Berlin Dry Gin Emerges from the Shadow of London

London dry has long been the headliner of the gin category, but a recent crop of German gins has emerged from the shadow of the Empire.

When EU lawmakers adopted a new code of spirit regulations in 2009, they gave official recognition to a fact that the world has known for years: London is the capital of gin. The great juniper spirit may be able to trace its distant origins back to genever in the Netherlands, but it has become so indelibly associated with the English capital over the past two centuries that, in the present annals of European law, the highest grade of gin is designated as “London Dry.”

A London Dry is characterized by the grade of its base spirit, the method of distillation and the lack of sweetening or coloring agents; it does not, however, need to be produced anywhere close to London. While several active distilleries can still be found within the city, it is just as likely that your bottle of “London Dry” was distilled in Scotland, the Netherlands, Austria or Illinois. But the long shadow of London is present in both the name and the packaging. Some gins, such as Kensington or Finsbury, will evoke the city obliquely by referring to a particular borough or neighborhood. Others—including Brokers, with its image of a bowler-hatted gentleman—will either draw upon the city’s historical iconography or simply borrow heavily from the type design and color scheme of the classic Gordon’s bottle.

The past decade, however, has seen a new crop of gins that are attempting to distance themselves from the trappings of Englishness, choosing instead to celebrate the locality of their production. In the United States, where the designation of “London” has no legal bearing, Portland’s Aviation American Gin has severed its ties with the Empire by referring to itself simply as American gin; and in California, St. George Spirits—while referencing England’s patron saint in its name—has focussed on local botanicals in order to create blends that are particular to its region.

This trend is also increasingly visible in Europe, where the identity of the gin has long been inseparable from England. Germany, in the latter part of the 20th century, did not have a notable legacy of gin production, and the few gins that were made there tended to hide behind the visual identity of London. But while consumers might have balked at the idea of a “German gin” two decades ago, the past few years have seen the introduction of new products from Berlin, Munich and even the Black Forest, for which London is a distant memory. And as the idea of regional gins have become more popular around the world, two gins from Berlin have adopted different approaches to the challenge of infusing their spirits with a unique sense of place.

Preussische Spirituosen Manufaktur, which translates roughly as “Prussian Spirit Producers”—although the German word Manufaktur suggests something more intimate and handcrafted—sits in an unassuming old light-industrial building on the edge of Wedding, a residential borough just to the north of central Berlin.

Although PSM was only founded a decade ago, its equipment and expertise were inherited from a 19th-century society for spirit production that folded in 2001. As early as 1874, that company had started to produce a gin branded with the familiar eagle (eagle is Adler in German) that had long been the symbol of the Prussian ruling dynasty. By the dawn of the 21st century, gin production in Germany had grown largely dormant but, in 2005, the newly established PSM decided to bring Adler back—this time, however, it would be branded as a Berlin Dry Gin.

His idea was to make a gin that drew heavily on botanicals native to Berlin. Although juniper would remain dominant, he began to experiment with different combinations of local wildflowers. One of the flowers he chose was Waldmeister, which, in syrup form, is well known to all Berliners as one the principal flavors of Berliner Weisse, a sweetened beer that remains popular throughout the city. For Honrodt, the point of a Berlin Dry Gin was to “taste a little bit of Berlin.”

“I love London,” says PSM co-founder Gerald Schroff as we try a sample of Adler gin in a wood-panelled tasting room, “but this is produced in Berlin.” The gin has an appealing smoothness and an intriguing balance of spicy and floral notes that set it immediately apart from its more famous English cousins. However, Schroff seems proud, not merely of the quality of his product, but also of the local legacy it represents. The distilling room of PSM, a strangely beautiful tangle of pipes, pressure valves and giant copper vessels, contains machinery that has been in continuous use for over a century; and it was in these rooms, with their meticulously arranged herb jars and glass bottles, that many of Germany’s greatest distillers either taught or learned their craft.

The equipment and tradition inherited by PSM are used to produce a variety of different spirits. In addition to gin, they manufacture a vodka, a dark herbal liqueur (imagine a sippable Jägermeister) and a wide range of schnapps. But while flavored spirits are an established part of German drinking culture, gin has traditionally belonged to England. And even though Adler is distilled to the standard of a London Dry, both the recipe—it is based on a formula from one of Berlin’s master distillers of the 1950s and ’60s—and the heritage of the distillery itself make it a product deeply rooted in the city of Berlin. The idea of trying to market it as anything other than a Berlin Dry Gin simply did not make much sense.

For PSM, the association of their gin with Berlin was born of a desire to preserve and celebrate a part of the city’s history. Somewhat surprisingly, it ended up paving the way for a surge in smaller-scale gin production in Germany. The Duke, which bills itself as a Munich Dry Gin, and Monkey 47 from the Schwarzwald, or Black Forest, have both used regional production as a key element of their identity. However, for Vincent Honrodt—the founder of Berliner Brandstifter, which launched its own Berlin Dry Gin last year—the path to local gin was very different.

Honrodt, who is not a distiller by training, but grew up with the local homemade spirits of his grandparents’ generation, started his company with the idea of producing an upmarket version of Kornbrand, a traditionally downmarket German spirit with a passing resemblance to vodka. The challenge with Kornbrand was to transform a product with a reputation for being cheap into something that would sit comfortably in a middle class liquor cabinet. The strategy—which involved a pleasingly minimal bottle design and an emphasis on high-quality local production—worked, and his Kornbrand sales started to grow.

From there, gin seemed the next logical step. His idea was to make a gin that drew heavily on botanicals native to Berlin. Although juniper would remain dominant, he began to experiment with different combinations of local wildflowers. One of the flowers he chose was Waldmeister, which, in syrup form, is well known to all Berliners as one the principal flavors of Berliner Weisse, a sweetened beer that remains popular throughout the city. For Honrodt, the point of a Berlin Dry Gin was to “taste a little bit of Berlin.”

These developments in local production, however, show little sign of unseating London as the capital of gin. The English capital remains home to numerous boutique distillers, the headquarters for several major spirits companies, and a constant presence in the marketing and identity of gins around the world. Yet in today’s global marketplace—where a supermarket in Berlin and a big-box wine and spirits shop in an American suburb will yield predictable bottles of the same famous brands—the regional availability of these local gins can offer the discerning traveller a welcome and unexpected window onto the spirit of a particular place.

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