In a field in the west of Germany, a farmer surveys his land. The neatly ploughed earth, which he has worked hard to transform from its original, rough stony state to perfectly fertile furrows, stretches in front him. Further off, the fields give way to forests and gentle hills, with the turrets of ancient castle just visible in the distance.
Deep below, in the rich, dark, volcanic mud lies little nuggets of treasure, biding their time until the farmer decides to release them into the sunlight. These small wonders might have a lightly golden hue, but they are not gold. They are in fact, potatoes. And what makes them so special is that they are destined not for the kitchen or supermarket shelves, but for a much higher purpose – the making of gin!
Indeed, the whole concept for Windspiel Premium Dry Gin, our May Gin of the Month, sprang from these little potatoes – and from the creativity, imagination and persistence of a group of friends.
A SIMPLE DREAM
Sandra Wimmeler, Denis Lönnendonker and Tobias Schwoll – now collectively known as the Windspiels – had already known each other for some time before the seed that would one day grow into their distillery was planted.
Tobias and Sandra had met through Tobias’ wife and Sandra’s boyfriend, and Denis worked at the same company as Sandra. Despite having different backgrounds, though, Sandra explains “We had one dream.” That dream was to find a way to be in charge of their own destinies, to create a company and a product they could be proud of. As Sandra puts it “We were all looking for an autonomous lifestyle, free of all constraints.”
It was this urge that, in 2008, led the three to buy the Weilerhof farm, in the picturesque village of Berlingen in the Volcanic Eifel region of western Germany, not far from the Belgian border.
“The owner, old Mr. Weiler, didn’t have a successor and wanted to sell the farm, “explains Tobias, “so we decided that this could be the place where our dreams and visions could come true and bought it.”
Tobias “always wanted to become a farmer” and had studied agriculture at university, so for him, the purchase of Weilerhof brought what he calls his “dream job”. His love of the farm and of his work there is evident. He describes the location as “calm – you can listen to the singing of the birds, the blowing of the wind.” He continues, “I love the new challenges from day to day – every single day is so different that you can’t compare it to another one”.
To begin with, the team grew Miscanthus, commonly known as Elephant Grass, which is a high-yielding energy crop used to create biofuel – and which fulfilled their own energy needs on the farm. But Tobias harboured a dream of growing potatoes – that traditional German staple – something that was actually harder than it may sound, given the soil conditions.
Tobias explains that being situated in the Volcanic Eifel region means the farm is “surrounded by a lot of active volcanos. After their eruption many years ago, the lava spread over the whole Eifel and you can find it on the ground nearly everywhere. The red stones don’t make my work easier, but they form the special character of this region. So every harvest, I also harvest lava stones together with the potatoes. That means a lot of work, but they also make our potatoes so special.”
For a few years, the Windspiels enjoyed the fruits of Tobias’ labour, eating the potatoes in traditional Eifel dishes and often accompanying them with a glass of their favourite tipple – gin. Then one day, inspiration struck Denis.
“We were enjoying a glass of gin and the idea of producing our own gin came into my mind,” he remembers. “Why not making a gin out of our potatoes instead of the usual grain? Ok, at first it seemed like a crazy idea, but it didn’t leave my mind.”
FROM DREAM TO REALITY
Having convinced his friends of the possibility of the idea, the next step was to find someone with the practical knowledge to help make the dream a reality. Sandra explains “Denis had this vision of producing a gin based on potatoes. This is not usual, so it was of course not easy to find someone who has the knowledge and the distilling ability to produce alcohol out of potatoes.”
After some extensive research, the team found experienced master distiller, Holger Borchers. “At first he was a bit sceptical, but then our enthusiasm skipped over to him.”
Inspired with this enthusiasm, over many months Holger and the team gradually perfected the technique of creating the potato base spirit.
“After Tobias harvests the potatoes they go to Holger,” Sandra tells us. “At first, they are gently ground up and mixed with drinking water. This mash is then carefully heated to trigger the very important conversion from potato into sugar. After heating, the mash is slowly cooled and then mixed with a specially bred yeast. This yeast then sets off another conversion, that of sugar into potato alcohol.
“Then Holger distils off the alcohol-rich mash with the first firing. Then he fires it a second time to separate off all the unwanted substances. What makes our gin so special is the third distillation. It is this process that gives the potato flavour its unmistakably mild and subtle character.”
