For decades there was a wave of business types who made the bucks and went into wine, buying farms around Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.

FirstRand co-founder GT Ferreira turned Tokara into an award-winning wine estate, and former FNB CEO Michael Jordaan bought Bartinney, which had been his grandfather’s property two generations back. 

Now it seems that the world of shiraz and chardonnay might have become a tad passé. If you’ve hit the big time and are looking to spice things up, you’ve got to be more spirited.

Top competition lawyer Anthony Norton has started a gin business, Autograph Distillery, with Marcel von Aulock, who runs Tsogo Sun Hotels, the country’s biggest hotel group. Thing is, they’re still in the thick of high-level demanding jobs with no plans to slow down as they build their new brand, which has already won awards and started exporting overseas. 

Their Autograph gin was recently given the Gin Guide Awards’ 2019 prize for best gin in Africa. The brand’s Matthew Beech, the youngest distiller in the country, has just turned 21 and is already lauded in his field.

Marcel von Aulock (left) and Anthony Norton
Marcel von Aulock (left) and Anthony Norton

Norton has top-tier corporate clients such as Netcare and Pick n Pay, and takes on white-collar criminals, but he’s always had this "peculiar fascination" with boutique alcohol brands, though he himself doesn’t drink. He dabbled with making merlot a while back, and started the gin brand, from scratch, three years ago.

"We wanted to produce something top-end, equivalent to a high-end whisky. Gin has always been a poor cousin to whisky," says Norton.

Von Aulock jokes: "It’s a fun way to lose money at the moment, but once you get your volumes to a certain level then you should start making money." He may sound flippant, but it’s unlikely the venture is without clear business directive. Norton got Von Aulock on board because "he has a great financial brain on him and he’s a very astute businessman". Von Aulock is an accountant with a strong affinity for leisure and hospitality and will run Tsogo’s hotel business when it lists separately.

Really, it’s hard to escape the gin revolution these days. Every corporate event has a gin bar to linger at, there are gin soirées and some days you can find gin ice cream at the Codfather in Sandton. Even Luce, the fine-dining restaurant at the Southern Sun Hyde Park (a Tsogo Sun hotel) now offers gin pairings with meals.

In fact, growth in premium gin has been exponential and shows no signs of slowing down. According to research firm IWSR’s drinks market analysis, its SA market was valued at $139-million in 2017 and ranked ninth globally for volume and 11th for value that year.

Crafty cuts

Norton studied film and drama, so he’s even been involved in some of the short films being made about Autograph. Though he’s clearly having fun with it, there are aspects of the industry that irk Norton’s legal sensibilities. Many of the gin brands out there don’t make their own gin, and it’s more like contract manufacturing. "It’s a bit deceptive in a way because people say there’s a craft gin explosion with all these distilleries, meanwhile back at the ranch … some distilleries make about 15gin brands so any man and his dog who wants to produce gin just goes off to these guys.

"To us, craft gin means it must be handmade by us in our own distillery, with our own botanicals," he says. The Autograph team’s artisanal still (in which the gin is made) is called Zoey — after Beech’s younger sister, and the finished product is bottled and labelled on the premises. The bottles are imported from France and sealed with handmade stoppers fashioned from American white oak.

SA attracts overseas craft gins too. A couple of months ago, Travis Tober, a Texan bartender, cocktail consultant and brand ambassador for Aviation Gin, was in town on a brand tour. Aviation’s story has some Hollywood sheen because actor Ryan Reynolds has bought into the company.

Cape Town alone has about 240 gin labels

Reynolds tried Aviation gin in Vancouver (he’s Canadian). "About a week after that he tracked us down and called the office," says Tober. "Reynolds goes to board meetings, he makes sales calls. And his social media presence is a windfall for the company."

Aviation has been in SA just over a year, and already we’re in the company’s top five gin markets in the world. Not bad considering that it’s sold in 32 countries.

The Aviation brand is growing, but at what point is it no longer a craft gin? "We still make it the exact same way, we just ramped it up. Instead of doing it three days a week, we’re doing it 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Tober. Last year the company sold40,000 cases while Beefeater sold 2.2-million, he says. "They could literally spill more gin than we make."

Following hot on the cowboy boots of the Texans, a gin team with a true-blue lineage did the SA tour too. Christopher Hayman was in SA recently to launch Hayman’s London Dry Gin as part of the portfolio of Truman & Orange, which itself has grown 400% since 2016. Made in England, it uses a 150-year-old family recipe of 10 botanicals. Hayman’s great-grandfather was the founder and he is a fourth-generation master distiller himself.

Hayman joined the trade 50 years ago. "In my long time in the gin industry this is probably one of the most exciting because of the expansion and innovation," he says.

Then there’s Roger Jorgensen, known as the "godfather" of gin in SA and credited with starting the craft gin revolution here. He says premium gin offerings "are like what a single-malt whisky is to an ordinary Scotch".

Shortly after the country became a democracy, Jorgensen, with Sydney Back of Backsberg winery, got legislation overturned that outlawed small-scale distillation (gin operators). It had existed to entrench the status quo of the big spirit operators.

He started Jorgensen’s Gin and today consults widely in the country and across Africa about the industry. In his view, gin is increasingly popular because of a big drinking population. It’s also, he reckons, a product that works for everyone, from millennials and hipsters to traditional suburban drinkers.

Cape Town alone has about 240gin labels. Jorgensen says the Western Cape Liquor Authority has at any time at least 80 applicants for gin pending. In isolation they don’t make much of a dent, but "collectively we’re a nuisance".

Big alcohol operators like Diageo and Distell have noticed, and reactions have been varied. "They either try to buy you out, or rub you out," says Jorgensen.

He tells stories of hotel managers being visited by distributors of bigger brands with inducements of holidays, holiday homes and cars so that they won’t allow the smaller upstarts in. Or of a large wholesaler where he’d done promotions that went well, only to be told that all further brand activation slots were now booked up and paid for in advance by a bigger operator. His opinion, though, is that it’s good for the consumer to enjoy gins from large and small companies alike.

There’s talk of the big operators wanting to buy out brand names too. This includes one of the most high-profile local gin successes, Inverroche. Inverroche founder Lorna Scott says if an opportunity arose which made sense, they would consider selling.

She says in the UK, which can be regarded as the global barometer of trends, new gins are launched almost daily. By the middle of last year, there were 315 gin distilleries in the UK.

And, Scott adds: "The category in SA has also grown apace, with more than 300 local gins launched in the past three years.

"Gin is accessible and unpretentious and it lends itself to innovation."