Botanically complex and combining a great story with great design work to create a formidable package, Monkey 47 fast established its now cult status.
The story of Monkey 47 begins in the 1940s. In July 1945, to be precise! Wing Commander Montgomery “Monty” Collins of the Royal Air Force was posted to the British sector of divided Berlin. Having arrived in Berlin after the end of the war and taken up his post in the administration of the British sector, Commander Collins was profoundly affected by the extent of the destruction of the capital and so resolved to support the reconstruction of Germany in his free time. Henceforth he became devoted to the rebuilding of the Berlin Zoo, through which he came to sponsor an egret monkey by the name of Max.
Montgomery Collins left the Royal Air Force in 1951. Driven by his desire to learn the art of watch making, Collins moved to the Northern Black Forest region. Unfortunately he showed little talent in the field of horology, so instead opened a country guesthouse, naming it “The Wild Monkey” in honour of Max.
The Black Forest area has always been known for distilling fruit liqueurs. Collins combined this history with his interest in gin and what he created – Schwarzwald Dry Gin – became the trademark spirit for the guesthouse until the 1970s. Almost four decades later, in 2006, this story was rediscovered by Alexander Stein, who just so happened to descend from a family of distillers…
Talking to Gin Foundry for the 2016 Gin Annual, Monkey 47 Founder Alex Stein explained this moment of enlightenment: “I can remember the moment quite distinctly: I was sitting at my desk on a rainy day in Detroit when an old friend from Germany called me up and told me a story that would change my life in a fundamental way. This was, namely, the life story of the young officer and bon-vivant Montgomery Collins, the great-grandfather of our little Monkey.
“I was completely fascinated by Collins’s eventful biography, from his beginnings as the well-travelled child of a diplomat, to his years as a soldier and his time in Madras and Berlin, and – finally – to his arrival in the Black Forest and his transformation from a man of the world to a simple Black Forest restaurateur. Right from the moment I first heard the story I was enthralled. No – I was obsessed with the idea of producing a Black Forest gin whose aromas would come from local ingredients, and I was determined to breathe new life into an old recipe.”
As far as the subject of gin was concerned however, any knowledge or experience Stein had was limited exclusively to the consumption – and not the making – of Gin. Still, at the end of 2008 he decided to quit his job and move back to his homeland, with the first priority being to find a master distiller who could work with him to turn this idea into reality.
Southern Germany may seem like a strange place to have a wealth of distilling expertise, but with a history of creating fruit liqueurs and brandies as well as being the home of many coppersmiths experienced in building stills, it remains (despite a now more global craft distilling revolution) probably one of the best places to create a new spirit.
Alexander found distiller Christoph Keller, who was renowned for his fruit brandies. Christoph was also drawn by the challenge of breathing new life into this gin and the pair began their journey. Montgomery Collins’ Black Forest Gin was to be reborn.
The task when recreating a gin is trying to find information about the original product. With only rudimental records and no original recipe, just descriptions of eyewitnesses and a few key facts such as the use of spruce fruits, classical gin ingredients and lingonberries, the pair decided to recreate the gin as best they could.
Remembering the innovation behind and early days of Monkey 47 Gin, Stein recalls “We didn’t want to create a “brand,” but rather the best gin possible. We set out to produce aromas, not alcohol. For that reason, we shouldn’t be mistaken for typical “spirits producers” or “liquor entrepreneurs”; we are schnapps distillers to the core and, like a perfumer, constantly on the hunt for aromas and fragrances. Simply put the plan was and is quality!”
After two years of development, the duo chose a recipe their perfect recipe. Classic dry gin, interpreted in an entirely new and eccentric way. There are 47 ingredients that have found their way into the Monkey 47 Gin recipe, including angelica root, acacia flowers, bramble leaves, lingonberries and spruce shoots, all of which come from the Black Forest. Juniper berries come from the Mediterranean (they’re known to be more aromatic as they receive four to six weeks more sun than their Tuscan and German cousins).
Amongst the botanicals there are six different types of pepper, as well as Acorus calamus, almond, angelica, bitter orange, blackberry, cardamom, cassia, chamomile, cinnamon, lemon verbena, cloves, coriander, cranberries, cubeb, dog rose, elderflower, ginger, Grains of Paradise, hawthorn berries, hibiscus abelmoschus, hibiscus syriacus, honeysuckle, jasmine, Kaffir lime, lavender, lemon, lemon balm, lemongrass, liquorice, Monarda Didyma, nutmeg, orris, pimento, pomelo, rosehip, sage, sloe… Yep. Long list!
Stein describes lingonberries as being the ideal botanical in gin, as it inherently has a combination of the flavours that have always defined the spirit, namely a refreshing acidity, lasting bitterness and slight sweetness.
