Can Mert Alas make gin sexy again?
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It’s a hot Monday morning in June and Mert Alas, the Turkish half of fashion photography’s most dynamic duo Mert & Marcus, is feeling a little fragile. “I’m sorry,” he apologises, leading me through to the drawing room of his Hampstead home, “but a dear friend of mine was in town last night and we stayed up late drinking shots!”
That friend, it transpires, was Madonna. But the fact that the Queen of Pop was sitting on his velvet sofa less than 12 hours ago is not what Alas is excited about – his besties are all weapons-grade A-listers. It’s the fact that she was drinking his new creation, Seventy One Gin. “She normally only drinks Dom Perignon Rosé,” he says, wide-eyed, “so to see her drinking my gin was just incredible.”
Alas is no stranger to high-octane glamour. Over the past 30 years, his ultra-polished, almost hyper-real portraits of actresses, models and musicians have graced countless style magazine covers and fashion campaigns: there’s Keira Knightley smoking a cigarette; Natalia Vodianova adrift in a room flooded with water; and Kate Moss in bondage gear.
That spirit of decadence, of hedonistic playfulness, is at the heart of his gin too. “Nighttime has always been a really important time for me. I love dressing up, enjoying a drink in a beautiful glass and talking to creative, interesting people,” he says. “And yet I feel like we’ve come to an era when nightlife is almost viewed as a sin – we don’t talk about it. With this gin, I wanted to make the evenings desirable again.”
It would be easy to dismiss Seventy One Gin as just another off-the-peg celebrity drinks brand, but Alas is at pains to stress his involvement in its creation from beginning to end. “When I decide to do something I commit, I submit. I don’t know any other way.”
Conceived by Alas, with spirits supremo Stephen Wilson – the brains behind Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Tanqueray Ten and Ciroc vodka – on the team, and blessed by rockstar perfumer Dominique Ropion, Seventy One Gin looks and sounds a lot like a perfume. And that’s because in many ways it is. Blended, like a scent, from individually distilled botanicals including Queen of the Night – a rare cactus flower that blossoms in the North American desert for just one night a year – aged for 71 nights in three types of oak cask, and sealed in a bottle that wouldn’t look out of place on Coco Chanel’s dressing table, this £140 amber gin is the liquid equivalent of haute couture.
“I first became interested in gin in my 30s,” says Alas, now 50. “I tried so many of them and over time I became a real critic. I’d be like, ‘Ahh, too much cardamom in this one’, or ‘They should dial up the juniper on that’.” He started visiting distilleries to find out how gin was made. “I saw them putting all the different botanicals into the still in one go, and I thought, ‘Why do they do it like that? Why can’t a gin be constructed botanical by botanical?’”
Alas has always preferred his gin neat or on the rocks, rather than with a mixer. And he began to wonder if there was a way to create a blend with a richer, rounder profile that was more suited to sipping. “When I was growing up in Ankara my family would often take roasted hazelnuts from the winter, put them in a barrel and fill it with gin and sugar and it would become more of a liqueur,” he recalls. “And that sweeter taste and darker colour has always been linked with gin in my mind. In a way I guess I was chasing a sort of idea from my childhood.”
He began to flesh out a concept for a gin. Then, three years ago, he and his business head Tasso Ferreira met the straight-talking master distiller Stephen Wilson – and the dream started to become a reality. “Up to that point, every distiller I spoke to had treated the idea as ‘just another project’, but Steve was really excited,” Alas says. “I said to him, ‘I’ll only do this if I can do it properly, which means being part of everything, learning about it, understanding it.’ And he totally got that. He had so many ideas and gave us so much guidance. And all the way he kept pushing – but he was pushy in a good way!”
As a fledgling flavour scientist, Wilson had spent five years working in Grasse, France – the spiritual home of modern perfumery. So he was well acquainted with the language of scent. “A lot of the ingredients used in perfumery are not that dissimilar to the botanicals used in gin,” he says. “The difference is that perfume companies treat every single ingredient, each botanical, in there with unbelievable respect. They take it, they research it, they distil it and they create an absolute, an essence. It’s created like liquid gold. And then they bring an artist into the mix – the perfumer – who looks at all those notes and composes a perfume. We wanted to do it like that.”
Alas and Ferreira started by constructing a backbone of traditional gin botanicals – juniper, coriander, angelic and lemon – which they then layered up with grapefruit peel, earthy wild ivy from Albania, Damask roses and a hint of bitter Ecuadorian cinchona. The final, sensual flourish was the addition of Queen of the Night. “I think of it like a desert version of jasmine,” says Alas. “It’s more earthy and raw, less cute.”
Not every botanical they tried made the cut. “At one point I said, ‘Oh, I’m Turkish, let’s try sumac’, and Steve said, ‘No, that’s a terrible idea.’ I did anyway and it was awful!” laughs Alas.
In order to achieve a rounder, sweeter profile closer to the gin liqueurs of Alas’s childhood, they aged the gin in a mix of virgin Spanish oak, sherry casks and French oak. That time in cask gives the gin depth and warmth, as well as its amber colour.
Last but not least, they spike the gin with Ecuadorian Guayusa tea leaves to give the whole thing a caffeinated lift. “I wanted to get away from this whole idea of ‘mother’s ruin’,” says Alas. “This is a gin designed to wake you up and get ignited for the night.” It took around 700 different samples, and several years of tasting, for them to arrive at the final recipe. “We tortured Steve, literally!” says Alas. “Then, one night we finally said, ‘That’s it! This no longer tastes like gin, it tastes like something completely unique’.”
With the recipe complete, Alas took it to IFF master perfumer Dominique Ropion, the man Frédéric Malle once dubbed “the most skilled perfumer working today”. His verdict? “I have always found Alas’s style of photography fascinating, almost dreamlike, very sexy, eroticised even,” says Ropion. “I figured, when you create such beautiful photos, and go into a hedonistic venture, it’s bound to be beautiful too.”
Aesthetically, Seventy One Gin is a real statement piece. The octagonal, deco-style glass bottle – designed by Alas – looms over the table like an outsized scent flacon or decanter. And it weighs a tonne. “I was inspired by art deco architecture, jewellery, crystal formations,” says Alas. “I said, ‘Let’s make it sexy!’”
In a tribute to Alas’s hero, Oscar Wilde, a pair of ornate Regency-style drinking vessels are being launched alongside the gin – a delicate little stemmed shot glass and a capacious rocks glass for sipping the gin on ice.
Alas and Ferreira won’t reveal how much money they’ve invested in the project thus far – but I get the sense that a few starry friends have helped them out. The first run of the gin will be 3,000 bottles, a quantity that someone with 1.5m Instagram followers should have no trouble shifting.
In the long run, Alas hopes to use the brand as a fundraising platform for up-and-coming artists. “I want it to be about giving back, as well as just having a good time,” he says. Expect to see more announcements on that front later in the year.
For now, though, he is focused on getting the gin into the hands of his friends, and behind his favourite bars. “Dukes Bar in London, or Chateau Marmont, would be amazing,” he says. That would be a long shot by most people’s standards – but something tells me he might just be in with a chance.
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