Gin Sul

In der Destillerie.

We report on Stephan Garbe, the Altona spirits manufactory and the Gin Sul produced there. A wonderful Portuguese gin from Hamburg.

Stephan Garbe.
Stephan Garbe. [18]

The story of Gin Sul is the story of Stephan Garbe, born and raised in Hamburg. [3] [4] [5] After graduating from high school, he worked in the advertising industry and eventually opened his own advertising agency, Shipyard, in the Schanze. [5] [8] Although the advertising industry is very interesting and varied, one day he realised that the subject no longer filled him. He describes that it felt like stepping out of your body and seeing yourself “sitting in a meeting room with these vertical lamellas, sticky biscuits and warm apple juice … and thinking: Boah! I’ve had that meeting before, it was just a different year, a different client and a different topic. – And that’s the moment when you also have to be honest with yourself: ok, maybe I need to do something different.”  – “wie du in einem Meetingraum sitzt, mit so Senkrechtlamellen, pappigen Keksen und warmen Apfelsaft … und denkst: Boah! Dieses Meeting hatte ich schon mal, es war bloß ein anderes Jahr, ein anderer Kunde und ein anderes Thema. – Und das ist der Moment, wo man auch zu sich selber ehrlich sein muß: ok, vielleicht muß ich mal was anderes machen.” At the same time, he also disliked that he had no time for his children. It was not possible to spend time with them and get to know them. [5] [15] [16] So the desire arose in him to do something else, even if he did not yet know what exactly it should be. [5] In 2009, he sold his agency. [8] [16] He was subsequently persuaded to work in the advertising industry once again, but from today’s point of view this was a mistake. [16] His wife supported him in his decision to change jobs, and so he was often able to be in Portugal to clear his head and think about what he would like to do. [5]

In Portugal

He went to Portugal because he had a close connection to Portugal and the country had become his second home at an early age. This connection developed through his son, who went to kindergarten with a half-Portuguese, and with whose father a friendship developed. Today, he is Stephen’s best friend. His parents, who live near Lisbon, were visited, and so Stephan was able to experience the country not as a tourist, but – as he puts it – “from the wax blanket at the kitchen table“. This is how an almost familial bond to Portugal developed. [3] [5] [6]

He commuted between Hamburg and southern Portugal and started learning Portuguese. [3]

Cistus ladanifer and juniper on the steep cliffs.
Cistus ladanifer and juniper on the steep cliffs. [18]

Stephan has been hiking a lot on the cliffs in southwest Portugal. [4] The rugged Atlantic coast is beautiful [3] and the whole of the western Algarve smells of cistus. The scent of its resin mingles with the salty sea breeze and the scent of the juniper bushes on the cliffs to create a wonderful aroma. [2] [4] [5] [6]

Cistus ladanifer.
Cistus ladanifer. [12]

The combination of the cistus and the juniper berries growing right next to it [4] [6] gave him the idea that the spicy and tartness of the juniper berry and the sweetness of the cistus should complement each other perfectly in a gin. [4] [5] He was encouraged in this idea by the fact that Portugal had practically no gin of its own, although neighbouring Spain, Europe’s largest gin market, was producing gin on a massive scale. So, in search of his future vocation and inspired by his walks along the cliffs, he asked himself why he should not produce the first Portuguese gin in Portugal. [5] [6] [8] [15]

This idea for a Portuguese gin, which should capture the scents and flavours of the south, was born on the beach of Odeceixe. [3] Stephan’s wife was not entirely uninvolved, because Stephan had been collecting gins for some time but was still missing THE gin, so one evening, with her background as a psychologist, she told him analytically and pragmatically that he should distil it himself. [16]

Stephan returned to Odeceixe on the Costa Vicentina again and again during his travels through the country. It is a small community of 1000 people, situated directly on the Atlantic Ocean and about 50 km north of Sagres. It’s a good place to surf, there are good waves and a rough coast, and a great beach separated from the land by a river. [4] [8] He returned to this magical place again and again, and his longing for it eventually became so great that he bought a small house there for himself and his family. [4] [6] n his garden there is a lemon tree, which was the nucleus for the gin sul, and so the first macerates were also made with fruits from this tree. [4] Even today, they are harvested and processed in Gin Sul. [4]

