Gin Making in the Depths of the Black Forest – Monkey 47 Distillery Tour
When I was growing up gin was seen as a drink enjoyed by older ladies. I’m sure a lot of grandmothers enjoyed a G&T in their local pub. Gin of days gone by was a very non-descript basic affair, served in a tall glass and, at a stretch, a slice of lemon for garnish. Today’s gin revival sees gins of all shapes and sizes lining the shelves in bars and restaurants. Served in all manner of goblets and glasses, garnished with vibrant and multicoloured fruits and botanicals today our gin habits have flourished.
I am firmly a gin drinker. Besides a pint of plain or a glass of red, it’s my go-to beverage. The huge increase in gins popularity means there’s so many different types and flavours to try, all with their own unique story. One gin that has been making waves on the market is Monkey 47, a Schwarzwald Dry Gin produced in the northern region of the Black Forest in Germany. Recently myself and some of the best bartenders and cocktail creators in Dublin were invited by Irish Distillers to visit Black Forest Distilleries and learn more about Monkey 47.
With its unusual name and distillery location I wondered, where did the story of Monkey 47 begin? To answer this, we must travel back to 1945, to Berlin, where Royal Air Force Commander Montgomery ‘Monty’ Collins was posted after the war. Monty was greatly affected by the destruction he saw in the capital city, and so became passionate about the reconstruction of the Berlin Zoo.
Here he sponsored a monkey named Max, and when he relocated to the northern area of the Black Forest he opened up a guesthouse called ‘The Wild Monkey’, in honour of Max. To the Black Forest Monty brought with him various English traditions, one of them being the art of enjoying a good glass of gin. Surrounding him was an abundance of juniper and pure spring water, giving him the basis of his unique gin recipe.
In the early 1960s the story of Monty trails off, and it is not until years later, during renovations to a guesthouse in the region that his name reappears. An old wooden box encasing a bottle with a handwritten label that read “Max the Monkey – Schwarzwald Dry Gin”, along with a detailed recipe was unearthed. Fast forward to 2008, when Alexander Stein moved back to his hometown of Baden-Wurttemburg and founded Black Forest Distillers, the makers of Monkey 47. The former Nokia manager fell in love with the story of Monty Collins and has since kept this eccentric legend alive in the distillery. The name was a deliberate choice; monkey in memory of Collins’ monkey Max in Berlin Zoo, and 47 for the number of botanicals the gin contains.
Arriving at the distillery it’s a beautiful sunny day. Given that it is February the amazing weather is a pleasant surprise. Straight away the view hits you, sprawling dense forest and clear blue skies; it’s postcard perfect. We meet Axel who will be our tour guide for the day. He brings us into the tasting room and we kick things off with a refreshing gin….I mean, how else would you start a gin tour? Served in Monkey 47’s signature clay cups, the inside of which features a small engraved monkey. A small detail but a highly thought out one. Everything in the distillery has been carefully thought through, owner Alex is a man of style, and when designing the distillery he made sure that everything looked perfect and told its own story. Here we learned the history of this handcrafted gin before heading into the production room to make our very own batches of Monkey 47.
‘Handcrafted’ is a term we regularly hear in the food and drink industry, perhaps too loosely. However, at Monkey 47 the term is well and truly earned. The grapefruit and lemon peel that is used in Monkey 47 is hand peeled each day by four local women. We visited the room where they take delivery of fresh citrus fruits, and the aroma of the zest was incredible. The leftover fruit is then given to local restaurants and bars, making use of the entire fruit.
This Schwarzwald Dry Gin is made with 47 different botanicals, including spruce shoots that they pick from the Black Forest. We see the great effort that goes into each bottle of gin, with boxes full of botanicals stacked high, ready to be mixed into barrels of alcohol. It’s really quite impressive. The distillery itself is quite small and intends to stay that way. You won’t find Monkey 47 in commercial size or in your local supermarket. This is a quality gin and deserves a space on the shelves of great bars and restaurants. When I returned from this trip I visited the famed Gin Library in The Galgorm, Co.Antrim. Here they only stock the world’s finest gins, the creme de la creme. Monkey 47 is undoubtedly perched on the shelf, resting amongst other greats.
From the mixing rooms, we walked a few feet to see the one of a kind still, where this tipple truly comes to fruition. As with everything at the distillery the still is beautiful to look at. Large and shined to perfection it looks like something from a science-fiction film. The adjoining room is where various experiments take place, where the distillers play around with ingredients and vintages of Monkey 47 – the creativity never stops.
Our tour was now coming to an end, but before we said farewell it was time for a little more gin. Back in the tasting room we tried several vintages of Monkey 47, each with their own unique character.
After our day at the distillery, we headed to a local restaurant to sample some traditional German cuisine. The staff had thoughtfully created some gin cocktails that we, of course, just had to have! The evening that followed was one of the most memorable I’ve had; playing bowling in the restaurants extremely retro basement bowling alley (yes, you read that correctly), laughing until my cheeks were sore and of course drinking more divine Monkey 47. We may or may not have depleted the restaurant’s entire supply of Monkey 47, but when the gin is this good it would be criminal not to! My parting thoughts on this fantastic trip? What happens in the Black Forest, stays in the Black Forest!