Text Wolf-Christian Fink
When asked about his profession, Christoph Keller replies: “I am a distiller.” That’s almost like Karl Lagerfeld saying he makes shirts. Christoph Keller is the owner of Stählemühle, one of the most idiosyncratic and best distilleries in Germany and place of pilgrimage for lovers of noble distillates. That there is not much to see or savour for those who find their way to the secluded and idyllic farm in the Hegau region of Baden is down to the unshakeable resolve of the host: Private – Keep out! This quiet location between fields, orchards, hedgerows and gardens is a place of work, and silence. The reason for this is neither eccentricity nor shyness, rather because of the need to focus and concentrate on a mission in life and a passion, which are closely linked with Christoph Keller’s personal story.
The decision to move here with his family to the old mill in the hills, whose summits look out to Lake Constance, dates back to a different life. Back then he was an art book publisher. The mill came about as a result of a real estate advertisement. He saw, he bought. As mundanely as the story began, as romantically it unfolded. That’s because the mill farm came with distilling rights, a historical licence, which was threatening to expire due to lack of use. Thus suddenly Keller was distilling, developing the craft and succumbing to the fascination of the art of distilling that stretches back to medieval times.
“Now as then, the distiller searches for the quintessential, for the ‘fifth essence’ after the four elements of fire, water, air and earth. According to origin he is an alchemist”, he explains, clearly happy with the shroud of mystery this evokes.
The room where the powerful copper still bubbles before him in reality looks a little like a laboratory, with its glass flasks and carboys, tubes, pipes and vessels of all sizes. The waft of fruit, herbs and alcohol fills the air with the aroma of fermentation and sweetness. In reality, money could scarcely pay for what’s captured in the large cauldron. The mash, which acts as the basis for the schnapps and spirits, is the fruit of the day’s labour. It represents the embodiment of the entire habitat – the landscape, the climate, the vegetation – and last but not least the “good spirit” of the master craftsman himself.
Christoph Keller is an excellent botanist. He roams the area searching for historical fruit varieties, for wild fruit from bushes and the forest’s edge. In the area surrounding the Stählemühle, he preserves a collection of old indigenous plum varieties and has created a wild fruit nature trail where serviceberry and medlar, hawthorn and rose hip, rowan and cornelian cherry thrive side by side. There is of course also a herb garden, from where the vermouth for the small-scale absinthe production comes.
This wealth of knowledge is one of Stählemühle’s recipes for success. “And a good nose”, adds Keller smilingly. He has a good nose but is not a drinker. Alcohol only interests him insofar as it acts as a flavour medium. The aromas on the other hand, their complexity and possible combinations create the moments of enthusiasm to which Keller is addicted. “Perfection in spirit” is both his motto and aspiration at the same time.
If he is asked about moments of happiness he will cite the seconds when the crystal clear beam of distillate finally shoots out from the fine tube. That is when alcohol and aroma become one, having passed through several stages of water, briefly mist-enveloped and permeated fresh fruit again at a certain (and secret) location in order to finally emerge from the still as a highly concentrated liquid.
More time is needed however before that moment of happiness can be experienced by those who finally hold the precious substance in a glass. Until then, the spirits and schnapps rest in the ripening room, a simple underground concrete room with shelves for the bulbous carboys. Once labelled with alcohol content and distilling date, they mature here in the coolness and darkness for varying periods of time unlike their bottling.
It is at this stage at the latest that the high value of these products becomes clear to the onlooker. The most expensive (“Serviceberry from the Upper Danube Valley”) can definitely compete with the price of a fine perfume. Yet, unlike most perfumes, this exquisite distillate with its scents of almond, marzipan and herbs, is a purely natural product – and extremely rare also since the serviceberry, a relative of the rowan, is laborious to harvest and at risk of extinction in this country.
The range includes some 240 varieties, including exotics such as “Bourbonvanille aus Madagaskar” (Bourbon Vanilla from Madagascar), “Geist von der japanischen Ölminze” (Spirit of Japanese Mint Oil) or “Teegeist vom Honeybush” (Spirit of Honeybush Tea) from the South African Cederberg region. Equally fascinating are the “Geist vom Hegauer Steinpilz” (Spirit of Hegauer Porcino), a “Schwarzer Trüffel aus dem Piemont” (Black Truffle from Piemonte) or a “Zwiebelgeist von der Höri-Bülle” (Spirit of Onion from the Höri Peninsula): Specialities that delight high-end gastronomy in particular. Stählemühle’s “Sizilianische Blutorange Moro” (Blood Orange from Sicily (Moro)) has been the bestseller for some time – an incomparably intensive citrus explosion on nose and palate that immediately leaves an indelible impression on the taste memory.
As different as these varieties may be, they add up to what Christoph Keller calls his “aroma library”. The desire to seek and gather is perhaps a legacy of his former life. Maybe it is here that publisher meets distiller. Or it may also be the view of the bigger picture that he gains through his work. His motto as he himself puts it: “We can experience the inner wealth of the world and the essence of nature in the quintessence of the distillate as through the senses rather than through reason: inspired by pleasure, trusted by memory, fuelled by passion and driven by immense curiosity.”
The farm and mill are not open to visitors. There is no opportunity to make purchases on site. The visitors who get a glimpse behind house and barn doors every couple of years on “Open Farm Day” are happy to be able to breathe in the noble spirits, liqueurs and schnapps