A Spirit to Remember

A Spirit to Remember
Herbal extracts in bottles reminiscent of an old apothecary Photo Credit: Shutterstock

What is common between a monkey from Berlin, the black forest and the world’s most expensive gin?

Anuradha Sengupta
September 17 , 2021
13 Min Read

“We are facing a technical issue. Please return to the lounge area.” The rather ominous announcement from the pilot evoked sleepy grunts. Reluctantly, everyone stumbled out into this remote section of Paris’s Charles De Gaulle Airport where our tiny aeroplane was waiting to take us to Stuttgart. At the small airport lounge, a worried passenger asks, “Do you think it’s because of the storm?” referring to the impending Storm Sabine. It probably was, I said. Some 45 minutes and a strong coffee later, we were back on the plane. With little shudders of turbulence now and then, and an extremely friendly cabin crew at our service, we made it to Stuttgart in the nick of time. Sabine hit Germany the next day. We watched her hurricane-like winds from the relative safety of our rooms, at the 230-year-old Traube Tonbach Hotel in Baiersbronn, in southern Germany’s Black forest region. 

I was here, braving an extratropical cyclone, with a motley crew of bartenders, cocktail creators and travel writers from Indonesia, New Zealand, and India. Our visit was to a distillery making gin that connoisseurs were hailing as the best, and perhaps, most remarkable in the world. The intriguingly named ‘Monkey 47’ had acquired a cult following. Even Robert parker, one of the most influential wine critics in the world, had said it was the greatest gin he had ever tasted. “If ever a gin deserves 100 points, it is that.” It came to India in 2017 and retails at about Rs 5,000 for a 500 millilitre bottle. 

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The same night, a cooking class was scheduled for us, to be held by the chefs at Traube Tonbach. The hotel houses two Michelin-starred restaurants, Köhlerstube and Schwarzwaldstube. In fact, our hotel wasn’t the only one in the area with Michelin stars. Baiersbronn, it turns out, is quite the unexpected hub of culinary excellence with several Michelin-starred restaurants. This area was part of Swabia, or as the locals call it Schwabenland, a cultural, historic and linguistic region that rose with undefined borders in the southwest. 

The class began in a brightly lit room, anchored by a shiny, industrial-feel kitchen-top in the middle. The gang was trying their hand at rustling up spatzle, a popular pasta-like dish made with eggs, flour and nutmeg, native to Swabia. 

The word is derived from the Swabian diminutive of ‘spatz’ or a little sparrow, to describe the shapes formed ranging from ‘small sparrows’ to ‘small buttons’. Variations can be found in neighbouring countries like Austria, Hungary, and Switzerland, but it is the Swabian spatzle that has been recognised by the European Union with a Protected Geographical Indication mark. 

The chef showed us how to roll slabs of dough onto the wetted board, quickly cutting off tiny strands that went straight into a simmering pot of water. I didn’t realise how much skill and swift wrist movement it required. Most of our efforts resulted in thick, misshapen noodles. Fortunately, it was the chef ’s own efforts that were served up for dinner, with a light cheese sauce, topped with a dollop of creamy, melted onion. On the side was a plate of schwabischer kartoffelsalat (the most amazing potato salad I had ever tasted) and greens. 

However, it was dessert that everyone was really looking forward to—the fabled black forest cake, the region’s most famous export to the world. Also known as schwarzwalder kirschtorte, the moist, light and fluffy dessert was whipped up by a soft-spoken pastry chef with a little bit of help from us. we didn’t do much, though, other than splashing generous amounts of kirschwasser (a cherry brandy) on the multiple chocolate layers, piping some whipped cream florets, and sprinkling shaved chocolate curls for the garnish. The cherries were local, as was some schnapps distilled locally from Black Forest fruit. 

Picturesque view of the black forest region

Next morning, we set off for the distillery, navigating through wet mountain roads, villages and towns. The pretty houses had sharply sloping roofs, covered in wooden shingles that resemble fish scales. The Monkey 47 distillery is located in Schaberhof, in the Vogelsberg region. Schaberhof is a refurbished old farmstead built in 1840, and its exterior is covered in the same classic hand-split wooden shingles typical of the Black forest area. 

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The distillery, also called Zum Wilden Affen (German for ‘The Wild Monkey’), is set amid fields and rolling hills bordered by dense forests. A 1,400 square metre complex, it houses spaces for maceration, storage, and tasting spread across three buildings; a bee house; an apiary; and a small herbal garden. 

Our tour starts off in the tasting room, needless to say, with a glass of gin. As we enter, the rows of brown bottles, similar to the ones that can be spotted in old pharmacies, immediately catch my attention. Neatly lined up on one side of the long room, their purple postage stamp-styled label features the eponymous monkey in the middle. 

Traditionally designed apothecary bottles

A bar-like counter is stacked with the bottles, and wooden boards laden with local cold cuts, cheeses and buttered laugenbrezel (like pretzels, but so much better). We are served cocktails in Monkey 47’s signature clay cups—these, too, have a small monkey engraved inside. Intense in flavour, with notes of zingy citrus, sharp pepper, herbal juniper, and a dose of lingonberries, the concoction has a whopping 47 ingredients that give it its name. This includes those sourced from the Black forest itself, like the angelica root, acacia flowers, bramble leaves, and even spruce shoots. we learn that the juniper berries come from the Mediterranean, either from Tuscany or Croatia, as the sunlight in those regions brings out a stronger aroma. 