Stephan wanted to make his own gin. It was out of the question for him to commission it somewhere and then put a label on it and tell a story, such as that the recipe was found in his grandmother’s attic, as many people do. [5] He wanted to make his own gin in Portugal, where it was so beautiful that he wanted to work there himself. [5] He found this place on the site of an old primary school with two classrooms, where there was also an old 110 m2 canteen, in the middle of a garden with old olive trees. Since a new school had been built, the buildings had been empty for five years. He wanted to produce his gin in this canteen. [5]

So, after having to wait weeks and months for an appointment, he presented his plans to the district administrator, thinking that everyone would be happy that he wanted to create new jobs and that it would be no problem to establish a distillery. But the result was sobering. He tried for seven months, escalated his request, had met with members of parliament, had been to the Lisbon Ministry of Economy, and left no stone unturned. Although all parties involved liked his idea, nothing happened and after much back and forth, his request was rejected. Due to this mixture of stubbornness, disinterest and all kinds of resistance, he finally had to give up his plan. [5] [6] [15] [16]

Zurück in Hamburg

In der Destillerie.
In der Destillerie. [18]

One of Stephan’s friends kept encouraging him: “You’re going through with this now, you’ve already gone this far, you’re finishing this now, and if the product becomes a good product, it will also work in Hamburg.[5] [15] [16] So Stephan finally decided to produce his Portuguese gin in Hamburg. While looking for a suitable location, he also called a friend and said that he would be interested if something became available at his place. As luck would have it, an old carpenter’s workshop had just become available. The friend called the landlord, and on the same day a meeting took place on the spot. Stephan made a contract with a handshake, without knowing exactly what was to come. [5] [8] As it turned out, it was a good place and a good choice. There’s a locksmith, a carpenter, a car repair shop, and whenever something breaks, someone is right there to weld something, for example. [5]

This is how the Altonaer Spirituosenmanufaktur was founded in 2013. [2] [5] It is hidden in a backyard between the Phoenix-Hof, the factory and the Thalia Theatre in Gaußstraße. In the twenties, coal was stored in this courtyard – which is also indicated by the name of the adjacent Kohlentwiete. After the war it was used for cucumbers and bottles, then it became a carpentry workshop. Today, the distillery is located in the rooms. Inside the distillery there is also a small shop where you can buy Gin Sul and a few other things. [2]

In 2013, there was still no distillery in Hamburg. Stephan was the first to apply for a licence for this in Hamburg, so acquiring it was difficult and not so easy for the authorities. It took half a year to get the licence and Stephan had to go through 19 pages of conditions, but in Germany you can talk well with the authorities and there are time corridors within which decisions are made. [5]

In late summer 2013, the conversion of the former carpentry workshop began, and the first gin was produced just a few months later. [3]

The gin

Botanicals for Cruzeiro do Sul.
Botanicals for Cruzeiro do Sul. [18]

There are many chefs in Stephan’s circle of friends. They have good sensory skills, which are not as ingrained as those of wine connoisseurs or cocktail nerds, and helped him develop the gin. [5] As a result, only 14 of the original 35+ botanicals remained in the final recipe, [7] including juniper berries, coriander, lemons, rosemary, allspice, cardamom, lavender, cinnamon, ginger, rose petals and cistus for use. [1] [5] [8] [10] [11] The lemons used from the Western Algarve are very special. Often as large as grapefruits, with skins as thick as a thumb and an intense lemon flavour, [1] [6] they are not comparable to what is sold in shops here. Since there are no trade routes, such high-quality lemons are not available here. At first, Stephan therefore fetched them himself by suitcase, sent them to himself by post or had friends bring them. [5]

Friends in Portugal bought a plot of land on Monte do Sul, and that was not entirely uninvolved in the naming of the gin. Stephan has now planted 24 of his own lemon trees there. [5] “Sul” means “south” and the gin bears this name even though it is made in the north. [5] [16]

Cistus ladanifer (William Curtis, The Botanical Magazine, Vol. 4, London 1791).
Cistus ladanifer (William Curtis, The Botanical Magazine, Vol. 4, London 1791). [17]

The most unusual ingredient, however, and the one that shapes the gin, is the cistus (Cistus ladanifer). [1] Stephan is a frequent visitor to Portugal, and the Cistus ladanifer is collected by him. [4] [5] The cistus produces a resin with which it protects itself from the sun’s rays. It oozes out of the leaves and twigs, and it looks as if the plant is sweating. The resin is also called labdanum, and the cistus is therefore also called labdanum cistus.  The name “labdanum” comes from the Syrian-Phoenician language area and means “sticky herb”. It was considered very precious and has been used since ancient times for beauty care, as an incense and as a remedy. [2]

