Every year at La Mothe Didier gathers and ferments plums, mirabelles, and pears for his eau-de-vie, or brandy as it is also known. In summer he fills large vats, keeping each type of fruit separate, and leaves them to ferment until it is time to distill the juice in midwinter. Mirabelles, although a subspecies of plum, are fermented and distilled separately to preserve their special character. The distillation process–where the fermented fruit juice is heated just enough to vaporize the alcohol, which rises into a cooling tube that condenses the alcohol back into liquid form–manages to capture flavor characteristics of the original fruit in a highly purified 50% alcohol form. It is a strong drink that, like any spirit, burns at first and then warms the chest.
Plums (Rene Claude and Prunes) fill a 200-liter plastic container.
Less than one week later, fermentation is well underway.
At La Mothe, eau-de-vie is generally mixed with fresh pressed apple juice to make an aperitif called ratafia, or taken straight in small amounts at the end of dinner as a digestif.
According to Didier, making homemade eau-de-vie is a dying tradition. Due to government regulation, the distillation process itself is not performed at home. Those who have gathered and fermented their own fruit have to take their fermented juice to a still that is approved and heavily monitored. The laws are strict concerning every facet of distillation, including the stipulation that the person must take the most direct route between home and the still. Most discouraging of all, taxes on each liter of alcohol distilled are so high that it is cheaper to buy off-the-shelf than make your own. Only the elderly are likely to hold la droit, or the right to distill up to ten liters of pure alcohol (or roughly 20 liters of eau-de-vie) tax-free, a right that is based partly on whether their trees predate the year 1957. For this reason, fewer and fewer people are maintaining this ancient practice.
Most of these obstacles were enacted out of a desire to control excessive alcohol consumption and the dangers associated with it, including car accidents. But as Didier points out, a person is more likely to buy a cheaper liter from the store than plan six months in advance to collect fruit from his own trees, ferment it, and distill it only to get drunk. It is possible that the taxes will be lowered to a more reasonable level, but political opinion shifts with each election so Didier isn’t overly optimistic.