The story behind the gin begins with Royal Air force wing Commander Montgomery ‘Monty’ Collins, the son of a British diplomat from then-Madras. After the Second world war, Collins was posted in Berlin and eventually got involved in rebuilding the city zoo, to the extent of even sponsoring an egret monkey called Max. when the wing commander moved to the Black forest area in 1951, he opened a country house named Zum wilden Affen. But the Brit in him couldn’t wait any longer to embrace his passion. when the locals were busy making schnapps, the British Monty, having been acquainted with the Black forest tradition of distilling fruit, started making rudimentary gin with juniper and local herbs. 

In 2008, Alexander Stein, a descendant of the family that had founded the distillery in the region, teamed up with reputed local distiller Christoph Keller, who was known for fruit brandies. They developed Monkey 47 under Stein’s new company, Black forest Distillers GmbH, much before the craft gin craze had begun. 

Zachary Connor de Git, brand ambassador of Monkey 47

The gin’s eccentric story is reflected in its design and packaging—from the traditionally styled apothecary bottles whose corks have silver rings, to the playful illustrations and graphics on coasters and stickers featuring Max dressed in various costumes. There’s a touch of whimsy and perfectionism. 

A tour of the gin-making process shows why this drink enjoys the reputation it does. The distillery concentrates on crafting layered aromas. They have different rooms for different ingredients, each carefully air-locked. while one room is packed with boxes of herbs, another is filled with the heady aroma of fresh citrus fruits. They are hand peeled every day, a process that makes a profound difference in the flavour of the gin. 

The leftover fruit is given to local restaurants and bars that make various preserves and balms. Some of it is even used to make biogas. Botanicals like lingonberries, juniper and angelica seeds are ground up before macerating. A blend of varietal peppercorns is ground fresh and weighed on a gram scale for each batch in a secret ratio. The oils of the ingredients are extracted and added layer by layer, starting with the lingonberries which go into the maceration barrel first. The rest of the botanicals are macerated for 36 hours straight in air-tight tubs. Black forest’s soft spring water is used in the process, and is essential for the final taste. 

The procedure involves distilling the macerate and using steam extraction to channel the alcoholic vapours through fresh botanicals using a Carter-Head still—the setup bathes the botanicals in vapour to extract their flavour compounds and oils. It produces a lighter, fresher distillate. The steam extraction helps selectively regulate the distillate, allowing to coax out its individual notes with a high degree of precision.

The copper still created for Monkey47 by Arnold Holstein

The distillation is done by the jaw-dropping centrepiece of the place—a gigantic copper still designed by German coppersmith and pot-still expert Arnold Holstein. It is housed in a large room with steel-framed windows looking out into the Black forest. Instead of the conventional 1,000-litre still which is used by many distillers looking to go industrial, Stein and Keller opted for four 100-litre distilling vessels which gives them the freedom to fine- tune the process for higher-quality gin. 

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In addition to their flagship gin, they also produce a limited edition Distiller’s Cut every year with new botanicals added to the mix. The signature botanical is referred to as their ‘species rara’. while the 2018 version featured mustard grown in an underground farm in London, the 2019 version had mace sourced from the united Arab Emirates. 

The Swabian culinary journey continued with a memorable lunch at the distillery. We had maultaschen, pasta pockets stuffed with lightly minced meat and served in a delicious broth. Digging deep into the origins of the dish revealed that it is associated with Lent when meat is of the menu. Hardcore meat-eaters came up with the idea of concealing it in these pockets. 

That night, the tail end of Storm Sabine resulted in a mild drizzle as we walked up a hill. Our dinner destination was the Blockhutte (log cabin), and we were carrying lit torches in order to see in the dark. Hungry, tired and a bit damp, the elaborate meal of warm soups, melt-in-the-mouth steaks, and salads was like manna from heaven. The pitch black night, the dim red glow inside the cabin, and the wind whistling through the tall trees gave the experience a mystical air. Here we were, in the fabled forest which had exerted a magical hold on the human imagination for centuries. It had been home to fairy godmothers, magic mirrors, witches and goblins from the Brothers Grimm. Sometimes gentle and old, sometimes dark and threatening, the forest gives you dreams forever. 

What Makes This German Gin Special

In the strictest sense, gin is defined as a combination of spirits distilled from herbs and fruits. And nowhere else in the world will you encounter the wealth of distilling expertiseand centuries of experience that are to be found in southern Germany. This is where the world’s most renowned distillers work, and where traditional coppersmiths build the world’s best distilleries. so it comes as no surprise that British gin producers often place their trust in the expertise of southern German equipment manufacturers and the skills of Swabian coppersmiths. Baden Wurttemberg in particular—with more than 23,000 active micro- distilleries—has a concentration that is unrivalled in its diversity worldwide and includes establishments that can draw on a centuries-old tradition.

The accumulation of distilleriesin this German state makes Great Britain, the home of gin, look like a miniature distilling monoculture by comparison. The reason for this is delightfully simple: the Black forest region not only benefits from its natural landscape, venerable distilling tradition, and innovative inhabitants, but it also provides essential ingredients, such as pure spring water and exceptionally aromatic berries and varieties of fruit. And so, the idea of making a gin here in Germany appeared to me at this point to be quite logical, since the key ingredients needed for a schwarzwald Dry gin were all right here, in the Black Forest. 

—Alexander Stein 

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