The distillation

Loading botanicals for the Cruzeiro do Sul.
Loading botanicals for the Cruzeiro do Sul. [18]

After Stephan stopped working, he lived off his savings and learned the art of distilling from two distillers. [3] [5] He also read up a lot, but in the end all theory is grey, and it comes down to practice, in other words, trying it out himself. All in all, it took him a year and a half to get there. That sounds like a short period of time, but for someone who doesn’t earn any money, it is a long time. [5] [15]

The still was made by hand. [1] The copper still only holds 100 litres, it was made by Arnold Stein from Markdorf on Lake Constance. [2] [15]

Botanicals in the still.
Botanicals in the still. [18]

Stephan’s passion for Gin Sul becomes clear when he talks about the distillation process: “36 hours before I distil, I prepare a so-called macerate, i.e. alcohol, water and the botanicals that are put into it, and then the aromas are transferred into this alcohol-water mixture, which is then distilled. It also smells really great, really fresh, really pungent from the botanicals, from the juniper berries. The juniper berries are crushed by hand so that they open up a bit, which allows the essential oils from the juniper berries to combine with the water and the alcohol. Then, just before I distil, we peel the lemons. The lemons are one of the most important ingredients in my gin because they bring the freshness, also just in terms of the scent of the gin, and then they go into the spirit basket, along with sprigs of rosemary, a little bit of lavender and some rose petals, and then that basket gets infused with the alcohol vapours from the macerate and the wonderful aromas then end up in the distillate.” [4]

– “36 Stunden bevor ich destilliere, setze ich ein sogenanntes Mazerat an, also Alkohol, Wasser und die Botanicals, die darin eingelegt werden, und dann übertragen sich die Aromen in diese Alkohol-Wasser-Mischung, die dann destilliert wird. Es riecht auch ganz toll, ganz frisch, ganz beißend von den Botanicals, von den Wacholderbeeren. Die Wacholderbeeren werden per Hand angequetscht, so daß sie sich ein bißchen öffnen, das ermöglicht, daß die ätherischen Öle aus den Wacholderbeeren sich mit dem Wasser und dem Alkohol verbinden können. Kurz bevor ich dann destilliere, schälen wir die Zitronen. Die Zitronen sind eine der wichtigsten Zutaten in meinem Gin, weil sie die Frische bringen, auch gerade was den Duft des Gins angeht, und dann kommen die in den Geistkorb, zusammen mit Rosmarinzweigen, ein bißchen Lavendel und ein paar Rosenblüten, und dann wird dieser Korb von den Alkoholdämpfen aus dem Mazerat durchzogen und die wunderbaren Aromen landen dann im Destillat.” [4]

The first rising vapours.
The first rising vapours. [18]

I always start distilling relatively early in the morning, and at some point there is this magical moment, every time the macerate is hot enough and the first vapours rise from the still into the column like this and fight their way up there floor by floor and you actually see the gin in vapour form, that is a wonderful moment, … and at the same time the whole distillery smells of lemon and rosemary. Those are the moments when you stand in front of this equipment, which sparkles like a Christmas tree, and suddenly you feel very small again.[4]

– “Ich fange beim Destillieren immer relativ früh morgens an, und irgendwann kommt dann dieser magische Moment, jedes Mal wenn das Mazerat heiß genug ist und aus der Brennblase die ersten Dämpfe so in die Kolonne aufsteigen und sich da Boden für Boden hochkämpfen und man den Gin tatsächlich in Dampfform sieht, das ist ein wunderbarer Moment, … und gleichzeitig duftet es in der ganzen Destillerie nach Zitrone und nach Rosmarin. Das sind so die Momente, da steht man vor dieser Anlage, die so funkelt wie so ein Weihnachtsbaum und fühlt sich auf einmal wieder ganz klein.[4]

To allow the aromas to develop better, the distillation is deliberately very slow and in small passes. [2]

Gin Sul & Tonic.
Gin Sul & Tonic. [18]

