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Monkey Business in the Black Forest

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • Rising demand for locally-made, traditional products is fostering a craze for hand-crafted gin and other spirits made by a new breed of small, independent distillers.
  • Facts


    • Monkey 47, made in the Black Forest, was named the world’s best gin at the International Wine and Spirit Competition.
    • Flavorings for the new spirits include orange peel, spruce shoots, bramble leaves and rhubarb.
    • The Black Forest region is home to 28,000 small distilleries.
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Wine and high spirits in Germany's gin business. Source: PR

Drink has been good for Alexander Stein. Back in 2008, he was a 35-year-old executive working for Nokia in Detroit. But that was before he found his true calling. Intrigued by the discovery of an old recipe for gin, he quit his job in America and returned home to Germany’s picturesque Black Forest region to try his hand at distilling, which had once been the family trade. Teaming up with an established maker of traditional spirits, he set about crafting his own bespoke brew. Together, they gathered a rich mix of ingredients from the Black Forest, from fragrant spruce shoots and elderflowers to angelica roots and lingonberries. After more than 18 months of testing, blind tastings and laborious refining, his own hand-crafted gin was finally ready for the barroom. Monkey 47 was born.

So, too, were Stein’s fortunes. In 2011, the luxuriously fragrant Monkey 47 – purists sip it all by itself, no tonic added – won the title of the world’s best gin at the International Wine and Spirit Competition. These days, Monkey 47 sells some 150,000 bottles each year, riding a booming market for quality gin both in Germany and abroad. Last year, Stein sold a majority stake in Monkey 47 to the French drinks giant Pernod Ricard. “Monkey 47 is a jewel,” says Pernod CEO Alexandre Ricard.

The land of one-liter beer mugs has discovered a passion not only for artisanal gin, but also for hand-crafted spirits of every sort and flavor. Walk into any modish bar in Berlin or Hamburg, and the shelves groan with distinctive concoctions turned out by countless micro-distilleries, old and new.

It’s a trend with clear parallels in the world of brewing, where scores of small independent enterprises have emerged to challenge the big brands as consumers slake a new thirst for the authentic and the local. But while Europe’s largest beer market is in slow decline, a new breed of German drinkers – from hipsters and millennials to the middle-aged – revels in the curious mystique of gin, whisky and other spirits, and the limitless possibilities for invention. Who would have thought that gin could be made with orange peel, licorice, bramble leaves, bitter almonds or even rhubarb?

Together, they gathered a rich mix of ingredients from the Black Forest, from fragrant spruce shoots and elderflowers to angelica roots and lingonberries.

When it comes to branding, an entertaining back story and a smart name certainly helps. The monkey in Monkey 47 refers to the pet once kept by a retired British officer of the Royal Air Force who settled as an inn-keeper in a remote corner of the Black Forest after World War II. There, he developed the gin recipe that first caught Stein’s imagination. The “47” alludes both to the standard percentage of alcohol to be found in gin, as well as the 47 botanical ingredients that infuse the gin with its lavishly fragrant aroma.

Other gin enthusiasts might be tempted by the aristocratic allure of Stauffenberg, a gin offered by the Berlin-based video artist Franz von Stauffenberg and distilled close to his family’s estate in southern Germany, using hand-picked, organic plant extracts for flavor. Or how about Windspiel, a German-made gin from potatoes grown only in volcanic soil? As botanicals, it uses a combination of juniper, lemon, ginger, coriander, lavender and cinnamon, as well as “a few secret solutions.”

Location adds flavor, too. Aficionados relish the products of the Black Forest, home to some 28,000 distilleries, the highest concentration in the country – and likely in the world. Most are family operations tucked away in tiny villages and remote meadows, where they still use centuries-old methods to craft delicate and fragrant eaux-de-vie from raspberries, pears, walnuts or quinces. Sales may be small – most distilleries lack even a website but makers can depend on a quirky state subsidy available only to distillers and aimed at keeping them in business. Obedient to this rich local tradition that celebrates the distiller’s craft, Monkey 47 uses old-style stills with a capacity of just 100 liters.

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Juniper berries give gin its typical aroma, but other ingredients include elderflowers and lingonberries. Source: Monkey 47

For the perfect marketing blend, add a splash of novelty and a family saga. Take the case of Mondino Amaro Bavarese, an herbal liqueur made in a Bavarian barn once used for distilling spirits from locally grown fruit. When the 167-year-old company’s last owner Hans Schnitzer died without an obvious heir, the business was taken over by his grandson and three school friends. In search of new ideas, they turned to an old recipe brought home by Schnitzer more than 50 years earlier after a spell apprenticing in Italy. Their own version, infused with herbs from the nearby Alps, quickly caught on. Annual production is 30,000 bottles, but doubles every year.

Naturally, such premium products can come at premium prices. A bottle of 12-year-old whisky produced by Slyrs, another bespoke Bavarian distillery, sells for a thumping €199 – but only if you’re prepared to join a long waiting list. But neither the price nor the wait seem to be any problem for the discerning drinker. The company’s sales have been growing at a double-digit rate and top 100,000 bottles a year. Not bad for a company that only began making whisky in 1994.

The latest spirit to be lifted to cult drink status is the lowly korn, a clear spirit distilled from nothing but grain. Once dismissed as a cheap drunkard’s drink, this cousin of vodka has been adopted by a slew of small, bespoke distilleries like Nork, based in the port city of Bremen. And this wouldn’t be Germany if korn didn’t have its own special “purity law” – a korn must be a pure grain spirit, with no additives or substitute ingredients allowed. The result is some of the purest, smoothest vodka around. With such a rich and growing supply of beautifully crafted spirits, the party may be only just beginning.


This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Handelsblatt Global Magazine. William Underhill is a senior writer at the magazine. To contact the author: 

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