Still life: brandy distiller Christoph Keller explains how art influences his business
At first sight, one could be forgiven for thinking Stählemühle is an ancient company doing things in ancient ways. Its fruit brandies are made on a small farm near Lake Constance in south Germany, using the same techniques that would have been used 2,000 years ago. But visit the farm and it becomes obvious that this is a more contemporary operation: redesigned by Philipp Mainzer in 2011, the distillery blends traditional architecture with stark concrete, wood and Scandinavian furnishings.
The man behind Stählemühle is Christoph Keller, a former art-book publisher who moved to the area in 2004 from Frankfurt, to escape the city and work as a freelance art consultant. His newly acquired farm came with a distilling licence, which inspired him to start making eau de vie, and after winning a few local and international distilling prizes, he decided to turn his hobby into a brand. Looking round, you can see how Keller’s past has informed his new venture. The bottles may look like ancient apothecary jars, but in fact they are by German designer Mark Braun; Keller has also produced glassware and drinking accessories with E15, Saskia Diez and Lobmeyr, as well as a one-off label project with artists such as David Shrigley and Jonathan Monk.
All this doesn’t detract from the fact that the product is superb: Keller has taken the art of distilling to the highest level, using rare, unexpected ingredients such as mushrooms, molasses and blood oranges. He produces batches of 30-200 bottles, many of which end up in the kitchens of the best chefs worldwide. ‘For me, it was important to bring new influences to this distillery,’ Keller says. ‘We work in a traditional way, but try to make it look new and interest a younger audience.’
This year, Keller is unveiling two new collaborations that speak of Stählemühle’s depth and breadth: a new home bar, called ‘Tabernacle’, designed and produced by German-Danish designer Gesa Hansen, and a series of three spirits in porcelain bottles in collaboration with Nymphenburg, the latter celebrating Stählemühle’s tenth anniversary.
The spirits Keller created for Nymphenburg feature ingredients that for him encapsulate the history of the porcelain company: cherries from a hedge surrounding Schloss Nymphenburg, oranges from its orangery, and Constantinople quince. Each of the three spirits will be sold as editions of 36, contained in porcelain bottles with hand-painted reproductions of the company’s traditional botanical motifs. ‘We wanted something that combined our histories,’ explains Keller.
The collaboration with Gesa Hansen, meanwhile, grew out of mutual admiration. ‘It’s rare to find a brand that is so beautiful to the last detail,’ says Hansen, who first visited Stählemühle with her husband, French chef Charles Compagnon, when he was researching products for his restaurants.
Her design is inspired by old steamer trunks, with a minimal shape that transforms into an upright triangular bar when open, but protects the bottles from light when closed. ‘I wanted to design a bar that could both store the product but also present a glass in a spectacular way,’ Hansen adds. The bar holds up to 20 bottles, and will be sold with a smaller selection of spirits curated by Keller.
Everything that comes from Stählemühle follows Keller’s Latin motto, perfectio in spiritu. Its double meaning represents the brand’s quest for perfection, but also explains his romantic approach to ingredients. ‘We believe in the soul of fruit,’ says Keller. ‘In our products we try to incorporate the blossom, the fruit and its death in one sensorial idea.’
As originally featured in the October 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*211)