Gin producers rarely emphasize history or any sort of distinguishable lore. The crux of their product usually lies within the combination of botanicals they employ. But for Monkey 47—which was founded 10 years ago by Alexander Stein and is still produced by his company Black Forest Distillers—each of their products dually boasts a rich backstory and an elegant ensemble of botanicals, sourced from both the unique terrain of the Black Forest and other locales around the world. It’s this duality that makes Monkey 47 so sought after and special: to be intoxicatingly conscious of their quality yet so willing to experiment.
We recently visited the distillery in Germany’s fairytale Black Forest to tour the facility, to celebrate the new Monkey 47’s Distiller’s Cut, and to learn how the brand balances tradition with sheer innovation.
“For gin, it’s all about botanicals, different botanicals. We use 47 different ones (that’s where the name came from) and the idea was to create some sort of an aroma symphony,” Stein tells us. “But it’s 47 different instruments: if they all play independently, it’s not sounding great. So you have to harmonize everything, that’s why you have a conductor. A conductor puts everything in harmony. And that’s what we’re trying to do, and the principle is: cooking for 10 people is better than cooking for 1,000 people. You can better manage quality when you cook for a small number of people. That’s why our stills are not 1,000-liter, they are 100-liter, which is very small if you compare it to larger competitors. The idea was not quantity; the idea was making the best gin possible.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the Black Forest is a ripe destination for gin-making. The region’s natural abundance of spring water, complex herbs and decadent botanicals proves ideal for Stein’s gins. This is most evident in Monkey 47’s reliance on lingonberries and juniper, two botanicals that grow to the point of excess in Germany and are popular in regional cuisine—although outsourced juniper is favored over local for gin. And while lingonberries are distinguishable in Monkey 47’s best-selling gin, they lend to the overall structure, smell and taste of the product—rather than being an isolating, overpowering ingredient.
The regional berry is far from Stein’s most obscure, though. The distiller expresses his immense knowledge of the category, tendencies of botanicals and their willingness to harmonize through Monkey 47’s Distiller’s Cut—a limited-edition concoction born from a gastronomic emphasis on (and dissection of) a 48th ingredient. Relying on mustard seed grown in London’s underground, last year’s had an unmissable spice. Now, turning to mace (nutmeg seed covering) sourced from a marketplace in the United Arab Emirates, 2019’s iteration equally is as complex on the nose, far drier but also much more warming on the palate. This new Distiller’s Cut also marks the first time the collection is coming to the USA.
“I’m a big believer that, in the long run, if it’s your baby and you’re convinced that is this is the best you can do, it’s all about quality—I think then you have a very good chance to succeed. It’s not a guarantee, unfortunately. But it’s better than your product being shitty,” Stein says.
Working with acclaimed chef Ryan Clift, Stein led his team on an exhausting search for the perfect 48th ingredient for this year’s Distiller’s Cut. They spent days teetering with ingredients pulled from the lush markets of the UAE until they reached mace by a unanimous decision. Though this decision came long before ever adding it to the distillation process, Stein sensed that it was the perfect fit. “It’s like a raw diamond: it doesn’t look pretty, but I know there is a diamond in there. Distilling is cutting the diamond,” he says.
Stein’s emphasis on care, precision and creativity permeates every corner of the Black Forest outpost. It boasts a delightful balance of German and British sensibilities (down to an old Defender in the driveway and a mint-condition vintage Braun record player inside) and is manicured but natural. Stein himself is methodical about layout and symmetry, with the perfectly placed stills being the most obvious instance of his discerning eye.
With Stein at the helm, Monkey 47 carves out its own very special space in a category defined by repetitious sourcing and production. With quality the ultimate goal (superseding volume and drinkability), the brand crafts gins that delight the senses and oftentimes trigger a nostalgic affection. It’s the alluring Black Forest locale and Stein’s prowess and self-trust quite literally distilled and packaged in an apothecary-style bottle.
Monkey 47 Distiller’s Cut will be made available in November. Bottles will be for sale in select markets in the US and online for $80.