Today, Monsieur Baco leaves his natural distance to share not one but two crushes with you. When we first tasted the fruit spirits from La Muse du Verger (pronounce ‘verjay’) and Distillerie SpiRal on a small craft spirits fair in the heart of Beaujolais, it was love at first sip… Both producers have signed the Manifeste de la Gnôle Naturelle (a natural booze manifest).
La Muse du Verger: from the earth to the glass
After working for 10 years in the in heavy industry as a chemist, Olivier Luspin decided to change path and work in arboriculture and distillation to regain a more natural relationship with time and nature. Before launching La Muse du Verger 2015 in Saint-Beauzély in Aveyron, he trained at l’Atelier du Bouilleur with Matthieu Frécon. His first product was an aperitive drink called “l’Épine de Lévézou” made from blackthorn, red wine, alcohol and sugar. Purchasing a pot still and a 6000m2 orchard in 2017 enabled him to diversify his product range. In 2020, his partner in life Anicée joined him on his project.
Buying his orchard in 2017 enabled Olivier to grow his own raspberries, plums, mirabelles (small yellow plums), quinces and apples.
In addition to his production, Olivier also buys at friends and fellow arborists to widen his range of spirits and increase production volumes. He thus buys pears, apricots, plums and mirabelles nearby while the oranges and mandarins come from Andalusia.
Olivier manages his orchard in a way that respects nature even if he refuses the organic label (for which you must pay). No chemicals are used, only 2 or 3 treatments with copper and bacillus thuringiensis (against caterpillars) are operated each year. Olivier does not mow grass around the trees to let nature fight aphids. The orchard’s trees are ungrafted and fruits are hand-picked and carefully selected. A no-pesticides policy demands great responsiveness as one must reacts quickly when pest shows up.
The range currently includes a dozen products that can be purchased on La Muse du Verger’s website:
- L’Épine du Lévézou, 17° (13,5€/50cl et 15,5€/70cl): aperitive drink made from wine, sugar, alcohol, and blackthorn.
- L’Amusette, 14° (16,5€/70cl): ratafia made from apple juice and apple spirit. Apples are the first fruits Olivier distilled. As a matter of fact, the ‘Passerose de Saint-Beauzély’, the local variety, grows on Olivier’s orchard which was a nice surprise since this variety is rather close to cider apples and is therefore perfect for distillation. Within La Muse du Verger product range, the apple is solely dedicated to the making of this aperitive drink.
- Eau-de-vie d’Orange, 45° (17€/20cl et 29,50€/50cl): the fruits come from Andalusia and are distilled with some of their peel. A mandarin spirit is likely to be released in the near future from the “Tardivo” variety.
- Eau-de-vie de coing, 43° (17€/20cl et 29,50€/50cl): Olivier’s wild quinces have a more pronounced taste than grafted quinces. The fruits are wiped and cleaned before distillation.
- Eau-de-vie de framboise, 43° (18,5€/20cl et 31,50€/50cl): the variety is unknown although it is close to wild raspberries. A maceration in white alcohol is conducted as the fruits are too fragile and not sweet enough to ferment by themselves.
- Eau-de-vie de Mirabelle, 45° (16,50€/20cl, 28,50€/50cl): Olivier grows some mirabelles but also buys at a friend in Tarn who lets him pick some of his organic fruits to complete his sourcing. The variety is ‘Mirabelle de Nancy’. As of today, Olivier do not remove all of the kernels but aims at distilling mirabelles with no kernel at all in the near future.
- Eau-de-vie de poire Williams rouge, 43° (17,50€/20cl et 30,50€/50cl): organic pears come from a friend’s orchard near Arles because pear trees do not grow well on Olivier’s orchard. The red variety happened to be a nice surprise since their musky profile gives beautiful spirits and a smoother mouthfeel.
- Eau-de-vie de prune, 45° (16,50€/20cl et 28,50€/50cl): Olivier’s plums are close to the ‘Saint-Antonin’ and ‘prune d’Ente’ variety. These varieties are rarely used as a table fruit because of their acidity which makes them perfect for distillation. In that case, the plums are distilled with their kernels in order to give the spirit almond notes.
