African botanicals enliven local gin
Distillers are using indigenous plants to create unique craft gins, writes Dominique Herman
Gin, to quote one of a handful of Cape Town artisanal drinks makers, is "having a moment".
When the moment ends, Hope on Hopkins co-founder Lucy Beard reckons being a craft distiller rather than a craft blender will stand them in good stead.
Despite "distiller" being bandied about quite freely in the burgeoning domestic craft gin industry, the Salt River-based operation is the only one in Cape Town to distill its own base spirit, before blending it with the botanicals that make up its three house gins.
It’s also possibly the only local gin-producing facility that doubles as the home of its owners. Their dining table overlooks the factory and is next to the tasting room that is open to the public on Saturday afternoons.
Stilbaai’s Inverroche is the best known South African gin. Along with Wellington-based Jorgensen’s, it has had roughly a five-year head start on the others. Inverroche is the top-selling gin at national liquor retail chain, Norman Goodfellows, says its CE Solly Kramer.
Roger Jorgensen lobbied in the 1990s to get a private licence to own a still – easing the process for subsequent domestic distillers. Promoters and competitors alike widely acknowledge Inverroche as the first gin to tilt consumers towards local.
"They have laid the groundwork for all of us," says Beard. "They have achieved getting local gin on the map in SA."
Most gin brands have achieved about 20% growth in the past two years – according to IWSR industry sales data. Instead of stealing share from popular premium gin brands such as Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray, domestic craft gins have aided the gin boom.
"Gin as a worldwide category is massive and there are unbelievable products that add drinkability and sexiness to a brand like gin: the whole category of artisanal tonics. It’s not like you can find artisanal soda waters to mix with whisky," says Kramer.
Although a disproportionate number of domestic producers operate in the Western Cape – with two dedicated gin bars in Cape Town and one in Stellenbosch – it’s not where most of the sales are, he says. Gauteng drinks the most domestic gin.
"Where Cape Town leads is putting in the bars and restaurants. It’s got the tourist population and a sort of, I suppose, hip population. But the real growth in any alcohol brand is in what we call the main market," says Kramer.
Angelique Smith, manager of The Gin Bar in Cape Town’s CBD, says the city is a trend-setter for food and drink. But as soon as a trend starts there, it’s quickly saturated.
"I think gin is getting to that point. People are a lot more willing now to spend more on a good bottle of gin that is really interesting or really good," she says. "People will continue to love it. But how well each individual gin can do, we will see."
The Gin Bar carries about 80 varieties of gin of which roughly 55% are international, and many obscure — including an Irish gin, Glendalough, of which the recipe is altered every season, based on what is foraged in the area. "But we are a local gin-focused bar. All our signature cocktails are made with our gins. We really try to punt the local industry," Smith says.
Tanqueray is a very juniper-forward gin with four botanicals. When you’re making a cocktail, you know that’s ginCaitlin Hill
in there. When you use South African products, it’s going to get a little bit lost with the other flavours
Co-owner of Mother’s Ruin
Niki Reschke, co-owner of Arcade in Cape Town’s CBD – where Bombay Sapphire is currently the pouring gin – likens domestic craft gins to "an unfinished record" that will benefit from another decade at least to get production levels more affordable. "A gin that is 300 years old, which is technically better with more well-balanced flavours is coming in cheaper than local craft-based gins. Do we want to support local gin? Absolutely, we’d love to. But at what cost?" he asks.
Reschke recently teamed up with Arcade bar manager Johnny Bezuidenhout on a gin-infused pizza-cocktail combo. Pork belly was rubbed with Bombay Sapphire and cured for five days with a host of spices.
More gin was added to the pan-fried radicchio topping and it was paired with a magenta-coloured gin cocktail described by Bezuidenhout as "a sort of an unbalancing of a martini".
No South African bar has a local gin as its house-pouring gin – there’s not enough money behind them, says Caitlin Hill, co-owner of Cape Town’s other dedicated inner-city gin bar, Mother’s Ruin, where Tanqueray is the pouring gin.
"Most of the South African gins are not typical pouring brands based on flavour.
"Tanqueray is a very juniper-forward gin with four botanicals. When you’re making a cocktail, you know that’s gin
in there. When you use South African products, it’s going to get a little bit lost with the other flavours," she says.
At its peak, Mother’s Ruin carried 180 gins, but now that figure hovers at about 150 of which 30% are local varieties.
"As a category, gin is probably one of the trending spirits in the world at the moment. No two gins have exactly the same spice or herb component," says Bradley Jacobs, Western Cape brand ambassador for the Diageo Reserve portfolio, which includes Tanqueray.
Craft gins are "good for the category" and it is good for SA to get exposure, Jacobs says.
With its huge and unique floral kingdom, SA is at a distinct advantage in the creation of a drink that relies on the inclusion of botanicals.
From n’abbas (Kalahari truffle) to spekboom, buchu, kapokbos (African wild rosemary), devil’s claw, rooibos, impepho (African sage), rose pelargonium and wild dagga, craft gin producers are experimenting with unheard-of additions to blends.
"Africa has the biggest profile of edible and herbal plants in the world – especially southern Africa. It means things end up being quite perfumery and aromatic," says Smith.
Hill says the range of indigenous flora separates SA from everyone else.
"Inverroche is a great brand and they opened up the market for South African gin, but if you were to ask somebody like me, a gin enthusiast and connoisseur, ‘What do you think of Inverroche?’, I would say it’s not very gin-like," she says.
"It’s more of a fynbos spirit for me. I’m a bit of a purist;
the flavour’s got to be predominantly juniper."
Gin derives its predominant flavour from the juniper berry. The traditional key gin botanical signature includes coriander seed, angelica root and citruses. Every gin has a different flavour profile based on its botanicals. Most local gins use a base spirit made from sugarcane, which is cheap and readily available. The alcohol base can be made from grain, starch or grapes.
Hope on Hopkins makes its own base spirit from malted barley, which is found in very few gins in the world. They chose it because in SA, the only malted grain available is barley since South African Breweries owns the maltings plant and uses it for its beer.
Beard’s partner at Hope on Hopkins, Leigh Lisk, concedes that a lot of people are now asking if these really are gins if the juniper can’t be tasted. He prefers to describe them as "contemporary gins".
"It’s definitely still a gin – just a very different style of gin. And it’s a growing style throughout the world, where people are using what’s available locally because that’s what makes them unique," Beard says.