Last month I wrote about how difficult it can be for small brands to compete in a crowded spirit marketplace, especially when they often compete against larger companies with big budgets. Well when I bumped into Alex Stein at Imbibe Live last week, it reminded me that there’s another way for a brand to become successful, and that’s to buck the trend and put quality above cost in their list of priorities. You see Alex is the mastermind behind Monkey 47 Gin, a brand that is fast becoming a firm favourite with bartenders in the UK and across Europe. The more you learn about Monkey 47 though, the more you realise that no compromises have been made in the name of cost savings, which is pretty rare when it comes to spirits.
Having spent a couple of days in the company of Alex and his master distiller Christoph Keller, I’ve seen how they have set out to create the best gin they possibly could, regardless of cost, and the result is a high-end gin that’s worth paying for. All too often when it comes to ‘super premium’ spirits, I’ve felt that you’re paying for a fancy bottle and a lot of expensive marketing, but in the case of Monkey 47 I think you might just be getting value for money.
Monkey 47 is one of the more expensive gins on the market, not simply because they wanted to be able to market it as ‘super premium’ but because it’s expensive to produce. It’s made in very small batches, in a small custom made still, at a distillery based in an 18th century mill in the Black Forest in Germany. The ingredients are of the highest quality available, and as far as I can tell every detail has been thought out, planned and executed with typical German precision. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself somewhat. Perhaps we should start at the beginning and I should explain how this unique and intriguing gin came about.
As with all good stories about gin, this one starts with a British gentleman, in this case Wing Commander Montgomery Collins, a man with a name so perfect for a gin story, you could name a drink after him (and we have). Monty, as he was known, was stationed in the British sector of Berlin at the end of the Second World War, and was involved in the rebuilding efforts there. One of the projects he became particularly associated with was the rebuilding of Berlin zoo, through which he became the sponsor of an Egret Monkey, known as Max.
When Collins retired from the Royal Air Force in 1951, he decided to move to the Black Forest to pursue an interest in watch making, however it turned out that he had little aptitude for this pastime. Upon realizing that his skills as a watchmaker were somewhat wanting, he decided to open a guesthouse, which he named ‘the wild monkey’ in honor of the monkey he had once sponsored in Berlin.
Being a true Brit, he wasn’t willing to forgo the pleasure of a gin and tonic or two of an afternoon, and it wasn’t long before he took an interest in producing his very own gin using botanicals from the Black Forest, and the pure water that flows in that region. Pretty soon Monty had developed a unique style of gin based on the regional ingredients of the Black Forest, and was able to enjoy his very own G&T while gazing at the stunning countryside with views all the way to the Alps.
The story of Monty Collins trails off in the early 1960s, and it wasn’t until work at the old guesthouse was started at the turn of the century that his gin was rediscovered. A box, containing a bottle featuring a hand written label with a picture of a monkey on it was found. The bottle was labeled ‘Max the monkey – Schwartzwald Dry Gin’ and was accompanied by a letter detailing the plant ingredients used to make this long lost gin. This discovery, however, didn’t lead to it being reproduced, in fact it wasn’t until Alex decided that he wanted to start making gin that any thought was really given to ‘Schwartzwald Dry Gin’. Alex didn’t set about trying to faithfully recreate the original recipe, but instead decided to make a gin inspired by it.
When Alex first thought about starting a new episode of his life by getting into the gin business, he realised that he would need a very special distiller to produce the liquid he had in mind. It was through pure luck that a family member pointed him in the direction of an article that had been written about a rather wild looking distiller, Christoph Keller, who lived in the hills of the Black Forest producing regional fruit brandies. Christoph has won critical acclaim for his eau de vie style distillates, but when Alex contacted him about making a unique gin based around Black Forest ingredients, he was immediately interested in the project.
The two met to discuss this crazy idea, and it was then that ‘Max the monkey’ resurfaced as a starting point for producing something new. The original list of ingredients included many exotic spices as well as the traditional Black Forest botanicals, probably as a nod to Monty’s childhood, which was spent in India. Both Alex and Christoph agreed that combining these two aspects could lead to a distinctive and unusual gin. As I hinted at earlier though, this was never going to be a fast project with just a few botanicals thrown together to make a passable gin, instead both Christoph and Alex were determined to make something truly special.
