By Agnes Pedrero
Souboz, Switzerland—Depopulation threatens the future of Switzerland’s picturesque mountain villages, but three brothers are trying to keep theirs alive by capturing its essence in a bottle.
In the one-road hamlet of Souboz, nearly 900 meters(2,950 feet) up in the Jura mountains, the nature-loving Gyger brothers distill whatever they forage, such as gentian roots and juniper, in a bid to sustain the local economy.
Switzerland is trying to stave off the slow-motion extinction of its remote communities as young people move to the cities for jobs and opportunities.
Thanks to a grant from the Swiss Mountain Aid foundation, the Gygers were able transform their grandfather’s old home into the Gagygnole distillery, turning professional a couple of years ago.
The name comes from eldest brother Gaetan’s nickname Gagy, and gnole—French slang for a drop of the hard stuff.
On the ground floor of an old farmhouse, the scent of coriander and juniper berries hangs in the air, while warmth emanates from the 2.5-meter-high copper still in which Gaetan distills gin over a wood fire.
“This production site has been in our lives since we were very young. We really have roots anchored in our village,” he told AFP.
An agronomist by training, Gaetan, now 30, had studied in Geneva.
“We didn’t want to set up in the city,” he said, despite the bigger potential client base.
Mountains in Swiss DNA
The brothers’ choice is a rare one in Switzerland.
The mountains cover 70 percent of the country, but three-quarters of the population lives on the plain between the Juras in the north and the Alps in the south and east.
Geneva, Lausanne, Bern and Zurich all lie in the area of relatively flat terrain between the two mountain ranges.
The mountain villages are emptying, their grocery stores are closing and, as in Souboz, the schools are shutting, too, as the population gradually shifts ever more towards the lower-lying towns and cities.
The population of Souboz has dropped from 135 in 2012 to 85 last year.
Faced with the slow-motion exodus, some villages are trying everything they can to reverse the tide, including financial incentives to attract newcomers, such as offering empty houses for a symbolic sum of one Swiss franc.
And Swiss Mountain Aid provides funding to hundreds of entrepreneurs, such as the Gyger brothers, to bring jobs and business to the hills.
The mountains are “part of our genes, our DNA”, but “if we want to keep the mountains alive, there must be people,” said the foundation’s chairman Willy Gehriger.
“We act like the spark,” he explained.
Established in 1943 to help lift mountain dwellers out of poverty, the privately-funded foundation mainly supported farmers initially—but broadened its scope around a dozen years ago.
Now it helps small businesses, installs Wi-Fi, pays for computer courses and funds the transformation of dilapidated listed buildings into tourist accommodation.
Gehriger said the agricultural sector alone was no longer enough to keep the mountains thriving.
Message in a bottle
Dressed in baseball caps and t-shirts and armed with an iPad, the Gygers are far from the stocky, rustic, grumpy stereotype of mountain men.
They are on a mission to repopulate Souboz and revive the economy in the local Juras.
“We’re aware of doing something good for Souboz. Our mountain regions have enormous potential. They’re really something that we Swiss should be proud of,” said middle brother Luca, 27.
Their gamble has paid off as the family business has a handful of employees and occasionally takes on local artisans and farmers to help bottle up the brothers’ original gin, whisky and vodka recipes.
Last year, they produced 18,000 bottles of spirits.
Gagygnole’s eaux de vie are sold in 200 shops around Switzerland and one of their concoctions was voted the best gin in the country last year—while the brothers’ gin fondue is also a hit.
The Gygers think it is still too early to consider exporting.
“We always refused because it was difficult in terms of logistics, but why not… as long as it goes with our philosophy,” said 26-year-old Tim.