Primal Distillery is the perfect tonic for gin lovers

This artisanal gin-maker in downtown Joburg is well worth visiting

16 May 2021 - 00:00
By hilary biller AND Hilary Biller
Distiller Chris Muaku is passionate about gin.
Image: Primal Distillery Distiller Chris Muaku is passionate about gin.

Victoria Yards in downtown Joburg was once a site of urban decay and degraded industrial buildings. Today it's an exciting regeneration project worth visiting, in part because that's where you'll find Primal Distillery.

It is a large warehouse-style space — think exposed brickwork and cement floors — where stainless-steel vats in different shapes, pipes and the essential copper pot still take centre stage.

I took a tour of the distillery, courtesy of part-owner Chris Muaku, a chemical engineer whose passion is the art of distilling.

He explained their gin-making process from start to finish. The finale saw him open the pot still giving me a whiff of the sensational botanicals used in their gin.

I learnt that not all 'artisanal' gins are made in the same way as many inferior versions are processed from a readymade alcohol base and flavoured. At Primal it's all pure — no industrial ethanol, preservatives, cold filtering or artificial flavourings are used.

Their gins are made from scratch and crafted in small batches — up to 400 bottles a month — from a base of organic wheat sourced in the Western Cape.

Of course, gin is not gin if it's not made with juniper berries. Rich in essential oils and flavonoids, it's the juniper that offers the distinctive flavour in the tipple.

Primal's Tony Esslinger introduced me to the red juniper berry they use. Dried, the red variety turns into a deep burgundy, offering a sweeter and less piney flavour than the more common brown berry.

Primal makes a trio of gins.

The first, Complex, is a bold, earthy and smokey-tasting gin.

Then there's the tea-coloured Applewood Complex gin, which is aged in wood giving it a lovely mellowness. Dry, it is enjoyed neat on ice or with tonic. 

My favourite is their Union gin, an infusion of the rare Rex Union orange grown on Lemoenfontein, a farm just outside Rustenburg.

The unique citrus variety was developed by English industrialist George Rex who came to SA in the early 1800s. The story goes that on the farm gifted to him by Paul Kruger, Rex, who was missing his favourite English marmalade, developed the new variety of fruit by crossing a pomelo and a Seville orange to create a distinctively bitter fruit with a thick pith perfect for making marmalade — and gin.

Primal's Union gin is delicious with tonic or freshly squeezed grapefruit, my favourite.

• Primal gins sell from R375-R450 per bottle. Visit