Normally, a distillate is cold-filtered. To do this, it is cooled to 0°C to 2°C and then pressed through paper filters. In master distillery training, people usually turn up their noses if cold filtering is not done. Yet it is actually only done for visual reasons. Gin Sul is not filtered, so it does not lose any aromas. You can tell because it becomes milky when you mix it with tonic. [5] [16]

The bottle

Gin Sul.
Gin Sul. [18]

Stoneware bottles fell out of fashion because glass bottles are much cheaper. It was only due to the industrial revolution that the latter could be manufactured industrially and cheaply, displacing the traditional clay bottles. Gin Sul refers to the predecessor of gin, the genever, in that it is bottled in clay bottles, as some genever and Steinhäger still are today. Traditionally, genever is often even stored in large clay jugs for maturation, because clay bottles offer many advantages. Spirits are thus protected from temperature fluctuations and light. [1] [5]

The bottle shows a Hamburg Elbe steamer, a so-called Hamburg type ship. These ships were used by HADAG for passenger transport on the Elbe in Hamburg from the 1950s onwards. From the end of the 1970s, however, they were gradually taken out of service and sold. This is how six of these steamers ended up in Portugal, some of which are now used for passenger transport between Lisbon and Cachilas and are called “Cacilheiros” by the locals. So a “Cacilheiro” or a “HADAG ferry” – depending on which term you want to use – on the bottle of Gin Sul is the connecting element between Hamburg and Portugal. For Hamburgers it is a Hamburg ship, for Portuguese it is a Portuguese ship. [1] [5] [16]The bottle also says “Saudade distilled in Hamburg”. “Saudade” is a typical Portuguese word for which there is no translation. It describes a very specific Portuguese feeling. It describes a mixture of longing and melancholy, a kind of world-weariness and nostalgic melancholy, something that is beautiful and sad at the same time. [1] [5] [13] It stands for having lost something beloved, and often expresses never being able to satisfy the longing for what has been lost, as it is unlikely to return. [13] Fado gives musical expression to this feeling, because fado is above all about saudade. [14]


Cruzeiro do Sul.
Cruzeiro do Sul. [18]

Gin Sul also has special bottlings. After the Ruby Sul from 2014, which was stored in a Ruby port wine barrel, the Cruzeiro do Sul, limited to 2000 bottles, was released in 2015.

For the Cruzeiro do Sul, the standard recipe of the Gin Sul was varied and supplemented in many parts so that the aromas of the distillate and the barrel harmonise perfectly with each other. In spring 2015, the distillate was filled into four oak barrels in which a Portuguese sweet wine, Moscatel de Setúbal, had previously matured for about ten years. This wine is made south of Lisbon largely from yellow muscatel grapes. The barrels were loaded on deck of the “MS Europa 2” and set off for Lisbon on the evening of 29 May 2015, as a tribute to the traditional “Torna viagem”, the ship crossing of many Moscatel and Madeira wines to the Portuguese overseas provinces. [9]

Loading the "MS Europa 2" with Cruzero do Sul.
Loading the “MS Europa 2” with Cruzero do Sul. [18]

The Cruzero do Sul got its name from the Southern Cross. This constellation was used by sailors for centuries for navigation. In the middle of the Milky Way, the constellation forms a prominent cross in the sky. Its vertical axis points to the South Pole. In Portuguese, however, “Cruzeiro” also means “cruise”. [9] The illustration on the bottle is by Tobias Tietchen, one of Germany’s most up-and-coming tattoo artists. [9]

Cruzeiro do Sul is no longer available for purchase, but if you are lucky enough to find some somewhere, you should definitely try it neat. A wonderful gin that has awakened our passion. It makes us curious about the special bottlings to come.

A barrel of the Cruzeiro do Sul.
A barrel of the Cruzeiro do Sul.


So Stephan Garbe is now producing a Portuguese gin in Hamburg, and not a Hamburg gin. [5] It’s not just a gin like those produced somewhere with some history due to the gin boom. It is a special gin that stands out. It is a gin that you can really drink neat. It has its own distillery, there is an authentic story to it. Stephan wanted to produce a Portuguese gin with Portuguese ingredients in Portugal, but in the end it became Hamburg. It all fits together and makes sense. [5]

In der Destillerie.
In der Destillerie. [18]

