A KILTED Scot eventually built one of the highest distilleries in Europe – where he lives alongside packs of wild wolves.
Former teacher James Abbott traded his career at a posh English boarding school for a new life nearly 5,000 feet up in the French Alps.
Now he brews his own award-winning whiskey and gin that even impressed French President Emmanuel Macron while also appearing on TV with Miss France.
But away from the limelight, James leads a life of solitude on Mount Prarion, which lies in the shadow of the imposing 16,000-foot Mont Blanc.
James, from Kelso, Roxburghshire, says: “I’ve seen a lone wolf up on Prarion Mountain where I live and distill, but I come across their paw prints quite often.
“But on the other side of the valley in Saint Gervais, they get caught by the ski lift cameras every few weeks in groups of five or six. They are everywhere in this area, especially at this altitude.”
James spent the majority of his 22 year teaching career at Abberley Hall in Worcestershire, recently voted the best private school in the UK by Tatler magazine.
He says: “I taught design engineering and outdoor education, but I was a bit of a black teacher as I also wore the kilt in class.”
But about six years ago he gave up his job to emigrate to Canada, where he wanted to train as a pilot.
But while on a skiing holiday in the French Alps, he soon fell in love with the village of Saint-Gervais les Bains in the Haute-Savoie region.
He recalls: “I had to wait six months for my visa and had already quit my job, so I moved to France, to an area where I didn’t know anyone.
“But the locals welcomed me into their community and even got me a little house to stay in.”
There, at an elevation of 4,478 feet – that’s 65 feet higher than Ben Nevis – on the mountainside, James decided to set up a micro-distillery to produce his own brand of Mont Blanc gin and whiskey.
There was only one, though – he had never drunk either drop before.
He admits: “It was a deal I didn’t know about. Gin was completely new to me as I have always been a whiskey drinker.
“But France is the largest single malt whiskey consumer in the world. Since there weren’t any other distilleries in the Haute-Savoie area, I thought I’d give it a try.
“I bought two small 100 liter copper stills and then built a tiny shack entirely from recycled materials.
“I have gas to power the stills and solar panels to power the lights and a pump to treat the condensate. So it’s a ridiculously small facility.”
James then got in touch with Tom Nichols, a former master distiller at gin giant Tanqueray.
He adds: “Tom is recognized as one of the best distilleries in the world.
“So I invited Tom and his wife over for a weekend one summer and we started distilling that afternoon.
“He’s been here five times now and has become something of a father figure to me.”
Five years ago, James’s Distillerie Saint-Gervais produced its first bottles of gin – albeit with a special feature.
He explains: “I wanted a gin that you can drink neat. The reason for this is that my older friends in France don’t want a pick-me-up. They like their spirit as it comes.
“So that’s what I did. I made a gin that you can drink straight from the bottle.
“It has certainly caught the attention of many Michelin-starred restaurant owners who enjoy using it in their dishes.
“It’s pretty crazy considering they’re tearing it up, but they’re the experts. I just make it.”
And that’s where his Robertson tartan kilt comes in – because he needed to polish his image in order to be able to sell his products to top restaurants.
He says: “I started wearing the kilt in France because it immediately made me more elegant. I couldn’t enter these Michelin starred restaurants while my gin looked like a mountain goat.
“And of course they always ask what I’m wearing underneath. I tell them I never wear anything or they wouldn’t let me go home.
“Yes, I get a few strange looks, but not more so when I was wearing my kilt as a teacher in England.”
But the Scot’s years of hard work is beginning to pay off after a major drinks retailer began selling his product across Europe.
He also gained a lot of notoriety in France when he met French President Emmanuel Macron and Miss France 2018 Maëva Coucke.
The 47-year-old says: “Miss France visited my distillery while she was filming a TV show with local Michelin-star chef Emmanuel Renaut.
“Then the mayor of Saint-Gervais, Jean Marc Peillex, was visited by President Macron and asked me if I would like to give him a bottle of gin.
G WITHOUT T IS DELICIOUS
I HAVE tried gin with hints of raspberry, peach and even rhubarb with tonic water – but I’ve never drunk gin with a hot orange squash blender.
But this is the combination I was supposed to try during my vacation in the French village of Samoëns earlier this year – and it was surprisingly delicious.
I had spent the afternoon snowshoeing with Jamie Carr, an Englishman living in France, who paused to stuff us up on the local Mont Blanc gin.
It was Jamie who told me about his Scottish friend James Abbott in a kilt, distilling his spirits high in the French Alps.
Then Jamie asked me to try it straight. I’m unsettled at the thought. Have you ever tried Gordon’s without tonic? It’s inedible.
However, Mont Blanc Gin was a revelation on its own, it was even better without a mixer.
Fueled by James’ spirits, our group of snowshoe hikers spent the rest of the day zooming down the hills, mostly on our backs.
But one day I will return to France and try James’ gin again – and maybe even manage to drink it with tonic this time.
“My French is fiendish, so I practiced a few sentences, but halfway through my first sentence, Macron replied in perfect English: ‘James, we don’t have time for that, let’s just talk in English.’
“It was really funny because he then explained to me that he’s not a gin drinker but his wife Brigitte is, so he would get her the gin.”
He adds: “I’m still a small business and can only produce about 10,000 bottles a year, but with the new distribution deal I could easily sell four times that.”
“In fact, the trader now wants to invest in my business to help me produce more — which isn’t bad considering I do everything myself in a tiny shack.”
In the summer, James uses an ATV to get to his high-altitude home, but when winter sets in, the dirt road turns into a ski slope, meaning his home is only accessible by skidoo.
He says: “Of course the winters can be harsh and I can go days without seeing a soul. It can get lonely, but luckily I’m so engrossed in my work that I don’t realize it.
“But I enjoy the solitude in the mountains – it’s like being a lone wolf.”