OK, so I know it’s a stereotype to paint a picture of Germans as being meticulous in their planning and execution of any project, but in this case it’s at least half true. In order to make a gin that both Alex and Christoph would be proud to put their names to, they decided to start by individually distilling over 120 botanicals. By tasting each in isolation they could get a sense of how each flavour would sit within their gin, and which combinations might work best.
Working their way through that many individual distillates can’t have been easy, but in the end they decided to base the flavour around the combination of juniper (obviously) and lingonberries, which offer a delicious sharp fruit backbone to the gin. Building around this they added layers of spice, citrus, earthy and floral notes to create a uniquely complex liquid, with layer after layer of flavour. In all, at least 47 botanicals are used, (hence the name) all distilled in incredibly small batches in Christoph’s custom-made still.
Their plan to combine so many flavours wasn’t an instant success mind you, and having had the chance to nose one of their first attempts, it’s clear that a lot of research and development time went into perfecting the recipe. Finally however they arrived at a gin they were both understandably proud of and Monkey 47 was born. The attention to detail didn’t stop with the development of the liquid though, the bottle has also been beautifully designed, with even the cork custom made to ensure it makes just the right noise when the bottle is opened. For me it’s this level of care and attention that sets Monkey 47 apart from its competitors, and helps to justify the price tag on the bottle.
It’s true that Monkey 47 is a fairly expensive gin, but having spent an afternoon mixing the botanicals into neutral molasses spirit, I’ve seen firsthand the volume of botanicals that go into every batch, and just how small each batch is, and I can safely say that with this product you really do get what you pay for.
I’m not a fan of gin & tonic, purely because I don’t like the taste of tonic, but I’m told that Monkey 47 is great in a G&T. Neat it is a full-on flavour assault, at 47%abv the many botanicals are tightly layered, with juniper coming through along with the more earthy and spicy notes. There’s peppercorn, cassia, cinnamon and coriander as well as nutmeg and ginger, and underneath this there’s a fruitiness that includes sloe, lingonberry, blackberry and rosehip. Adding a splash of water you’re rewarded with floral notes and citrus that round the experience out with lime, lemon and pomelo as well as bitter orange, honeysuckle and Jasmine.
There’s no doubt that there’s a lot going on inside this gin, but actually that’s one of the things I love about it. It seems like every time I taste it I find a new flavour note that I hadn’t noticed before. This is also why I think it’s great in cocktails; you can pick out a few notes that you want to highlight and play with them, or you can allow the gin itself to add depth to the drink. It’s versatile and intriguing, and so far I haven’t grown tired of playing with it in different styles of drink. For me it’s one of the only gins that I prefer making a dry (ish) martini with, as it has enough complexity that it doesn’t need a large splash of vermouth to round it out. All in all it delivers exactly what the beautiful bottle and expensive price point promise, and that’s a rare thing!
Here’s a little twist on the classic Collins for you to try if you find yourself investing in a bottle, which I highly recommend that you do!
THE MONTGOMERY COLLINS
50ml Monkey 47 Gin
20ml lemon juice
10ml cranberry juice
1 dash lavender bitters
Soda water top
In a highball glass, combine all ingredients with plenty of cubed ice, stir briefly to combine before topping with a splash of soda and garnishing with a few cranberries.
It’s rare that you find an independent brand owner brave enough to launch a product that is one of the most expensive in its category, especially the crowded gin category. But when there are good reasons why it commands the price it does, and it’s not simply a gimmicky product in an expensive bottle, then to me it’s worth paying good money for. Monkey 47 isn’t expensive for the sake of being expensive, it’s priced according to the quality of the liquid you get, the cost of the ingredients and the level of craft that goes into making it. I consider it to be one of those products that when you buy it, you’re actually investing in yourself as every sip is going to be a reward for your senses. Not to mention the fact that every bottle you buy helps support a producer who cares about quality above all else.
* for those of you who were wondering about the title 'great gin, and it won't cost you a monkey'… a 'monkey' is an old English slang word for £500 ($750 for my US readers) which comes from soldiers returning from India, where the 500 rupee note had a monkey on it.