Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Monkey 47: the creature from the Black Forest

Wind-up monkey not included
I like a monkey as much as the next man (more than many, if I’m honest), so I was happy to try Monkey 47 gin, handled in the UK by Spirit Cartel, who also do Four Roses bourbon. The principle hype is its 47 botanicals—seizing the crown from The Botanist, with its mere 35—but it also has an unusual provenance and an exotic back story.

The tale starts at the end of World War II when Wing Commander Montgomery Collins is posted to help run the British Sector of Berlin. A man of varied and fickle interests, he is saddened by the destruction around him and helps the effort to rebuild Berlin Zoo by sponsoring a monkey called Max. He leaves the Air Force in 1951 and, sparked by an urge to learn the art of watchmaking he moves to the Northern Black Forest region. Unfortunately he proves to have little talent for it, despite his love of watches, so he decides to open a guesthouse which he names Zum wilden Affen (The Wild Monkey—not really something that promises opulent comfort and a restful night’s sleep, but there you go). He is also depicted as having an Englishman’s love of gin and, as juniper is an abundant local ingredient in the renowned Black Forest ham, he starts tinkering with his own recipe, combining spices redolent of his upbringing as the son of a diplomat in India with local forest plants.

The story jumps forward to the early 2000s when renovation of the guesthouse turns up a wooden box containing a bottle of Monty’s gin, labelled “Max the Monkey—Schwarzwald Dry Gin”, with a letter explaining its recipe. Businessman Alexander Stein, after a career in telecommunications with postings around the world, including north and south America, returns to his home in Baden-Würtemberg. He hears the story of Monty and his gin and decides to recreate it.

Of course one takes all this with a pinch of salt, but the modern gin is made by distiller Christoph Keller at the Stählemühle distillery in Oberen Hegau. They admit that they made many changes to Monty’s recipe, which they variously describe as “rudimentary” and “eccentric”, but it does include many ingredients from the forest region, such as spruce, blackthorn, elderflower and bramble leaves, and they place a particular emphasis on the very soft local spring water and the “secret weapon” of fresh cranberries.* (Apparently Alex and Christoph distilled 120 botanicals individually and tasted them in isolation.) Distillation is in very small batches and the process uses both maceration and steam extraction, where alcohol vapour passes through baskets of botanicals, and the finished distillate is aged for three months in earthenware containers before being diluted to 47% ABV with that local spring water.

An Aviation made with Monkey 47
The packaging plays up the heritage aspect: the label is designed like a Victorian postage stamp, with serrated edges, plain paper and just two spot-printed colours. The squat, brown glass bottle is apparently based on an old pharmacy bottle that Stein found while out walking. The stopper is cork, at first glance just a plain one jammed in the top, but in fact it has a metal band halfway down that provides a finite travel into the bottle.

So what does it taste like? Can you pick up all 47 botanicals? No, of course not, but it is certainly complex. For me, juniper is not the first thing that leaps out, but limes, or rather a blend of limes and spices that really reminds me of lime pickle, then juniper and marmalade. There’s a heavy florality that is almost cloying, with coriander seed, lemon sherbet, juicy leafiness or stemminess like geranium, and something woody like cassia.

On the tongue the gin is relatively sweet and smooth for its 47%, with citrus to the fore, plus chocolate, something leafy like watercress, parma violets, orange peel, maybe a hint of cherry. And that lime pickle thing again.

In a Martini with Noilly Prat it is a natural companion to what is quite a citric vermouth; that floral element comes out along with strong coriander notes. But it is also very good with Belsazar Dry (and surely not because they are both German), making a juicy, fresh and balanced cocktail. A Negroni with Monkey 47, Campari and Martini Rosso is fruity and perfumed, perhaps a little cloying but with a strongly bitter aftertaste. In a G&T citrus and coriander spice are to the fore, with a wood-dry finish. As I suspected, the gin makes a good Aviation (gin, lemon juice, maraschino and crème de violette), with that citrus fruit sitting comfortably with the lemon and the gin’s florality at ease with the violette and cherry fruit. It also makes a predictably easy Gimlet (gin and lime cordial), with all those lime flavours sitting comfortably with each other.

It’s an intriguing gin with a strong impact from an unusual flavour profile. Despite the heritage tale, it went through 100 test formulas, accompanied by evaluative tastings with “renowned barkeepers”, so it is clearly engineered for a particular purpose, rather than just being a faithful presentation of a curio from the past. To me it falls into the category of gins that use sweet or floral flavours to make the spirit more approachable neat and perhaps woo consumers who are not naturally drawn to gin. It’s not going to become an everyday gin for me, partly because I personally prefer something more juniper-driven, and partly because it is £37 for just 50cl. But it is causing a lot of ripples, and it does have a picture of a monkey holding a sprig of jasmine on it, which counts for a lot.

* Judging by the “Encyclopedia Botanica” on the website the botanical bill also includes coriander, angelica, nutmeg, grains of paradise, common vervain, jasmine, camomile, marsh mallow and musk mallow.