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This German Distiller Is Leaning on His Tech Resume to Rethink Gin Production

Alexander Stein found himself at a crossroads in the Motor City. The 35-year-old German was in Detroit working for Nokia, where he helped steer auto-focused projects for the Finnish phone manufacturer. A new adventure beckoned.

Almost overnight, Stein gave up smartphones for spirits. He soon found himself meandering through Germany’s famed Black Forest on an unlikely quest: He wanted to produce the perfect handcrafted gin. Helpfully, liquor distilling was in his blood. Stein’s father and grandfather produced German brandy.

But Stein had never worked in the industry. After his decade-long stint at Nokia, he soon began to collaborate with distiller Christoph Keller to compose a new gin—performing 120 test cycles over the course of six months. Finally settling on a single recipe, they spent an additional year refining it.

“I thought, That’s my gin,” Stein says. “It is my interpretation of what a gin should taste like.”

Called Monkey 47, the dry gin is now beloved by swanky bartenders and has become one of the more popular brands fueling a burgeoning craft- spirits industry that is following in the footsteps of craft brewing. Its success prompted Pernod Ricard, the French beverage giant, to buy a majority stake in the company a year ago.

“Everything is different about Monkey 47. Everything,” says Pernod Ricard CEO Alexandre Ricard, who is also the grandson of a distiller. “And Alexander Stein—he’s different.”

The “47” in Monkey 47 alludes to the exact number of botanicals in the liquid, including classics like juniper and coriander and more unusual Black Forest–based notes, like lingonberries and spruce. Most gins use about a dozen botanicals.

While vodka is traditionally odorless and whiskey gets flavoring from aging in wood barrels, gin finds its flavor from the distillation process. “When you develop liquor, either you want to produce alcohol or an aroma,” Stein says.

Stein’s work at Nokia provided a sound base for the Monkey 47 formula. “When you work on a project [in tech], you develop without rushing things and focus on quality,” he says.

Courtesy of Monkey 47
Courtesy of Monkey 47

The distillery in which Stein makes Monkey 47 also contributes to the gin’s unique profile. Built in the Black Forest, home to 28,000 micro-distilleries, the facility makes use of unusually small stills—just 100 liters of capacity, about one-tenth the size of a standard still.

The smaller size reduces percolation—the part of the gin distillation process that extracts aromas and flavors from botanicals—by one-sixth. But less distilling time doesn’t mean fewer flavors; the botanicals lose their aroma after about 40 minutes as it is.

“If you cook for 1,000 people, it won’t be as good as cooking for four,” Stein explains. Monkey 47 also prepares all ingredients on site—employees peel fruits and prep lavender by hand—justifying the “handcrafted” tag.

Monkey 47’s process combines ancient traditions with modern tech as well. While the maceration and distillation aren’t revolutionary, the third step gets a tech jolt. For percolation, Stein forces alcohol vapors to go through plant material like lavender in two different spots of the still.

Stein explains, “It is like an orchestra. You need to make sure everything is harmonic.”

A version of this article appears in the February 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Next Gin.”