The female spirit – breaking into the world of distillers
As one of Luxembourg’s only women distilling eaux-de-vie, Caroline Adam-Von Langendonck has gone from rookie apprentice to master - or mistress - of her craft, and over the past year has been bolstering the country’s fight against the pandemic by turning alcohol into disinfectant for the government.
Her distillery has been in the Adam family since 1907, a tradition kept alive by the men of the household - until recently.
Faced with the reality that the distillery would be lost on his retirement, Robert Adam found an unlikely candidate for the position of distiller when his daughter-in-law, Caroline, volunteered for the role.
She knew nothing about the process of distillation when she first took on the task but was loath to see the tradition die out and invested all her savings and time into a business that has since become her profession. Mentored closely by her father-in-law she began the process of learning by doing.
"It was hugely stressful in the beginning", she said. "Customer expectations were high, family expectations were high". The pressure was on.
The pandemic brought constraints, but also opportunities to the distillery.
As orders for restaurants and bars dried up due to closures and lockdowns, customers keen to professionally distil their own schnapps from family fruits and inherited orchards began knocking at the door. What started as a novelty has now become a permanent fixture, with regulars returning to have their fruit transformed at the distillery.
"In a way, it really became their schnapps," Adam-Von Langendonck said. "They were involved in its creation from start to finish."
But it was not only customers who were keen to keep their sources of alcohol uninterrupted. The government was also searching to secure a reliable supply of anti-bacterial hand gel with a high alcohol content. The aim was to produce hand gel available at key public buildings, including hospitals.
Owning and running a distillery suddenly became key to combating the pandemic. The government provided the raw product - vats of undrinkable wine from bad harvests - while the stills turned this into disinfectant.
"It felt good to be doing something useful for the community and the country as a whole," Adam-Von Langendonck said.
Drëpp by Drëpp
Talking to her in the distillery, it’s hard to believe the challenges and setbacks she faced when relaunching the business in 2015. Subtle changes to ways of working and even creative touches, such as distilling a cumin flavoured eau-de-vie or altering the size and shape of the traditional glass bottles, encountered resistance.
Unlike Germany, where women distillers are found in greater numbers, in Luxembourg the role of the distiller is still predominantly a male occupation. This is something Adam-Von Langendonck is keen to redress. She now holds two posts on various quality control boards - one with the Union Nationale des Distillateurs Agricoles Luxembourgeois (UNDAL) as the sole woman on the board, the other with the Marque Nationale des Eaux-de-Vie Luxembourgeoises as one of only two women in the role.
All the fruit used in the distillery's schnapps is produced in Luxembourg. Joel Adam, the man behind the women, tends to their orchards when his regular day job finishes. Their orchards focus on rare or typically Luxembourgish varieties of fruit, like quetsch. None of the fruit is chemically treated and it is all processed and picked by hand.
Although it sounds idyllic, the profession is under threat. Once there were around 2,000 independent distillers in Luxembourg but now only about 50 remain. Similar to farming, the profession is subject to the same season fluctuations, including good and bad harvests.
In a bid to engage the next generation Adam-Von Langendonck is pushing for a mentor or teacher at the Agricultural School in Ettelbruck, where she also hopes to introduce the art of distillation to students in the hopes that they will one day follow in her footsteps.
Will she stop there? Probably not. She hints at future projects that include expanding on the distillery's historical museum and producing a local line of gins and whiskeys.