As to how it’s made? The ingredients are steeped in French made molasses alcohol 36 hours prior to distillation. For the first five years the distilling happens in what can only be described as a beautiful old Arnold Holstein still. The team combine traditional maceration and distillation techniques with vapour infusion to gather precise amounts of the more volatile botanicals and accentuate certain flavours. Over the duration of 2015, the duo worked with Arnold Holstein, developing a new one-of-a-kind distillery.
Just like their first distillery, this evolutionary successor model was developed specifically for Monkey 47 Gin, taking qualitative and empirical parameters into account. The size of the still was downsized from 150 litres to 100 litres in order to further optimise the surface ratio of copper to liquid. They have continued to apply the combination of macerating some of the botanicals along with vapour infusing others, although they do this now in a slightly different way. By re-positioning the steam baskets and developing a completely new distillation apparatus, they can, in particular, isolate just the right amounts of rather volatile aromas, bringing them individually to the fore and carefully combining them to produce the perfect blend.
Once created, the distilled spirit is rested for three months in earthenware containers and then cut to 47% ABV with soft water from the Black Forest to before being sealed in 500ml bottles.
On the nose, there are numerous aromas and this fact alone makes Monkey 47 a great gin to keep returning to, as depending on your mood it’s easy to find a new facet that you may have previously overlooked. There are prevalent aromas of lime, fleshy berries and a woody forest floor undertone that give the gin both levity and depth. It’s very evocative.
The zingy citrus is assertive to taste upfront, but gives way to a rich bouquet of flavours including herbal juniper, juicy lingonberries, sweet liquorice, cardamom and hibiscus-like floral touches. Can you taste all 47 botanicals? No. Are they all doing something in there? Definitely! It’s a hugely complex, rich (and as an aside very smooth) gin and very difficult to pigeonhole into a brief tasting note.
Each year, the distillery also releases a limited edition Distiller’s Cut bottling. The idea behind the Distillers Cut is to harness the inherent Monkey 47 flavour profile and accentuate a certain aspect of it by adding a signature (more dominant) new botanical to the line up, which they refer to as their “species rara”. In 2015, the duo used Spignel to create one of our favourite releases of the year, having been introduced to it at a wedding of their friend, a certain Mr Hardy Happle.
Hardy Happle is a freelance architect with a penchant for listed cultural assets such as an old farmstead built in 1601, which Happle bought in 2007. On the meadows around the old farmstead, Happle noticed the huge quantities of spignel plants, remaking that they smelt similar to Gin. Happle suggested to Christoph Keller that he use the Spignel in Monkey 47 and in midsummer 2015 around two dozen harvesters (with herb and Monkey expertise) gathered on the hillside, hand-picking large quantities of the wild spignel seeds, which were later dried for distillation. (Watch the second video at the end of this article to see this all in action)
Monkey 47 Distiller’s Cut 2015 has aroma of fennel (it’s actually the spignel but for those who haven’t come across it think of a caraway / fennel crossover) & rich cranberry. Woody pine forest tones underpin the red fruit and spignel top notes. There’s a full body with deep rich tones that mushroom on the palate into a huge flavour explosion. There’s an elegant zing of sharp citrus that cuts back the spignel leaving a spiced nip on the finish with a long red berry and herbal finish. It’s a big gin in that the flavour profile is LOUD, much more intense than their regular offering. The journey and balance of botanicals is subtle but much like an orchestra where each instrument plays its part, the overall effect is a cacophony of sensations. If Monkey 47 has the small monkey Max depicted on the label, then this would need King Kong by way of comparison.
We feel it’s at its best in a dry Martini (4 to 1). It is also worth noting that due to the unfiltered, concentrated nature of the gin, it louches in a G&T so if that is happening for you – don’t fret, that’s normal, just enjoy it!
The Monkey 47 Gin bottles are in themselves a treat and were – at the time of its release – the best packaging for gin around. The old pharmacy style shape with brown glass and a ring around the cork complete a package that is hard not to admire. They have considered each element and refined it to such an acute extent that, quite simply, if one conceders all the elements that go into evaluating a gin (concept, production methods and makers, depth flavour, spirit quality, packaging and price point) – Monkey 47 Gin is quite easily one of the best gins in the world. Very few others come close to the ensemble Alex Stein and Chistopher Keller have achieved here.
While this article has been updated along the years since we initially wrote about Monkey 47 Gin (in order to keep it up to date and accurate), requests for more information about their gin and those seeking to buy bottles from our shop has been the most frequent item in our inbox over the past four years. Cult status is not something we would bestow upon just any gin, but the simple volume of inquiries and excitement around it make it apt of the description.
Don’t just try it when you come across it, seek it out as if you haven’t tasted it yet, you’re definitely missing out.
For more information about Monkey 47 Gin, visit their website: www.monkey47.com
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