“The clock of doom had struck as fated; the poet, without a sound, let fall his pistol on the ground.”
Alexander Pushkin (Eugene Onegin, 1823)
Our story begins on the eve of January 27, 1837 in St. Petersburg, Russia. There, a French nobleman by the name of Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès mortally wounds Russia’s prodigal son Alexander Pushkin in a duel over the alleged advances of d’Anthès towards Pushkin’s beautiful wife Natasha. Dueling is illegal and d’Anthès lands in prison, stripped of his ranks and later escorted back to the frontier. He returns to his birthplace in the prosperous French region of Alsace where his family owns property and builds a successful political career until his death in November 1895.
One of d’Anthès properties is a farm situated at the foot of the Vosges mountains on the grounds of Chateau de Weckenthal, reduced to ashes centuries earlier. It remains in the family until 1970, when his cash-strapped grandson, Baron Gilles de Heeckeren, sells it to Joël Oberli, Christiane’s dad. Like most farms, it comes with a wood-fired alembic, built straight into the foundation of the home. In the summer, excess cherries, purple plums and mirabelles are tossed into barrels and left to their own fermenting devices. Come winter, a boisterous distilling affair takes place in the cellar and turns the fragrant mash into eau-de-vie, clear as water, a warming digestif for the folks upstairs and cure-all for ailing barn residents.
In step with the times, the cows left the barn, orchards disappeared and excess fruit with them. The remaining bits were now distilled by an ambulant provider who ensured the ever tighter rules were followed and the paper trail in good order. The alembic of Weckenthal, like many elsewhere stood still in its casement collecting dust and looking dull.
Idle farmland on this side of the Atlantic ocean rekindled the old distilling flame and we began to imagine a new life for the family still. Monsieur Kost, lone restorer of vintage alembics in the Alsace region, took a close look at the old boy and vouched for his health. The copper kettle was thick and sound and all the accoutrements there and in fine shape. With a fresh patina and a few updates, the alembic made the voyage and now serves anew in our “20 Paces” distillery, a nod to the divide between the French Baron and the Russian Poet in St. Petersburg before that fatal shot on the eve of January 27, 1837.