The family: Jessica Schmidt, Paula Schmidt, Mike Schmidt, Emily Schmidt. Picture: Supplied
The family: Jessica Schmidt, Paula Schmidt, Mike Schmidt, Emily Schmidt. Picture: Supplied

The people who gave us Frankie’s Olde Style Soda have, in less than a year, produced a gin that has garnered a global award.

Mike Schmidt and his wife Paula opened Hout Bay Harbour Distillery two years ago, and have produced a navy-strength gin which was voted Best Navy Gin in the world, (very strong at 57% alcohol content) at the World Gin Awards 2020 in the UK in February.

They were up against about 40 other gins from around the world in the category, while the awards as a whole attracted about 450 gins — the most entries in the awards’ seven-year history.

Schmidt is the gin’s founder and master distiller but the couple started Frankie’s Olde Soft Drinks in 2006. The stylishly packaged and popular craft soda made national headlines when it took on Woolworths in a "David and Goliath" battle after Woolworths copied its packaging a few years ago — they won, forcing the large listed retailer to can that range. The couple subsequently sold the business to Clover in 2015, and moved from KwaZulu Natal to Cape Town.

It may seem they have a keen interest in liquids but, to Schmidt, it’s about creating brands. "The Frankie’s thing was about looking around the marketplace and realising there were no craft soft drinks in SA. After the sale of Frankie’s to Clover SA we looked around for another opportunity and decided to get in on the worldwide popularity of craft gin."

So how did they make the change to booze? They went on a few courses to learn the basics of distillation. "We’re a pretty creative family but it’s really about selecting ingredients that you are familiar with," he says. Coming from KwaZulu Natal, Schmidt is understandably a big curry fan and this manifests in the ingredients used in their gins — including cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, orange, lemon and angelica root. Above and beyond the all-important juniper, of course.

A new challenge

Schmidt says the gin market is overplayed. "The craft gin market isn’t as craft as everybody is led to believe." Many gins are produced from existing gin, with a few additional ingredients blended in and then portrayed as craft gin, he says. "There’s so much competition and for a small business like ours, winning an award of this size is hopefully the best way to get the traction we need in a crowded market. Without it, it’s hard to get noticed."

It’s been a struggle to find traction and distribution. Obtaining the licensing has been "something of a nightmare". It took 20 months to obtain an excise registration from the SA Revenue Service and 14 months to get their licence to manufacture from the Western Cape Liquor Authority, which they received only five-and-a-half months ago. This meant they could produce the gin but they couldn’t sell it.

"Establishing a route to market is without doubt the most important aspect for any new business if they are to have any chance of success. But we’ve struggled in this area. There are so many gins out there in fancy bottles with fancy labels that fall way short in terms of quality and frankly the consumer is confused.

"The gins we produce are properly distilled using a traditional London Dry method and we feel that the quality of what we produce has been endorsed by this award." They see their gins in the same category as Hendricks, Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray: a good quality classic.

Their success in the awards piqued the interest of Pick n Pay, which approached Schmidt after they won the first stage of the world gin awards, walking away with "best in SA" in January.

The plan is to go national, and they are also working on potential international markets. "We’ve been talking to people in Australia and Europe especially Germany, the UK and, until recently, China."

Schmidt disagrees that the gin revolution has peaked and will soon be replaced with something like rum mania. Rather, what’s hurting the market is the amount of "bogus craft gin" that is on the shelves and consumers are being misled into believing that what they’re buying is hand-crafted.

He says it’s not clear how large the local gin market is locally, adding that big players like Distell and KWV are clearly interested and are now doing "craft gins", which must indicate the value that they see in this market segment.

Has he approached Woolworths to sell their product? Well, Woolworths doesn’t sells hard liquor (it only sells wine) so that avoids a possibly awkward scenario.