Monkey 47 ‘still an independent distillery’

5th July, 2016 by Tom Bruce-Gardyne

Monkey 47 WEB

‘A herbal garden’

“We wanted to create something multi-dimensional, like a journey through a herbal garden,” he explains. After 150 test distillations, Monkey 47 was launched in May 2010 and within four years it was selling in over 40 markets. Among those who noticed was Alexandre Ricard, whose interest piqued when he was about to become Pernod Ricard’s CEO last February.

The two met and, as Stein recalls: “We had something to eat, and he said ‘I admire your brand because wherever I go, I see your product. You’re just eight people, how do you do it?’. I said ‘It’s simply because it’s a good product’.” Ricard urged him to get in touch if he was ever looking for a partner.

A few weeks later, the Frenchman was telling The Spirits Business and others that his company was “monitoring craft [spirits] very closely”, adding: “We look at [start-ups], obviously, and the question is: can they be scaled up or will be they be limited to an amount of volume?” A year on almost to the day, Pernod and the little Monkey have just sealed the deal, with the French group taking a majority share in the business for an undisclosed sum. Ricard was clearly delighted, saying: “There are moments in life in which you know immediately that you have found a jewel. And Monkey 47 is a jewel, perfectly matching the rising worldwide demand for craft gin with strong local roots.”

But it begs the question: why would a well-funded drinks giant like Pernod need to feed on others’ innovation when surely it could cook up a craft gin by itself? “In every large organisation politics plays a major role,” says Stein, remembering his time at Nokia. “Sometimes the good ideas don’t make it to the top for whatever reason. I don’t think they have a problem being innovative, but in a company that size, managing innovation can be very tricky.”

Yet from Stein’s perspective it sounds pretty risky being a tiny monkey in bed with an elephant the size of Pernod. However much it loves you, might it not roll over in the night and crush you, or accidentally stamp on you in the morning? “No, even under an elephant’s foot, there’s plenty of room to move about,” he laughs, insisting that nothing has really changed.

“It sounds boring. I probably need to brush up my French and travel a bit more to Paris,” he says. “What I love is being in the distillery. I cannot fly round the globe and sell to 60 markets with eight people. That doesn’t work in the long run. What’s very important is that the partner leaves us as an independent distillery. I’m still the brand owner, partially. I’m still a shareholder, and I’m still CEO.”

He was clear about pre-conditions for any deal. “It’s not like we could quadruple production, and we wouldn’t want to,” he says. “It’s about producing in a sustainable way, having organic growth and not destroying something: if you go to bed with a little monkey this is what we can do; this is what we can’t do, and this is what we won’t do. It’s very important to say this prior to negotiating with a partner.”

With Pernod’s de-centralised structure, he believes it’s a good fit and that the French understand what they have taken on. Still, you can’t help wondering if Alexandre Ricard will become frustrated with his new jewel on the issue of scalability. Monkey 47 was originally distilled in a solitary 150-litre still in Upper Hegau near Lake Constance. Last year it moved to a beautiful distillery of its own in the Black Forest, housed in an old farmstead acquired in 2013, 710m above sea level and surrounded by orchards and meadows. Given the brand’s success, the logical next step would have been to scale up to industrial stills, but Stein went the other way and installed four positively pocket-sized stills of just 100 litres each.

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