The Empress, The Monkey, The Elephant and The Tiger: An Enchanted Cult Gin Quartet
Deep in the juniper jungles of gin country, broaching the borders of the known map of gin flavors, live the treasures only known as the cult gins. The intrepid gin-splorers who ventrue to lift the veil of mystery surrounding these mystic bottles are often rewarded with some of the most flavorful and unique gins out there.
After spending a month spelunking through gin history and demystifying the oft misunderstood spirit, we venture to these far reaches of gin-ography, to shine a light on a few of our favorite cult gins.
Most people discover The Empress 1908 Gin because its striking look. The deep blue bottle just doesn’t look like any other gin out there. Then they find out that this blue gin has a trick up its sleeve - it’s a magical color changing gin! So -- what? Why? How?
This eye catching gin is made in Sydney, BC for Victoria’s Empress Hotel. This old hotel, with its luxurious reputation is in part known for their meticulous dedication to the proper serving of teas. Victoria Distillers set out to make a perfectly matched gin for the hotel’s queally meticulous bar. In this endeavor they distilled their way though many tea blends, arriving at a black tea combination that stood up perfectly with other gin flavors. Along the way in this great gin-tea search, they came across Butterfly Pea, a plant with a remarkable property similar to a litmus test. When this plant’s pigment is submerged in a more acidic environment, it changes colors from blue to violet. This turned out to be quite the fun property for a gin, a spirit often partnered with more acidic mixers.
Given its color, many first time sippers expect the gin to have a syrupy or even artificial flavor - but nothing could be further from the truth. This gin is a perfectly executed London Dry style gin with floral flourishes. The sweeter notes are subtle and come mostly on the nose, and the flavor comes with spice, juniper and grapefruit peel. Think of this gin’s taste as a suave date: greeting you with flowers, then confidently showing off it’s crisp quality and leaving you with just a small flower to remember it by. We’ve loved seeing how many people first buy the Empress for the color, but then are won over by its refined flavor.
Probably the most often spotted of the cult gins, Monkey 47 caught the eye of gin hunters with its telltale cork sealed apothecary bottle with postage-like depiction of a monkey. Deeply rooted in the botanicals of the Schwarzwald (or The Black Forest region of Germany), this gin has a history to match its forest of 47 flavors. The titular monkey belonged to the pioneer of Schwarzwald Dry Gin, Wing Commander Montgomery “Monty” Collins of the Royal Air Force: a World War II british officer who helped restore the Berlin Zoo, had a penchant for watch making and ended up settling as a distiller and innkeeper in The Black Forest.
During his time restoring the Berlin Zoo, Collins sponsored a egret monkey named Max and the simian’s friendship seemingly left its paw print on him: when Collins left Berlin for The Black Forest and opened his guesthouse, he christened it “The Wild Monkey.” Within this eponymous guest house, Collins married his love of London Dry gin (he was a british military man after all!) to the region’s expertise of making fruit brandies. He named this louder, local botanical laced version of gin The Schwarzwald Dry Gin.
Later in his years, Collins stopped producing his unique gin and its recipe was lost with his passing. However, the gin-resurgence was on the horizon and it was only a matter of time before someone tried to recreate the commander’s legendary gin. In the later 2000s, it took a newly minted Black Forest partnership two years to come with a perfected recipe that used Collins’s notes as a guide. Stein and Keller, the team behind Monkey 47, have quite the attention to detail with little reverence for convention: the resulting gin is based on a molasses spirit and contains (at least) 47 mostly Black Forest botanicals.
Sadly we can’t compare their version to the commander’s original, but by all accounts, it seems that they captured its wild spirit. And if their obsession with extracting as much flavor as possible from their favorite botanicals is telling, the modern revived monkey is probably an even louder gin then the original was.
So what does it taste like? This is easily one of the most complex gins out there. The nose especially makes this clear. The 47 botanicals are an ever evolving olfactory adventure - in turns citrus-y, floral, herbal or piney. The taste is rich with citrus, juniper, hibiscus, lingonberries, rosemary… this could go on for quite a while. It’s not that you’re tasting all 47 botanicals in the gin (like in any good recipe that is more than the sum of its parts, many of them are there for supporting reasons and are not individually discernible) - but the gin is complex enough that the particular rabbit hole your palate takes you through can vary a bit depending on your own state. So to be a bit more general, it seems more universal that for most tasters the gin starts off lightly with a minty-citrus, bursts open with floral and fruity notes and waves goodbye with herbal and vegetal flavors. There is really nothing else like it.
The Elephant gin, with its seemingly familiar ‘animal-on-a-postage-stamp-like-label’ might seem like a familiar Monkey 47 relative --- but it’s a whole other, well... animal. This gin hews much closer to a traditional London Dry, but it’s made in Germany and is largely inspired by African flavors. Quite a globe trotting endeavor.
The producers of Elephant gin has a mission to make a product that would enshrine their love of African flavors while using its proceeds for a mutual good. Fittingly, Elephant gin goes on to benefit elephant conservation. From each bottle, 15% of the proceeds go to several foundations with a proven record of benefiting african elephant populations (Space for Elephants Foundation, Big Life Foundation, and The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust).
A quality product that is genuinely unique and with an honorable mission isn’t all that common. So what makes Elephant gin work? Fourteen carefully chosen botanicals walk a high wire act to create a traditional London Dry environment that can highlight a few more subtle but fresh notes. On the more traditonal side of the blend are juniper, cassia bark and orange peel that are supported by more creative botanicals like elderflower, pimento, apples, allspice and lavender. But the gin gets it’s African flavors from Baobab fruit, blackcurrant-like Buchu and African wormwood among others.
The result is warm noted dry gin that presents very traditional at first, with pine and light floral tones, but emerges as more vegetal and earthy as the sip goes on. It’s an exemplary gin for fans of sipping London Dry gins, but is also perfectly suited for a Gin and Tonic, and even most traditional, gin-forward cocktails.
Malacca is gin that maybe best inhabits the cult title - an uncommon gin that wasn’t appreciated when it first premiered, too ahead of its time. Too ahead - but also quite old. Malacca was first brought to the modern market in the 1990s, but the recipe (or at least a close version of it) goes back to 1830s to Charles Tanqueray himself. Concocted before the advent of the column still and the subsequent London Dry style of gin, the style of the Malacca has the somewhat sweeter quality common to gins made in England at the time.
In the 1990s, when the modern gin resurgence was just getting off the ground, Tanqueray took a chance with this radically different gin. They were trying to fill the gap left by the dominance of London Dry but it turned out that the average gin consumer at that the time was not yet ready for such a product, to them London Dry WAS gin, and it was quickly discontinued. But those who discovered Malacca at the time told its story. Bartenders experimenting with older and newer recipes got thirsty for all kinds of gins, but chief among them the Old Tom style of gins. These sweeter gins predated the London Dry, and so many older recipes (like The Martinez) couldn’t be properly recreated without them. If the Malacca was introduced just a few years later, it very well may have been a huge success.
Years later, public demand and the by-then wider availability of less conventional gins convinced Tanqueray to bring the Malacca back for a limited run. This time it got the warm reception it deserved.
Now Malacca has been released again, and we’ve been so happy to sip some. Here’s what it’s like: as we already noted, the Malacca is nothing like a standard dry Tanqueray gin. It’s more mellow and more sweet. There is a nice balance of spice and grapefruit. It really stands out on the finish - a blend of creamy vanilla, nutmeg and clove shine along with the juniper.