While a monkey in the Black Forest might seem an oddity, Germany’s largest forested mountain region has become the unlikely home to one. The Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin has been on the market since 2010 and tells a unique success story.
Alexander Stein, who’s seen plenty of new gins from smaller distilleries come and go in recent years, knows all too well that clever marketing is not enough to make a product successful in the long term. The story of the mother of all German indie gins starts exactly ten years ago. While Alexander was working the US, a friend got in touch about the curious discovery of an old gin recipe from the Black Forest. He had unearthed that Alexander himself was a descendant of the family that had founded a distillery the region, one that had later fallen out of their hands. The legend of that gin recipe told of an officer of the Royal Air Force who had settled in the Black Forest following World War II and began distilling from locally sourced juniper berries (originally known for their use in Black Forest ham) and other plant extracts.
Known for a centuries-old Schnapps tradition, there are about 28,000 small distilleries in the Black Forest.
“The question of why no one actually makes gin in the Black forest was rather obvious.”
The then newly fledged father didn’t need to hear the story twice. Gut feeling brought him all the way from the States back to his home region. For a spirit so ingrained in British culture, it begs the question how successful one from the Black Forest could be? “Gin only seems at home in the Black Forest after closer inspection,” the newcomer admits. But when you take a closer look, you’ll notice that many of the components needed for a good gin are readily available, such as extremely soft spring water and many of the botanical ingredients. The region boasts an unprecedented distillery tradition and a rich culture of fruit brandy and herbal spirits‚ there are supposedly 28,000 small distilleries in the region to this day, but until recently, no one around here had given gin much thought.
It was a long journey to get Monkey 47 where it is today. And Alexander didn’t go it alone. The former Nokia manager still subscribes to an approach of leaving respective tasks to those who can perform them best— by the same token, he himself strives to spend as much time as possible doing the things that he feels he does well. Distillation ranks among the things that Alexander can’t do. In the newspaper, he’d learned of a self-taught distiller of high-quality fruit brandy. Christoph Keller, who had previously worked as an art book publisher and gained international recognition as a distiller, had acquired the Stählemühle distillery in 2004, specialized in transplanting the flavors of regional fruit varieties into a glass. Flavors were also very much key for Alexander, who didn’t just want to produce a high-proof drink but rather an extremely complex taste experience. “Of course, Christoph knew all about it.”
The Estate’s Plant Life
“I didn’t inherit a lot of money or otherwise have access to an insane amount of capital. So the gin simply had to be something good.”
A year and a half and over 120 test distillates later, Alexander and Christoph agreed on the gin’s final composition. Forty seven different ingredients found their way into his recipe, about a third of which originated from the Black Forest, including acacia blooms, spruce shoots and blackberry leaves. Of course, while Alexander recognizes that sourcing wholly from the Black Forest would have been ideal, to ensure the quality of the drop, they looked to more potent ingredients grown abroad. “It would have definitely been advantageous if I could say ‘of course, our juniper comes from the Black Forest’—but that’s just not the case. Juniper from Tuscany or Croatia receives significantly more sunlight and for that reason is more aromatic and suitable for production.” It’s easy to see why a newcomer like Alexander didn’t want to produce just any gin but looked instead to producing the very best: “I didn’t inherit a lot of money or have access to an insane amount of capital. So the gin simply had to be something good.”
And the Brits agreed with him. In 2011, Monkey 47 was named best gin in the world at the International Wine & Spirit Competition and from then on was formed the basis of gin and tonics in renowned bars around the globe. Alexander isn’t keen to overly emphasize this milestone, even if he was pleased by praise from professional circles. He’s often asked about the wave of new arrivals of gin production that flooded the market after Monkey 47’s success. “In 2008, when we got our start, we had no way of knowing that something along the lines of a gin boom or renaissance was underway.” He regards the most recent craft movement with a healthy dose of skepticism: “Making gin, beer or chocolate is not a new idea. It’s more about the good execution of these ideas. And about moving them forward every day.
