Distilling the essence of South Africa's gin revolution
From Cape fynbos to Karoo botanicals, an ever-increasing number of local distillers are crafting gins imbued with homegrown flavours. We find out what kick-started the trend
In his big cabinet reshuffle, President Jacob Zuma took action against those who have been critical of him. Goodbye Pravin Gordhan, hello junk status. In light of these momentous developments, the time has come for you to take a long, hard look at your drinks cabinet and do some reshuffling of your own.
The South African gin movement has taken on a life of its own. It's a revolution in all its fynbos-, rooibos-, clemengold- and spekboom-flavoured beauty.
A quick history lesson reveals that gin dates back to 17th-century Netherlands, although some believe that the Italians made gin before that. In the Netherlands it was produced as medicine to treat gout, gallstones and stomach complaints. The Dutch started to flavour it with juniper to make it more palatable.
British troops fighting in the Low Countries during the 30 Years' War took these little bottles of "Dutch courage" back to England, where gin quickly became a firm favourite of the poor.
Much has changed over the centuries in terms of flavour profiles, distillation methods and price - it is more of a high-end consumer product than a poor-man's helper. We now speak about gin using the same vocabulary that we use when tasting wine ... but there is no snobbery attached to the drink, only fortified memories.
As TS Eliot once said when asked about his inspiration: "Gin and drugs, dear lady, gin and drugs."
The gin revolution
Kurt Schlechter, bar and beverage consultant, says the gin revolution started in Spain about 15 years ago. "The reason it came to South Africa started with local gins, Inverroche in particular, with fynbos flavours, and it's also part and parcel of the whole craft movement in the world."
In South Africa this movement started with artisanal coffee and craft beer and continued on to other products like gin and artisanal tonics. Gin is a popular drink because it is so versatile, appeals to both men and women and allows for flavour experimentation.
"In Spain, gin is served in a large wine glass," says Schlechter. "It is a tapas-style serve, which means that the condiments are on the bar counter - rosemary, thyme cucumber, star anise, cardamom pods, mint, lemon peel, orange peel, grapefruit, and so forth. You would get your gin and tonic - with a specialised tonic - and you'll actually serve yourself."
Distilling with heart
South Africa's gin distillers are going at it with gusto. According to most local distillers it all started with Lorna Scott from Inverroche in Stilbaai, who began distilling gin after experimenting with 150 different fynbos botanicals for three years. Scott explains her journey of exploration: "I never set out to make three gins, but while experimenting with the different botanicals and the gin flavour wheel, it was almost a natural selection that took place - florals from one place, citrus from another area, and woody flavours from a third place. The gins made themselves and knew I had a story to tell."
Scott has never marketed her gin overseas, yet she exports to many different locations: "The people who come to Stilbaai on holiday effectively spread the word. Every single one of my exports have come from people receiving my gin as a gift."
It takes time
The legendary distiller Helmut Wilderer died last year but his son Christian is keeping his legacy alive, making Wilderer spirits in the Paarl region. "Worldwide, gin is most probably the biggest thing that's in fashion now. In Germany, they now have 225 gin producers. South Africa has about 20 at the moment. Spain and Belgium are the biggest consumers of gin," says Christian.
It took almost three years to launch Wilderer Fynbos Gin, with Helmut opening and emptying every bottle to re-distill the contents. The finished product, with 27 botanicals, has been awarded gold at the Meininger International Spirits Awards in Germany.
"We tried to compose a recipe with a very complex and wide spectrum of flavours like African potato, renosterbos, wild dagga, buchu, honeybush ... A very herbaceous flavour profile." Wilderer is also South Africa's most awarded craft distillery.
Andrew Rall, from Distillery 031, says it took him about two years to get his commercial distiller's licence, and his was the first craft distillery in KwaZulu-Natal. He distilled for home use from 2008, and perfected his craft over the years. Distillery 031 also made the first barrel-aged gin in the country.
"South Africa is experiencing a craft spirits revolution and gin is the first spirit to get mainstream appeal," Rall says. "I predict that in two to three years' time other craft spirits like rum, whisky and agave will also become very popular. South Africa is an ideal country for gin production because we have an abundance of natural raw materials which allow distillers to produce interesting and distinctive gins."
Worldly knowledge and local love
Lucy Beard distills gin, with her partner Leigh Lisk, in two stills called Mildred and Maud - the first stills licensed by the City of Cape Town - at Hope on Hopkins in Salt River. All their gins have a smooth juniper flavour but with a punchy, increasingly aromatic nose.
Beard and Lisk, who were both lawyers, saw the rise of craft gin in England and decided to make a career change. They started experimenting with different flavour profiles for their gins. Their Mediterranean Gin is salty with hints of olive and rosemary, while their London Dry has hints of citrus. The Salt River Gin is a South African ambassador with juniper, hand-picked kapokbos and buchu from a farm in the Winterhoek Mountains and organic citrus peel from the Cederberg.
Drinking at your desk
Johannes le Roux makes alcohol-free gin and tonic. Yes, you read that right, a G&T you can enjoy at work without raising your colleagues' eyebrows. The Duchess is a pre-mixed virgin cocktail that is sugar free, calorie-free and hangover-free. On a visit to the Netherlands, Le Roux noticed that there was a movement towards sugar- and alcohol-free drinks, and knew that this would be the next big thing.
He also noticed that every restaurant he visited had a dedicated gin menu, and decided to bring the two trends together. The Duchess doesn't use artificial gin flavouring, but re-distilled juniper berries and botanically infused tonic water.
Le Roux feels gin is becoming increasingly popular because "the taste profile suits the current consumer very well".
"It has moved from sweet to complex, and the consumer now enjoys a more complex, bitter taste."
The various flavours of gin
The combination of climate, terroir and creative distillers is at the heart of South Africa's various flavours of gin. From coastal fynbos to Karoo botanicals, we have it all.
Six Dogs Karoo Gin gets its distinguishing botanicals from the Karoo, handpicked and grown on the farm near Worcester where the distillery is based. Its Classic Dry Gin is blended from water sourced high in the nearby mountains.
Black Horse Distillery uses local grains, potatoes and pure spring water from the Magaliesberg to create a range of whiskies, gins and vodkas.
Natural sun-ripened oranges from the Eastern Cape, as well as Stellenbosch-grown organic lemons, lend their flavours to Triple Three's Citrus Infusion Gin made on the Blaauwklippen wine estate.
Spicy juniper, harvested in Paarl from South Africa's only juniper plantation, is the cornerstone of Jorgensen's Gin, distilled in Wellington.
Bloedlemoen Gin, made at Hope on Hopkins, has a nose of angelica root and blood orange - perfect for warm-weather sundowners.
Red Stone Craft Gin is an orchard-to-bottle gin, with apples harvested a stone's throw from the distillery in Clarens in the Free State.
Pienaar & Son, near parliament in Cape Town, makes its Orient Gin from local mielies and infuses it with botanicals selected to pay homage to the Eastern spice trade that influenced Cape Town culture and cuisine alike.
All in all, plenty of reason to expand your cabinet to Zuma-esque proportions.