Once upon a time, a cricket-loving Wing Commander from the RAF, who grew up in the magical city of Madras and moved to Germany after the War, met a monkey called Max at the Berlin Zoo. He decided (unsuccessfully) to become a watchmaker and finally disappeared into the Black Forest to make gin. It is not a fairy tale – you couldn’t make it up – but rather, the origins of one of the great gins on the planet, Monkey 47.
Wing Commander Montgomery Collins worked with the rebuilding of Germany after the War, which included time at the Berlin Zoo. His favourite animal was an egret monkey, a type of macaque, called Max. After discharge, Monty decided to stay in Germany and build a career as a watchmaker, which failed, so he set up a small guest house in the Black Forest, which was called ‘Zum Wilden Affen’, apparently meaning ‘a wild monkey’ in honour of Max. Being British (and RAF), he did miss good gin, so he had a crack himself. A few bottles resulted.
Years later, long after Monty had left us, the guest house was being refurbished and an old box was discovered. In it, a few bottles of Monty’s gin, labelled ‘Max the Monkey – Schwarzwald Gin’, and the recipe. A recipe which included 47 different botanicals and the pristine waters found in the Black Forest. A number of those botanicals and spices came from Monty’s childhood in Madras.
The current team at Monkey 47 (which has recently been taken over by Pernod Ricard, which should finally ensure better availability) are reputedly the only people in the world who know the recipe – there has been a little tinkering. The result is a cracking gin, but they have not stopped there.
They have a troop of gins (or possibly a cartload, which is apparently the alternate collective noun for a group of monkeys – who knew? And is there a collective noun for gins?), as they engage in endless experiments, some definitely falling into the weird and wonderful category. Who wouldn’t want to try a gin made with Belgian blue mussels (not to be confused with Belgium’s ‘Muscles from Brussels’), Belgian beer and chocolate peppers (a type of pepper from Northern India, which tastes like roasted cocoa)? As well as a delicious Sloe Gin, they are also currently offering the latest from their Barrel Cut program, from mulberry barrels.
Some of the botanicals – half a dozen types of pepper, peel from bitter oranges and lemons, pomelos, something called spruce shoots and lingonberries, cassia, angelica root, honeysuckle, jasmine, lemongrass, nutmeg, rosehip, orris (wasn’t Orris an Egyptian goddess?), bramble leaves, Grains of Paradise, liquorice, hibiscus, dog rose (what???), cloves, Kaffir limes and much more.
After distillation, what will become Monkey 47 is stored in earthenware for three months, then ‘married’ with the local water. It will be bottled, unfiltered, in numbered batches. Bottles are 500ml and brown glass is used to prevent UV damage to the finished product. It is, and here is a shocker, 47% alcohol.
Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin ($90)
Crystal clear (this is why fly-fishermen talk of trout streams being gin-clear), with incredible aromatics. Juniper notes, but also pristine, snow-drenched Scandinavian spruce/pine forest notes (although possibly the Black Forest might have been a better analogy). Spices, florals, lemon notes, orange rind. We are told that lingonberries make a major contribution. Possibly, but I have no idea what a lingonberry looks like, let alone how one tastes. Powerful and very long. Richly flavoured, finely balanced, very complex. Refreshing, almost biting acidity, but it is never intrusive. Despite my misgivings about tipping great spirits into cocktails, hard to imagine a better gin for a great martini. A brilliant gin. 97.
Monkey 47 Schwarzwald ‘Barrel Cut ‘Mulberry’ Dry Gin ($100) –
This has everything that the ‘standard’ offers but is softer, more muted, much more nutty. There is more of a reliance on oak and berry notes here, rather than herbs and citrus. Colour is a brown/gold with flickers of crimson. A lovely, softer style of gin, which retains length, balance and complexity. Delicious. 97.
Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Sloe Gin ($90) –
Sloe, also known as blackthorn (prunus spinosa), which is closely related to plums, was once grown to protect farmers from the gaze of witches. These berries are harvested from the Black Forest after the first frost and then macerated in Monkey 47 for four weeks. The liquid is basically skimmed to remove any sediment and then local water is added to bring the alcohol level back to 29%.
A pale red/brown, this is a very different beast to the others. Dropping from 47% as pure gin, to just 29% as a sloe, obviously imparts a difference in flavour and mouthfeel. Soft berry notes here. Plums with a hint of pepper and smoke. Cherries. Plus licorice and a touch of a very mild chocolate. Cherry liqueur notes. Soft and clean, with really impressive length. Has a delicious Turkish Delight character to it. A joy to drink. Christmassy. 95.