipe connecting the boiler to the still was removed and carefully placed on brackets on the wall.
After that, a kind of clip was fixed to the hole in the lid, and the lid carefully winched up – it was all very hot – think of the boiling contents inside!! Patricia was holding on to the lid to stop the agitator from hitting the sides. The agitator is the blue part on the right of the lid. Think of it as a type of immersion blender, designed to keep the contents of the boiler moving about.
Once the boiler was empty, it was carefully rinsed clean. Laurent then added some water, lit the fire once more, and filled the boiler with fermented pear pulp, which Patricia was pumping up from one of the tanks downstairs.
Here’s another video for you:
And that was the start of another batch – kind of “here’s where we came in earlier”!!
Before I left, Laurent showed me the tanks with the fermenting pears. I was amazed at the colour of what was in the tank – whenever I prepare pears they go brown almost immediately, and these were beautifully white! Apparently it’s all to do with the fact that oxygen is excluded during the fermentation.
In one vat, Laurent had to mash the crust which had formed on the top, so that the batch would ferment evenly – afterwards it looked like a lovely pear puree, really yummy!!
There is a lot more technical detail, but I’ll leave it to Patricia and Laurent to explain that to you when you visit them. Do remember that they both have full-time jobs, so contact them before you go to Saint-Jean-de-Minervois!! You can find their contact details here.