Food

Le Gin du Mont Blanc

PE Leydet

Perched high on the side of a mountain, in the shadow of the mighty Mont Blanc, 1365m above sea level and a 35 minute steep hike from the nearest road, you’ll find a rickety old donkey shelter. Welcome to the Distillerie Saint Gervais Mont Blanc, home of Gin du Mont Blanc and Whiskey du Mont Blanc. Inside, Scotsman James Abbott can single-handedly distill 270 bottles of his award-winning gin each day using two 100 litre, open flame copper stills. His is a unique operation, the only distillerie in the region. Here’s his story.

“I arrived in Saint Gervais eight years ago. I was waiting for my Canadian visa to come through, I expected it to take around six months and I wanted to live somewhere new in the meantime. I came to Saint Gervais to do some advanced climbing and to be a snow bum for the first time in my life. As it happens, six months is quite a long time when all you have to do is snowboard every day. I got to know many of the locals, they’d invite me to their houses for dinner and since I’m Scottish I’d take a bottle of whiskey with me. Six months passed and they encouraged me to stay, to start making my own whiskey. I didn’t know it at the time, but the French are the biggest consumers of single malt in the world and they have been for six years in a row.

Now, there isn’t a Scotsman alive who hasn’t dreamed of making their own whiskey at some point in their lives. We get dragged around these distilleries as a kid, when we’re much too young to drink the stuff. My Canadian visa application was taking longer than anticipated, so I did a little research. The idea of using snowmelt from Mont Blanc to create a unique distillation appealed and no one else was making whiskey in the region. My visa finally came through, shortly after I’d sold my eco house in Canada and made the decision to stay in Saint Gervais. The Distillerie Saint Gervais was born.

Whiskey is quite a tricky proposition however, with quite long processes, so I decided first to experiment with gin. It was a wee bit of a gamble, that’s for sure. Some of the older French friends I’d made enjoyed their eau de vie, but they turned their nose up at gin. I wanted to create a unique gin that could be consumed neat, perhaps with an ice cube and a zest of orange. I soon discovered that the secret to distilling gin is finding the right recipe. And once you have it, managing its replication. The other big challenge was incorporating some very important ecological practises from the very beginning. This element was really important to me. I source all of the botanics I use in the creation of Gin du Mont Blanc from within five hours of our distillerie. My grandparents were botanists, so I grew up learning which which plants you can eat, which work as medicines and the like. Other big brands are importing their botanics from America, from Siberia, but that wouldn’t work for me; I wanted to reduce as much as possible the transportation involved in the production of my gin.

Trying to build ecological principles into a business from the beginning is really tough, though I admit that it’s got slightly easier in recent years. Finding the right location for the distillerie was important. I couldn’t afford to build or buy a big unit, but a former donkey shelter owned by a local restaurant owner at an altitude of 1365 metres would do the trick nicely. It was the quickest and easiest way for me to get going. I reused and recycled materials that I found around the mountain to modify the shelter, I connected solar energy and I avoided all plastics. Our bottles, caps and packaging are all produced using recycled materials and everything comes from France. I also needed to use a chemical-free glue for the labels, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. I was discussing my dilemma with a local farmer, who immediately suggested cows milk as glue. I’d never heard of that before, but apparently here in France, that’s how it used to be done. I stuck the first 1000 labels on my bottles myself, which was very messy and very time consuming but very necessary.

To guide the creation of the gin, a mutual friend introduced me to Tom Nichol. This friend told Tom about a crazy guy in the Alps who wanted to make gin half way up a mountain and he was intrigued. Tom has 42 years of experience making gin and he is the holder of a lifetime achievement award from the Gin Guild. I sent him samples of the local botanics I was considering using in my distillation. He tested the strength of the aromas and taught me how to test each plant to make sure it was good. My partnership with Tom was massively important. He’d never made a gin that you could drink neat and he’d never distilled at altitude either. Of course boiling temperatures are different at altitude, so this was an amazing learning discovery for both of us. When you’re distilling gin at minus 20 degrees during the winter months and plus 30 degrees during the summer, maintaining consistency is incredibly difficult. There’s no controlled environment, as you might expect in a large production plant. We’re at the mercy of the elements and it certainly keeps me on my toes. I write down the meteo readings throughout the day, paying attention to both the temperature and the humidity to help me calibrate the distillation for consistency. You only need one egg cup of alcohol in the mix at the wrong temperature and you can destroy and entire distillation, that’s how sensitive it is.

Aside from the production of the gin, right from the very beginning I new I was up against it sales wise too. Vodka sales were on the wane but whiskey and gin were on the up. And every time a product becomes popular, everyone jumps on it; so many new gins have launched in the last five years. Many people don’t realise that when you see Hendrick’s gin, Tanqueray gin on the shelves of bars, it’s because their big corporate owners have paid for them to be there. They almost give the gin away for free to make sure their bottles stay prominent and its hard for the small producers to compete with that.

In recent years, Gin du Mont Blanc has become very popular amongst gin aficionados and I began working with a national distributor. We’ve won awards, some of the top chefs in France use our gin in their cookery, we’ve even been on national television. I also started creating that Whiskey du Mont Blanc that my friends had requested. Whiskey is a labour of love and very time-intense for just a small quantity, but everyone seems to enjoy it so I created a waiting list for each production. When I was first setting up the distillerie, I read that if a French business can survive the first three years, you’re likely to be OK. Just as I was approaching that three year mark, COVID 19 arrived. Because it’s just me working in the business, I was able to keep my costs low and I experimented with online orders. It was incredibly time consuming to fulfil the orders and very expensive to arrange the postage. It just wasn’t worth it.

I produced 7,000 bottles of gin last year and I’ve been doing some very careful thinking about the future of my business. I haven’t taken a salary in seven years, and I’m bored of that. With some extra storage capacity and some help with bottling, I’ve calculated that I can increase my capacity to 50,000 bottles per year and I’m now looking at ways to export Gin du Mont Blanc internationally, beginning in 2024. I also have the opportunity to create a brand new, custom made distillery, which will give me the opportunity to create new recipes, increase capacity, create a shop, a tasting area for events and offices. These are all big, expensive decisions but I’m really grateful for the support of the Saint Gervais community. Of course Gin du Mont Blanc will continue to be made half way up a mountain, in a former donkey shed.

And you’re very welcome to come and visit me in the former donkey shed, many people do! Though these days, I arrange visits by appointment so I can be sure that I’m there. During the winter months you can ski in to the distillerie via the Plan de Crêt blue piste from Les Houches. During the summer months, it’s a 35 minute hike up to the distillerie. All the details for tours are on my website.”

Gin du mont blanc – ABV: 43.6%

  • Crystal clear in appearance, fresh and fragrant in aroma. The taste is delicately flavoured with juniper and orange, the aftertaste is sweet citrus with a note of génépi.
  • A combination of eight different botanics and spices: Juniper berries, Sweet orange, Génépi, Lime, Blueberry Coriander, Liquorice, Angelic

James recommends

Drink it neat with an ice cube and a small piece of orange peel. Alternatively, with a lemon zest or a few blueberries.

Discover more

Mont Blanc Gin is available to buy at WineNot in the centre of Morzine, or via the VandB website – vandb.fr. For distillerie tour details visit distilleriesaintgervais.com

Le Gin du Mont Blanc
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