You know the first tasting of your gin has gone well when an-all-but teetotal Madonna demands four refills. As anecdotes go, it’s an impressive one, but Mert Alas – one half of fashion photography’s most successful duo, Mert & Marcus – has always had friends in sky-high places.
The drink that got Madge back on the booze again is Seventy One Gin, an amber coloured spirit in a bottle so perfume-like, it was hard to know whether to spritz it or sip it when it launched last night at Chiltern Firehouse. It is individually distilled using botanicals including Queen of the Night – an extraordinary cactus that blooms in the Mexican desert for 24 hours only – and aged for 71 nights (hence the name) in three types of oak cask. Only available in Britain, where Alas now lives, it costs £140 a bottle.
It is also the project that has seen Turkish-born Alas and his business partner Tasso Ferreira through lockdown – one that has turned into an almost obsession for both men. They are at pains to stress that this is not one of those celebrity ventures, where the main player does little more than stamp his or her name on a bottle. It is a labour of love, and the relish with which Alas knocks back his frozen shots of neat gin makes that believable.
“It all started with me critiquing every gin I ever drank,” says Alas, with a cocktail made of Seventy One and champagne in his hand. “I always thought the notes were slightly wrong and that the juniper was too high, for example. I even went to distilleries to see how they were made, until one day Tasso said I should just make my own. Six months later we were in Mexico.”
The pivot from fashion photographer to gin distiller may seem like a neck-cricking one, but both roles require someone with a strong vision, creative flair, an iron will – and, for want of a better description, an eye for all things sexy. In his career as a photographer shooting everyone from Kate Moss to Kiera Knightley, Alas was famous for directing sultry, eroticised shoots where the subjects appeared both dream-like and very sensual.
For his gin, he is trying to do something similar. “I wanted to make a sexy drink,” he says. “I put in a touch of caffeine with the Ecuadorian Guayusa tea leaves because I want people to embrace the night and not think about going to bed. The night used to be this fascinating thing that we anticipated all day. Nowadays, the world has become too well behaved.”
The fashion photographer in Alas is clearly still alive and well. He tells me that for everything he does, he starts with a character or a scene. For Seventy One, he pictured his hero Oscar Wilde drinking a neat gin in a dark London bar at 11pm, and expanded his vision for what it would look and taste like from there.
“While it’s very important, it’s not just about the taste, you know, it’s also about the cinematic value of the gin,” he says. “I always remember my mother dressing up in the evenings and making a gin fizz, and I wanted to recreate some of that glamour. It’s so important to me to think about the colour and the bottle. When you drink it, what are you wearing? What music is playing? All these elements are co-stars in making a sexy night out.”
Some of the allure of the gin also comes from the perfume-like nature of it. For this, Alas enlisted the help of master perfumer Dominique Ropion, and distiller Stephen Wilson, who trained in Grasse. And then there is the bottle, which was designed by Alas and wouldn’t look out of place on a princess’ dressing table or in a glossy Parisian beauty shop.
“What’s sexy for me is the hidden message or meaning behind what’s beautiful,” he says. “Little details and quality attracts me. Seventy One’s bottle is inspired by art deco architecture, jewels and even monuments. I wanted to make it bold and beautiful to look at. Like an otherworldly piece of crystal.”
Even the way you drink it should be sensual and luxurious. Any fans of gin and tonic should look away now as Alas abhors the stuff, saying the sugary mixer ruins all the taste. His preferred style? To chill the gin and drink it neat in a shot glass, or have it as a martini, with either a touch of orange juice, lemon and sugar, or a glug of champagne.
Either way, it is a spirit designed to make the sofa-bound days of lockdown feel ancient history. “It’s time to be beautiful and bad again,” says Alas. “And for my gin to be at the heart of it.”
Madonna would clearly agree.
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