As we gear up for the inaugural Junipalooza Hamburg we've been catching up with some of the most interesting, delicious and renowned German gin brands to get you up close and personal ahead of time.
We took some time out to chat to Sebastian Müller of MÜLLER Pot Stillsa 4th generation German still manufacturer who, fortunately for us, has a better idea than almost anyone else of just how much distilling is taking place in his home country.
For those who don't know who you are and Müller Brennereianlagen, can you tell us a little about what you do and the stills you make?
Müller Brennereianlagen is a pot still manufactures in its 4th generation. We are a family business with my parents, my brother and I, as well as 12 employees. We're located in the black forest in Germany, an area which is known for its big distilling tradition especially for fruit brandies like "black forest cherry" "plums" or "Williams pear". With around 15.000 stills in the area it might be the region with the largest "distillers population" worldwide.
Fifteen thousand stills is a lot of copper! Did you guys pursue a specific angle to cater to that market?
As mashing and distilling fruits is one of the most challenging aspects of making many of these traditional products, we have been focusing with our stills on technical improvements to extract as much flavor as possible out of the mash. With this mission in mind we developed special columns like the aRoMat and our unique rectification plates alongside other technical elements to increase performance.
When I think back to the old days when my grandfather was still the boss at Müller Brennereianlagen we sold our stills almost exclusively regionally. Of course we also already had a few customers in Italy, Austria and Switzerland as well, but that's about it. Nowadays we are a global player in the distilling business. Our stills can be found from Australia to the Europe, from Iceland to Argentina. We got successful customers in Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, French Polynesia, Canada the USA. No matter this worldwide success we are still a manufactory where all stills are handcrafted and hand hammered while each unit is individually planned and built accordingly to the customer's wishes as well as the spatial conditions. All starts with copper and stainless steel plates and after about 2-3 weeks with hammering, welding, polishing and many other steps and new still is build.
Surely by smashing it all by hand, it limits the capacity a little, do you have to focus on the smaller units?
To a certain extent, yes. Given the company size and the fact that everything is handmade we are focusing on pot stills from 100 - 2.000 liters capacity.
As you've mentioned, Schnapps and distilling fruit brandies is where the bulk of German distilling heritage is based. Has there been a big adoption by a new generation of distillers looking to do something a little more modern and make things like Gin, or is it still very much about the old school Eau De Vie style products?
Yes, the German distillers also realised that there is a big interest in the craft distilling scene. Especially Gin and Whiskey are becoming more and more famous and there are some quite interesting products on the market now. Some are playing with their farming background by adding not only botanicals but also fresh and dried fruits or blossoms. Gin is still no where as big as it is in the UK for example. Here they are often implementing their Gin as an extension to their existing product range rather than focusing on just that as a category.
Are you seeing a shift away from it being farmers and to a certain extent "hobby" distillers?
Unfortunately distilling often plays only a smaller role in the farmer's world, as growing fruits is very time consuming itself where their "distilling season" is then the autumn and winter time. However there are more smaller to medium size craft distilleries opening in Germany at the moment and with the younger generations the focus is changing quite a lot. Many are producing great and unique products of high quality. There's a growing understanding that investing in marketing and having a sales strategy is becoming more important too. This is particularly important as you have to work hard on those areas when the quantity of your competition is as intense as it is here.
What's been the biggest shift for Müller Brennereianlagen as still makers in this new era of "craft distilleries" compared to what you were doing 10 years ago?
The biggest difference is that the stills are becoming bigger. 10 years ago our main customers have been in Germany and the max capacity allowed by law was 150 liters only. Over time our standard sizes became 230, 350 and 500 liters. Those stills are then also equipped with more features like, CIP pumps, discharge pumps, automatic distilling control panel and much more. Back then, we would make 1-2 stills a week 10 years ago. We now often need 2-3 weeks as the stills are becoming more complex.
Also the look of the setup is a very important factor as well. Some want to have special shaped heads, some prefer a fully automated still. The still is not only a production device it is also an important part of the story, marketing and the customer experience.
Interesting that the shape of the still isn't just about flavor and performance for some, it's got to look good! Do you think the way that spirits are perceived in Germany is different to elsewhere in Europe?
In Germany a distillate is something you usually drink after a nice dinner. Distillates come in so many different varieties. Cherries, plums, pear all kinds of sorted apples and specialities like berries, apricot and many more. As being a judge at the local "Baden Best Spirits Award" I'm getting the full load of what's possible once a year - that's an amazing experience.
We drink our spirits in a nice spirit glass, on room temperature and you enjoy it pure. In the southern part of Germany we drink fruit distillates in the northern parts it's more the "Korn", "Doppelkorn" or Aquavite. Doppelkorn" or Aquavite.
I would love that the Germany would drink a bit more "local" when it comes to Gin for example. When I'm traveling and I'm going into a bar I can often only find the mainstream big brands. So we do all we can do to push the craft distilling scene to make that change.
I really like how it is handled and pushed in The UK or Australia. It would be great to have an organization like Gin Foundry in Germany as well to push that a bit.
We're trying! The Baden Best looks like a massive challenge, we're not even sure where you find tables that can handle 3100 spirits on them! What do you think the biggest challenge facing the craft distilling industry in Germany is?
It can be so hard to get into the distilling business in Germany. We have this special law which in principle only allows producing alcohol when you have an agricultural background. You need to have either your own fruits or grain. If you don't grow your own raw material you need to get a "closed system". That's a still, that is completely sealed. Imagine this - almost every screw needs to be sealed - and as we are Germans and our government does not trust us - it even needs to be double sealed, for example with a glass house build around the still! That makes it so complicated and expensive that most won't even start to open a distillery. The only thing that can be done quite easily is refining spirits (or rectifying as it is known in the Uk) like doing a gin or a flavoured vodka. That's a little easier to get a license there...
There's a lot of talk about saturation and when there will be too many makers, but the UK is so small as an industry compared to Germany. If you had to estimate how many stills there were (not just yours!) active across the country - how many do you think there are?
There are around 23,000 stills in Germany. Most of them in southern Germany. We used to have around 45,000 stills in 1945.
Well that a ridiculous statistic, we're no where near 10% that in the UK! New distilling techniques are emerging all the time. Are you having to keep up with this and are you looking at ways to create new stills or new ways of running it to incorporate new technology?
Oh yeah definitely, we are doing a lot on this side. We invented some quite unique column systems like the reverse plate, the patented aRoMat and many other thinks. For example the aRoMat is a copper spiral which forms a 10-meter-long path, guarantees a steady reflux of unwanted components while higher boiling alcohols and flavors evaporate get added to the rising steam. Compared to plates, where you got several different temperature steps, we can reach a continues exchange between wanted and unwanted components within the spiral while fusel alcohols constantly flow back into the pot and the aroma ends up in the parrot.
Last but not least - Have you got a favourite gin that's your go to and what's your preferred way of drinking it...?!
That's a hard question. I especially like the variety in the different gins there. I think I'm more on the "classic side". I prefer Juniper forward with some nice little twists. I like the Hepple Gin for example or the Patient Wolfas I was also a little bit involved in the recipe development while we did the first runs on the new still together. But I sometimes also like gins that are a bit fancier like Poor Toms. I prefer my Gin pure, on ice or as a classic G&T.