The Berlin Distillery That Decoded Chartreuse

In the late 1800s the Prussian Spirits Manufactory created—and replicated—over 8,000 recipes. More than a century later, it’s become a key player in the country’s craft spirits boom.

Recently, I glimpsed one of the most closely guarded secrets: a recipe for Chartreuse. The long-yellowed typewritten page was set out on a table in the center of a laboratory with wooden counters and red tiled floors. Blue lab coats hung on a coat rack beside a chalkboard with complicated equations. Hundreds of glass bottles, filled with exotic botanicals, crowded the shelves along one wall, and the formula too included many strange roots, barks and flowers. But when I began to copy them into my notebook, a worker looked my way and said apologetically, “Please don’t write that down.”

I had not infiltrated the French monastery near Grenoble, where Carthusian monks have distilled Chartreuse for more than 200 years. Rather, I was spending an afternoon at the Preussische Spirituosen Manufaktur, or Prussian Spirits Manufactory—a brick distillery in Berlin with a long history of its own.

In 1874, the Preussische Spirituosen Manufaktur was established by the newly unified German state as a spirits research and education center. At the time, northern Germany produced a variety of herbal liqueurs and a grain spirit called Korn, while southern Germany specialized in Obstbrand, or fruit brandy. But none of these products was particularly popular abroad. The Manufaktur was part of a German campaign to compete on the global spirits market against French Cognacs and British gins and whiskies. The resulting products were rarely sold outside Berlin, but the research was shared throughout the country to help distillers improve their craft.

Preussische Spirituosen Manufaktur Distillery Berlin

The scientists at the Manufaktur relied mainly on their noses and taste buds to break down and recreate complex flavors. As part of their research, they sometimes decoded the recipes for popular foreign spirits, like Chartreuse and Drambuie. Over the decades, they wrote up more than 8,000 recipes and stuffed them into folders, to be discovered later by Gerald Schroff and Ulf Stahl upon rebooting the distillery.

In 2005, Stahl crashed into Schroff, then a student in a restaurant-management program, on a ski slope in Austria. Stahl, a professor from the Technical University of Berlin, was interested in resurrecting the Manufaktur, which had fallen into disuse in the 1970s amid the economic malaise of a divided Berlin. Following their encounter, the two shared drinks at the lodge, and Schroff revealed that he’d been distilling Obstbrand since he was five, working alongside his grandfather in the Black Forest. Soon after, Stahl invited Schroff to Berlin.

The Manufaktur was practically a ruin when they began. Schroff thought the windows were a milky glass until he cleaned them with a razor. “It was ethereal oil built up over 150 years,” he says. Today, their small team of distillers isn’t in the business of reproducing spirits—though Schroff says they could replicate Coca-Cola in a few hours if set to the task—but rather inventing their own. In doing so, they’ve helped to lead Germany’s craft distilling revival. “If you are a bartender and you want to know anything about these funny liquids you work with, there is no better place to visit than the Preussische Spirituosen Manufaktur,” says Oliver Ebert, whose Berlin bar, Becketts Kopf, specializes in mixing cocktails from German spirits. “You can see and learn how liquors and distillates were made in the old days and what craft really means.”

Preussische Spirituosen Manufaktur Distillery Berlin

Schroff and Stahl’s first project was a simple one: They wanted to modernize the Manufaktur’s very first product, Adler gin. Schroff and Stahl made a few tweaks—amping up the juniper, adding lemon peel and orange blossom for freshness—and in 2006, they took it to market. “I went from one hotel to another, and people said, ‘German gin? Are you crazy?’” Schroff says. The gin proved popular; it’s the Manufaktur’s best-selling spirit, and has been credited as the first in a recent wave of national gins.

Today, working with copper stills from the 1920s and ’50s, the Manufaktur has revived the Berlin pastime of liqueur making, producing flavors like cacao, galangal, egg and woodruff, as well as fruit brandies from sloe berries, mirabelle plums and sour cherries. Among the Manufaktur’s complex herbal spirits are Magenbitter and Danziger Goldwasser, which taste like top-shelf varieties of Jägermeister and Goldschläger. In the spirit of the original distillery, Schroff and Stahl have set up an apprentice program for young distillers; they work for three years while earning a master’s degree.

Schroff keeps the last surviving bottle of Adler gin from 1874 on a shelf in his office. On its label, I observed a fearsome Prussian eagle, the sort of iconography that disappeared after World War II. The bottle was half-empty and, like the coveted Chartreuse recipe, its contents inspired a desire for more knowledge than would be permitted. Schroff swore, however, that neither he nor anybody else had ever tried a sip. “That is the angel’s share of 140 years,” says Schroff. The missing gin was simply lost to time.

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Ben Crair is a writer based in Berlin. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic and Bloomberg Businessweek