The next step in the creation of the gin was deciding on the perfect botanical mix. “Our aim was always to make a real classical, traditional London Dry Gin,” Denis explains. “Sophisticated and also down-to-earth. So it was clear to us that we didn’t want to use too many botanicals. So our choice fell on the main and really characteristic ones.”
Juniper berries, lemon zest, coriander, lavender blossoms, ginger, cinnamon and a few other hand-picked ingredients (selected according to a top secret formula) are individually soaked in alcohol for several days or several weeks, so that the extremely delicate aromas can fully develop with lasting effect. They are then all individually distilled, little by little, and then stored once more for another few weeks. Only then are the various distillates combined.
At the so-called ‘marriage’, the potato alcohol is blended with distillates of the botanicals. After a short storage period, the alcoholic strength of the drink is reduced to achieve the perfect result.
This result, as you are about to discover dear Gin Clubber, is an incredibly smooth, balanced gin, with fruity, herbal and woody notes, along with the distinctive juniper of a classic London Dry.
ECHOES OF GREATNESS
So what, you may ask, is the link between this very special gin and the greyhound that adorns the label? The answer, perhaps unexpectedly, lies with Frederick the Great – renowned military strategist and the King of Prussia between 1740 and 1786.
As well winning many famous military victories, Frederick the Great was also responsible for introducing the potato to Germany. He also had a passion for Italian Greyhounds – which in German are known as ‘Windspiels’. For dog-lover Sandra, the connection was the perfect basis for both the gin’s name and the branding.
Windspiel’s packaging has in fact recently won them a German Design Award, “something we never imagined two years ago and what makes us really proud and happy,” says Denis. Like everything about the gin, the packaging is very carefully thought out. It makes use of natural materials – from the paper of the label to the Portuguese cork. Then of course there’s the unique golden ring and the cord that makes the bottle feel really special.
This care and seriousness in evidence when it comes to perfecting their product is, however, combined with a great sense of humour and fun – just check out some of the videos on Windspiel’s website to get a sense of this.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Sandra admits. “We love what we are doing and enjoy living in the countryside. But of course we are no classical farmers; I wear wellingtons with dresses!”
Their gin perfected, the Windspiels began working on new projects and products to complement it. First, came the Windspiel Tonic Water. “It was always quite difficult for us to find the suitable tonic,” explains Deins, “one that would bolster the gin and not weaken it. That’s why we decided to create our own one. We wanted a refreshing and strong one with a pleasant hint of bitterness.”
Sandra continues “It was particularly important to us that it contained natural mineral water from the abundant springs of the Eifel. With carbon dioxide, also from the Eifel as well as lemon and quinine flavours, the tonic is the perfect partner for the gin.”
Next came the truffles, a combination of creamy white chocolate with a gorgeous Windspiel gin cream inside, which, Denis tells us, came about by coincidence. “We met master confectioner Stephan Raab several years before, because we love the cakes, chocolates and truffles in his confectioners so much. One day we talked to him about our gin idea. Whereas many just thought we were crazy, his eyes lit up. He was immediately taken with our vision and designed us our own gin truffle.”
Then, of course there is the Reserved Gin, which is aged in oak barrels to develop a smooth, round taste and provides a whole different gin-drinking experience. And most recently, the team have created their barrel-aged vodka.
“Our vodka is very special,” Sandra tells us. “It is also based on potatoes and distilled several times. Since we wanted a characteristic potato aroma we chose a very special, starchy potato variety called Pirol.
“We harvested them last year and, after they were distilled, the alcohol rested in ash barrels for several months. We chose ash because it supports the character of the potato best and doesn’t add too many aromas to the vodka, as for example oak does.”
The gin has already picked up several gongs at a number of German and international spirits competitions, including the prestigious World Spirits Awards and International Wine & Spirits Competition. While the team are rightly proud of these achievements, Sandra says that the most important thing for them is seeing the gin achieve success with drinkers.
“When we see our gin during travels in several cities in famous bars or hotels, there’s just this ‘wow’ feeling,” she says. “That makes us so proud and happy. It shows us that our way was the right one.”
We’re sure, as you taste your first special sip of Windspiel Premium Dry Gin, you’ll agree that they’ve certainly found the right way – and some. Prost!