- Guest Blogger -
It was a rainy Autumn day in Detroit when Alexander Stein received the call. It was 2006, he was sitting in his office at the Nokia building where he worked when the phone rang – It was an old friend from Baden-Wurttemburg in Germany whom he’d known growing up. He told Alexander a story that would change his life forever and create a burning passion within him to carry the torch for its protagonist.
The story started with a dusty old bottle that had been found during the recent renovation of a country guest house in the Black Forest (‘Schwarzwald’ in German). The bottle had a label with a hand-drawn sketch of a monkey, and the words: “Max the monkey - Schwarzwald Dry Gin” – found alongside it were letters and notes; and the eccentric recipe for this dry gin.
The creator was Montgomery Collins, the son of a British diplomat who was born and raised in India. Wing Commander in the RAF during WW2, globetrotter, watch-making enthusiast, skilled linguist – cricket lover. Following the war, Monty was stationed in Berlin to help with rebuilding the city. So profoundly moved was he by the destruction that he took to helping rebuild the Berlin Zoo in his spare time. It was here that he came to sponsor an egret monkey by the name of Max
IN 1951 he moved to the Black Forest, eventually opening a guest house which he named ‘Zum Wilden Affen’ – the wild monkey – in honour of Max. It was here that he created his gin, an eccentric recipe of wild Black Forest botanicals and soft, pure local spring water.
Monty Collins’ enigmatic character and the story of how this bottle came to be was enthralling for Alexander Stein. He quickly fell for the legend of the young Royal Air Force o¬fficer with the rich and varied biography. He was excited by the idea of producing a Black Forest gin based on regional ingredients and set about bringing the Monkey back to life.
So at the end of 2008, Stein left Nokia and returned to his German home of Baden-Württemberg, where he founded Black Forest Distillers GmbH. The choice of bringing the Monkey back to Schwarzwald was a deliberate one: In addition to its natural landscape and innovative inhabitants, it is also home to the Monkey’s essential ingredients, including natural spring water and particularly aromatic berry and fruit varieties. Local spruce shoots, cranberries, lingonberries and hawthorn berries are amongst the long list that make it into the mixture.
Stein had his love of gin and his ideas but needed a master distiller to fulfil his ambition. Either by chance or some twist of fate – namely his father slapping a newspaper on his lap – Stein then made the acquaintance of Christoph Keller, a highly acclaimed and impassioned distiller. Keller, who settled in Oberer Hegau near Lake Constance in 2005, has been devoting himself to his craft with considerable success and great meticulousness ever since.
The two made a formidable pair. They forged a plan, not to create a brand, but to make a gin of the highest quality, with delectable and powerful aromas. For this, only the highest quality distilling apparatus would be worthy to work out of their distillery in a lovingly-renovated 19th Century farmstead. The four copper stills that now produce the famed Schwarzwald Dry Gin were assembled by hand and crafted by the Markdorf-based coppersmith Arnold Holstein, who took more than two years to design and manufacture this masterful one-of-a-kind distilling operation.
Once completed, these four copper stills – a mere 100 litres in size – were so magnificent, that Alexander insisted they be named; after famous simians no less. Now the gin makes its way through King Louie, Miss Baker, Herr Nilson and Cheetah and a basic course filtration system, before sitting in earthenware vessels to rest for three months.
And so Montgomery Collins‘ Black Forest Dry Gin was to be reborn: a masterful spirit with oral notes; the freshness of tangy citrus fruits; a clear juniper tone; a peppery, spicy mouthfeel; and a subtle hint of cranberries to give it that certain je ne sais quoi. In honour of that discovered bottle of Monty’s, and the 47 botanicals found in the recipe, an old apothecary-style bottle was chosen – forged from brown glass to protect the precious contents from harmful UV rays, adorned with a picture of Max and Monty’s original title, and finished off with a silver ring around every cork, with the inscription: E Pluribus Unum. Out of Many, One.
Since setting off for parts unknown from its tranquil Black Forest valley, Monkey 47 has wasted no time gaining friends and admirers in more than 50 countries on four different continents. Aficionados, bartenders, and connoisseurs the world over have come to appreciate the incredible complexity and balance of a gin that was invented some 60 years ago – all because a certain Commander Collins was homesick for England. And a certain Mr Stein was fascinated by him.
I would say that’s worth raising a glass of something special to.