Let's imagine we're back in the late 1950s in the Black Forest. We find ourselves in a valley in the Black Forest, just about right in the middle, in the region around the town of Freudenstadt, far away from the big highways and the already halfway-rebuilt big cities that had been bombed-out, during the War. It doesn't take much imagination to realize that it wasn't possible to find Java peppercorns, abelmoschus plants, or cassia bark in every village mom-and-pop store. Coriander, nutmeg, lavender, all of that, to be sure, could be found, and naturally great quantities of juniper from the Swabian Alb plateau, and also angelica, a native plant which grew all over the area. But citrus fruits, on the other hand, were a tall order.
Thus, all of the lore surrounding Montgomery Collins, and the many stories told about him and his special gin always mention the creativity that Collins employed in realizing his dream of creating his very own gin, in that he namely supplemented classic gin botanicals, and to some extent, replaced them with ingredients native to the Black Forest region.
The local distiller who helped him develop his firewater would not have been much help in that regard. This man was a typical Black Forest schnapps distiller, and would not have made distillates from anything else besides cherries, Damask plums, mirabelle plums, apples, pears, or perhaps in a stretch, raspberries. There were by all means, however, people who could send Collins off on the right path: a few women in the village who were well-versed in the knowledge of medicinal herbs and aromatic wild plants. And a Black Forest tradition – preserving spruce shoots in honey – also found its way into Collins's Black Forest Dry Gin.
Thus, for the exceptional, individual, and perhaps somewhat eccentric flavor of our gin, we use a number of ingredients that do not appear in the recipes for historical English gins. Some years ago, Christoph produced distillates that were made with spruce shoots, and which in addition to the typical and unsurprising resin notes also contained quite pronounced limonenes, and thus gave off fresh aromas of citrus. In Austria, such distillates are called “Maiwipfelgeist,” since the spruce shoots emerge in the month of May. In addition to the spruce shoots, we use other essential ingredients that can be found in traditional Black Forest herbal teas, such as blackberry leaves, (mild sweetness), acacia blossoms (very aromatic honey), hawthorn and dried sloes (astringency), elder blossom (crispness) as well as rose hips (vegetable).
But the true Black Forest secret weapon turned out to be my rather coincidental discovery of, and improper application of the properties of the lingonberry.
Once we had reached the point in our experiments where we had a basic canon of about 25 flavoring ingredients, Christoph began to carry out experiments with “pre-macerations” involving lingonberries, which, we hoped, would lead to the results we were seeking. (He could probably do a better job of explaining this – but sometimes it's better not to let him talk for too long! That makes everything easier, and above all, we don't give away all of our secrets!) The whole thing works more or less like this: Long before the rest of the ingredients are added to the maceration, the lingonberries are soaked in alcohol and their aroma is extracted. In this way, the molecular structure of the ethanol changes, and it becomes easier for certain flavorings (particularly within the sweet range) to attach themselves to the molecular structure of the alcohol. The alcohol is, in a manner of speaking, prepared on the molecular-structural level, or processed. This occurs in a cold maceration. Afterward, the other botanicals are added to the maceration. In a complex interplay with the quality of our alcohol and of our ingredients, this process of pre-maceration with lingonberries did indeed represent a decisive advance, and thus in effect, amounted to the “deciphering of the Black Forest DNA code.”
The lingonberry grows over a wide area in the Black Forest, and the plants are found standing close together, near blueberries, in acidic soil, primarily on mountain ridges in the southern Black Forest. As a child growing up in Stuttgart, I participated at least once a year in the annual “berry harvest” – during the obligatory class trip to a scenic lake, either the “Schluchsee” or the “Titisee.” Armed with plastic bags and special harvesting tools known as “lingonberry combs,” whole school classes would set out to collect the essential ingredient needed to make lingonberry preserves at home. Today, of course, this is illegal – both the lingonberry comb, which can damage the plants, and the “organized harvest” of lingonberries, which are a protected plant species.
And although the lingonberry possesses everything, in terms of its aromatic properties, that we would hope to find in a good gin – strong bitter notes, accentuated acidity, subtle fruit – it is not the lingonberry's potential effect on the taste of our gin that is of paramount importance when it comes to our technique of pre-maceration, even if we hear time and again from a few very smart people who “know their way around the world of gin” that they can detect the “very noticeable” taste of lingonberries in our gin. I highly doubt those assertions, and really, we don't use lingonberries to impart their flavor to our gin, but rather in order to bring about the textural changes in its ethanol base, as described above.