Who Says Three’s a Crowd
Monkeys don’t usually speak German. And, as far as we know, they don’t have a special yen for fermented sugar cane. But anything is possible when it comes to Thailand.
“The number three is a very lucky one of us,” explains Julian Gebhard, the youthful, exuberant, and model-handsome co-founder of the Three Monkeys brand of rum that is quickly become one of the country’s most respected and enjoyed craft products. “Three of us created the brand”—Gebhard, partner in crime Florian Tenhagen, and veteran Austrian schnapps distiller Nikki, of Niikki Pure Spirit in Chiang Mai—“and the number appears in both Thai and English on our label, if you turn it sideways. My first son was born on March 3 and, of course, when we were first testing the rum, we decided the best was batch number three.”
And Thailand, surprisingly, is actually close to number three—apparently number four—in world sugar cane production. So when the two native Berliners, 29 and 31 respectively, with long experience in the hospitality industry, F&B, on cruise ships, and as mixologists (can’t we call them bartenders anymore?), looked around for a way to utilize the best of local growers, they hit on trying to create perfect, small-batch white rum. Too bad, thanks to strict laws controlling a heavily monopolized alcoholic beverages industry, they have to call their brew “Pure Cane Molasses Spirits.”
While produced in monthly batches as small as 600 in the North of Thailand, the headquarters of the burgeoning Three Monkeys empire is not on Sukhumvit 3, but 69/1, in a ramshackle townhouse above a shop house with rainbow-colored awning amidst the burgeoning hipness of Phra Khanong’s W District. The boys from Berlin live upstairs with, yes, a third partner, Julian’s Thai wife and distributor Jan—their young son Jedi makes it four when he isn’t wandering the neighbourhood—and are about to open an informal bar with outdoor seating that will offer numerous unusual brands of world spirits amidst a collection of tchotchkes from world travels, while of course featuring the finest concoctions to be made with Three Monkeys.
Since the first batch in June 2015, the brand has been taken up by such quality-driven venues as Eat Me, Gaggan, and Smalls. Compared to Bacardi, Havana Club, and other industrialized rums, Three Monkeys is smoother and purer—a bit more like a special aquavit infused with hints of caramel. “They have to age theirs in barrels because the initial product is far less spectacular, not from molasses and not as pure and non-toxic as ours,” claims Julian.
Given that foreign rums are also taxed 200 per cent, they thought a local variety might be done for less—and they are sure the special care they put into each bottle will win plenty of new adherents. In addition, they say they are trying to bring human and culinary evolution full circle, as research has shown them sugar cane was actually first cultivated in Southeast Asia 6000 years back—of course, it wasn’t until Columbus hit the West Indies that rum came into being.
In tribute, their elegant label is printed in “Caribbean Blue.” Sketched by a German street artist, the main image is a somewhat wistful ape looking into a mirror—it all began with the concept of “Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil” but the final simian creation stares back with a “Dare-To-Try-Me” look. Around the neck of the monkey is the kind of barrel used by mountain rescue dogs, etched with three X’s (of course).
Are they trying to say that this new alternative will rescue rum drinkers from the mass produced and humdrum? Naturally, aside from their bar, the Monkey gang are planning to end up with, yes, three rums—adding dark and aged varieties.
Competing against huge conglomerates that entice bar owners with package deals, rebates, and free trips, Julian and Florian are devil-may-care Millennials who say, “We’re just looking to have a good life. We’re not expecting or wanting to end up on the Forbes 100 list.” For now, monkeying around in their new bar seems reward enough.
By John Krich