For Stephan, Mondays are a good indicator of whether you have found the right job. Today, on Sundays, he sometimes can’t wait for Monday to finally start. So in the meantime he has found the job of his life, it makes him incredibly happy, it fulfils him, and he has the feeling that it really couldn’t get any better. That it was the right decision to quit the old job and start something new becomes clear when Stephan tells of his trips to Portugal, where he harvests the cistus. Those are the moments, he reports, when he thinks: “God, how lucky I am, you can’t seriously call that work, when you’re driving through the dunes in a jeep and you think to yourself, this is all job-related now, I have to get the stuff…. Working there is really a great gift. … The peace and quiet and the smell of the sea and the sound of the sea … these are the moments when you stop and think about how cool it is that you can now do what you’ve always wanted to do.[4]

– “Gott was habe ich eigentlich für ein Glück, das kann man gar nicht ernsthaft Arbeit nennen, wenn man mit dem Jeep durch die Dünen heizt und sich denkt, das ist jetzt aber alles beruflich indiziert, ich muß ja das Zeug holen…. Da zu arbeiten ist wirklich schon ein großes Geschenk. … Durch die Ruhe und den Duft des Meeres und das Meeresrauschen … das sind diese Momente, wo man dann auch innehält und darüber nachdenkt, wie geil das eigentlich ist, daß man jetzt das machen kann, was man schon immer machen wollte.[4]

And we are lucky to be able to enjoy a wonderful gin with Gin Sul, which is also a great gift.

  1. http://www.gin-sul.de/gin-sul/
  2. http://www.gin-sul.de/zistrose
  3. http://www.gin-sul.de/hamburger-gin-destillerie/
  4. ‘Gin Sul Saudade.mp4’, auf http://www.gin-sul.de/hamburger-gin-destillerie/
  5. https://soundcloud.com/jrgmyr/bildungstrinken-no-010-interview-mit-stephan-garbe-von-gin-sul-hamburg-ruby-sul-gin: Bildungstrinken Nr. 10: Interview mit Stephan Garbe von Gin Sul, Hamburg.
  6. http://mixology.eu/drinks/stephan-garbe-gin-sul/: Sonne in Altona: Stephan Garbe und sein Gin Sul. By Nils Wrage, 30. March 2015.
  7. http://mixology.eu/drinks/gin-sul-hamburg/: Gin Sul aus Hamburg. By Marco Beier, 26. February 2014.
  8. http://www.welt.de/regionales/hamburg/article124856185/Hamburger-startet-mit-Gin-seine-zweite-Karriere.html: Hamburger startet mit Gin seine zweite Karriere. By Gisela Reiners, 15. February 2014.
  9. http://www.gin-sul.de/cruzeiro-do-sul/: Cruzeiro do Sul.
  10. http://www.eyeforspirits.com/2014/02/09/gin-sul-im-test/: Gin Sul im Test. By Philip Reim, 9. February 2014
  11. http://www.eyeforspirits.com/2014/01/30/gin-sul-neuer-deutscher-boutique-gin-mit-einem-hauch-lack-zistrose/: Gin Sul – Neuer deutscher Boutique-Gin mit einem Hauch Lack-Zistrose. By Philip Reim, 30. January 2014
  12. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cistus_May_2014-9.jpg: Flower of a Cistus ladanifer.
  13. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudade: Saudade.
  14. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fado: Fado.
  15. http://www.mopo.de/hamburg/der-schnaps-brenner-von-bahrenfeld—mein-gin-schmeckte-erst-nach-mottenkugeln–4047400: Der Schnaps-Brenner von Bahrenfeld „Mein Gin schmeckte erst nach Mottenkugeln“. Von Geli Tangermann, 24. July 14.
  16. http://susies-local-food.com/altona-gin-sul/#.V00lE0ZptrY: SUSIES stellt vor:
    Hamburgs beste Manufakturen für regionale Produkte – „Gin Sul” in Altona.
  17. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cistus_ladaniferus.png: Cistus ladaniferus.
  18. The photos were kindly provided by Gin Sul.

explicit capitulum


Hi, I'm Armin and in my spare time I want to promote bar culture as a blogger, freelance journalist and Bildungstrinker (you want to know what the latter is? Then check out "About us"). My focus is on researching the history of mixed drinks. If I have ever left out a source you know of, and you think it should be considered, I look forward to hearing about it from you to learn something new. English is not my first language, but I hope that the translated texts are easy to understand. If there is any incomprehensibility, please let me know so that I can improve it.

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