- Eau-de-vie d’abricots (to be released): the fruits come from the same orchard than the pears. This wild type of apricots is once again perfect for distillation since they have a natural lingering taste. Kernels are removed before distillation.
- Some mini babas and cannelés macerating in fruit spirits can also be purchased.
Adapting to climate change
Globally speaking climate tends to dry out and solar radiation increase. Olivier has already seen the aftermaths of climate change after owning his orchard for only 5 years. As a matter of fact, the raspberry canes which were 2 meters-high in 2017, only reach 50 centimeters today and their leaves get sunburned. Olivier thinks the solar radiation might be responsible for that change.
Pests have also thrived lately like water voles (arvicola terrestris) which has spread from Gers to Isère or yponomeutidaes, a caterpillar that eats the apple trees’ leaves.
The proliferation of these pests is new as elders had not had to deal with them before.
Taming the pot still
Olivier bought its pot still in 2016 in Jura because its owners were not satisfied by its slow distilling style. Indeed, this rudimentary pot still does not suit every kind of spirit. Technical caracteristics:
- Made in the 90’s in Alsace.
- The distilling process is particularly slow (a distillation takes 1 to 2 days), with indirect heat in a water bath. This process avoids cooking the sweeter fruits that tend to caramelize and give un-wanted aromas. These particularities make this pot still perfect for fruit-spirits distillation.
- Spirits are double or triple distilled. The cuts are made during the second and third distillation. Once again, the slow process enables to perform more precise cuts since the timeframe is longer.
- The condenser is a coil.
Olivier managed to tame this still so well that he can follow the process by listening to the sound of the spirit flowing out from the still (the sound of the flow changes along with the viscosity of the new-make spirit). The slow distillation process ensures that the level of methanol remains much lower than the authorized threshold values. This gives smoother spirits and put the fruit forward.
After distillation, new-make spirits are aged at least 1 year in demijohns in the attic. Olivier explains that aging enables esters left in “spare parts” after the distillation process to reconstitute. Slow and repeated temperature variations help do that. Some tests of longer aging (more than 5 years) are currently run for ‘prunes’ and ‘mirabelles’. On the opposite, raspberry and pear spirits are less likely to get better with age in his opinion.
SpiRal: energies in balance
Just like La Muse du Verger, Distillerie SpiRal is a duet with Matthieu Schutzger and his partner in life Claire. Matthieu is the nephew of Philippe Traber who took over Distillerie Metté (that we covered here) until his death in 2020. Matthieu first learnt the art of distillation with his uncle. And what better place would there be to learn than Metté? After studying mechanical engineering, his interest in distillation eventually took over. He met Claire at Metté and they finally left the distillery to get closer to nature. With that perspective in mind, they collaborated with Christian Binner (which we also covered here) for a while in order to learn the codes of nature and its cycles, its energies before launching Distillerie SpiRal in 2020.
Distillerie SpiRal operates with a 80 year-old hand-made pot still from Alsace. It has not undergone any modification. There is a bell on the still head.
Main technical specifications
- The pot still is heated with gaz or fire (depending on the desired profile) through a water bath.
- Distillation is rather short (several hours).
- The load capacity is 120 litres.
- The ABV of the new-make spirit is between 75° and 80°.
Spirits are aged at least 6 months but the average age is around 10 months in unsealed stainless steel. Aging will last longer and longer which means that each bottling round will give different spirit as time goes by. As Matthieu states it: “The product itself decides when it is ready”.
Share resources, develop a circular economy, these are the core values of SpiRal. The fruits are picked at partner producers after a strict selection. The current range of spirits includes 4 references. Usually, the spirits come from a unique terroir (except for the Lemon & Thyme). A liqueur made from 30 plants and a Quince & yuzu or bergamot leaves are likely to be released in the near future.
- Abricot & Romarin (Apricot & Rosemary), 43° (Around 85€/50cl): apricots are picked at a producer’s orchard in Roussillon. Fermentation is operated with a large volume so that the weight of the fruits naturally extracts matter and aromas. Kernels are not removed but the fermentation is not run to its term to avoid the development of cyanide. Rosemary is is picked in ‘garrigue’ (a term used to refer to bushes in the south of France).