“The reason for one’s own success should never be forgotten.”
His owns story mirrors many other told in recent years: Managers, advertisers or graphic designers have grown tired of a life trapped in offices and interrupted by business trips and many are looking for a way out, a way to work with their hands and ideally with lots of fresh air and plenty of calm. They already know what an attractive label looks like and how a convincing story sounds. But: “The idea itself isn’t always enough and all too often the promised quality is lost somewhere along the way.” Alexander knows that a product is only successful if it stands the test of time—and that decisions have to be made that not everyone may approve of. “If you’re the one risking your neck both emotionally and financially, it’s important to completely stand behind what you’re doing and make every effort to avoid mistakes.”
When it was announced in the beginning of 2016 that Monkey 47 was to begin a cooperation with the French spirits group Pernod Ricard, an outcry sounded among the ranks of gin lovers and advocates of the craft movement. There was concern that the gin would be diluted. Yet for Alexander and his team, the decision to start the cooperation with a distribution partner was a further commitment to quality: “The myth of infinite growth doesn’t work for this anyway and nor should it. Now we can produce in a more planned out way and grow a little, but always in a certain scope and when nature allows. If, for example, there’s a shortage of citrus fruit, we can’t produce and our partners must have understanding for that.”
The thought of changing something in the recipe or the ingredients seemed completely absurd to him. After all, it’s the special quality that defines what Monkey is and “the reason for one’s own success should never be forgotten.” However, Alexander has also observed that in times of an ever-increasing ‘food consciousness’ a tendency towards regional and seasonal cuisine, people are more understanding of the elaborate production methods that high-priced products, such as his gin, require. This then amounts to a greater understanding of the limitations that influence seasonal production.
Only last year, the Black Forest Distillers moved into a new production site with their 10 employees, a testament to the strength of their relationship with the region: “I don’t think that you could produce Monkey 47 the way that we do it here in the Black Forest anywhere else.” Alexander painstakingly restored the Schaberhof in 24-Höfe, a so-called ‘dispersed settlement’ near Loßburg, with the help of designer Philipp Mainzer—it’s easy to believe that he’d like to spend the coming years of his life here. Nestled between orchards and forests, the farm is also the location of the beekeeping operation that Heinz Schaber (descendant of the farm’s founder) has been running since 1968. As such, it’s no coincidence that this year’s distiller’s cut was produced using his fir honey. The 48th ingredient joins the others right at the start of the production process before maceration and later becomes apparent in the distillate as a fine honey essence. Once a year, the limited edition with the ‘species rara’ makes its appearance—the single selected ingredient that’s added to the master recipe.
“If someone tells me that they don’t like our gin, I don’t even try to convince them otherwise.”
The Monkey has found the perfect home in the Black Forest and beyond. Schwarzwald Dry Gin is now available in the homeland of gin (it’s even a regular feature on many UK cocktail lists) and in around 60 other countries as well. And yet, the founder prefers to keep his rubber-booted feet on the ground: “Although our gin is now a product with international renown, it remains something made here by people that live in the next village over.” And it’s going to stay that way. Alexander still sees many things in a pragmatic way. For example, he doesn’t think much of the snobby sermons from some gin connoisseurs: “If someone tells me that they don’t like our gin, I don’t even try to convince them otherwise. I just think that telling someone ‘no, no, you do like it’ is a little weak.” There’s no other way to judge gin than by its taste; if you ask Alexander how he prefers to drink Monkey 47, you may be disappointed if you’re expecting some extravagant secret recipe. His answer is quite simple: gin and tonic.
Thank you Alexander, for an unforgettable day in the Black Forest and glimpse into the making of Monkey 47. You can find out more about this year’s distiller’s cut and the beekeeping unique to the distillery to on the Monkey website. Read more on the Schaberhof conversion by Philipp Mainzer here and to keep up with Alexander and the team’s activities, visit them on Instagram.