- Citron & Thym (Lemon & Thyme), 43°, approx. 60€/50cl): lemons come from Corsica and thyme comes from Alsace and garrigue (the two actually taste different).
- Fraise & Poivre du Sichuan (Strawberry & Sichuan pepper): strawberries organic strawberries and pepper are picked in Alsace.
- Ori’Gin Printanier, 43° (approx. 55€/50cl): a gin made of juniper, yarrow, savory, coriander, verbena, geranium and lemon balm. All plants are picked in a radius of 20km in Alsace.
The art of blending
If distillation is Matthieu’s main skill, blending is Claire’s main asset. Her sensory analyst training enables her to find balance between components with great precision. Blending actually starts during the third distillation: the main component (fruit) is distilled twice before adding rosemary, tyme, Sichuan pepper… in the bell. That’s when the two components will blend.
The same way a ‘point de sauce’ will bring harmony and link the different components of a dish together, Claire also works on her ‘points de sauce’:
- Apricot & Rosemary: balance is brought by the bark of rosemary.
- Lemon & Tyme: balanced is brought by zist (the white part beneath the zest).
- Strawberry & Sichuan Pepper: balance is brought by the pepper tree leaves.
- Ori’Gin Printanier: balance is brought by savory and coriander.
The plant liqueur to be released also undergoes a particular making process: 17 plants from ‘garrigue’ are dried in the dark to keep chlorophyll and avoid oxidation. Distillation rehydrates the plant and reactivates the active principles. The morning following each distillation, Matthieu and Claire go pick 13 plants in Alsace when sap is ascending. These plants will macerate in the new-make spirit made from the 17 plants for 5-6 days. Even sugar is home-made: Matthieu gets some honeycomb from his uncle’s behives and drench them in water to get natural sugar that will sweeten the liqueur around 100-110 grams of sugar per litre.
Projects to come
Matthieu and Claire are on their way to extend their activities beyond fruit spirits. They are indeed creating a new wine estate named ‘La Quinte’ at Agel in the Minervois area, between Aude and Herault. They will grow some grenache (white and black), Carignan (white and black), syrah, cinsault, Mourvèdre, macabeu and old Spanish grapes as well. Soils will be untouched. An old method of aging wine beneath a veil made of plant material (Alep pine, olive tree, fig tree leaves…) should be experimented. This will also participate to the creation of a new range of spirits made from grape and these plant materials. No doubt Distillerie SpiRal will keep surprising us.
Two philosophies, two styles, two pricing
Let us be clear, the purpose of this article is not to determine which one is the best. Each style of spirit has its strengths and price. Because of their nature (fruit spirits show an organoleptic profile concentrated on one or two aromas), it would not be relevant to write tasting notes, but that does not help us from presenting them. The spirits made by La Muse du Verger (simpler than those from Distillerie SpiRal since they are distilled from one component only) are pure, straight forward, give a feeling of immediacy and the impression of reaching the essence of the fruit. They are an unrivaled value for the price! Spirits made by Distillerie SpiRal are more sophisticated (so is their price) and show a remarkable balance between the two components which can be felt separately while making one. A lot of refinement in these (almost quantic) spirits.
These two craft distilleries embody the renaissance of a category of spirits which are still wrongly considered as dusty and outdated. By their ‘drinkability’, their smooth yet intense character and their refinement, the spirits from La Muse du Verger and Distillerie SpiRal tear down all the clichés of ‘Grand-Pa’s hidden booze that burns the throat’ and bring fruit spirits to a new dimension.
In a nutshell
Founded respectively in 2015 and 2020, La Muse du Verger and Distillerie SpiRal are two craft distilleries producing fruit spirits with strong environmental values. Sourcing-wise, La Muse du Verger draw from its own orchard and others while Distillerie SpiRal relies solely on partners. The differences between the spirits lie in the making processes. Olivier from La Muse du Verger mainly produces single-fruit spirits while Claire from Distillerie SpiRal blends a fruit with an plant. La Muse du Verger’s spirits are simpler more straight-forward and the value for the price is outstanding. Distillerie SpiRal’s on the other hand produces more expensive and sophisticated spirits with an exceptional balance between components.