Gin puts distillery on the road to success
Since its establishment in 1995, Wilderer Distillery has won numerous international awards for its grappa. But the company only really started tasting financial success when it released its own gin about a year ago.
story of how Wilderer Distillery became one of the world’s leading gin crafters started more than 20 years ago when Helmut Wilderer lost a restaurant that he built up to Michelin status in Baden-Baden, Germany. At the time, around the start of 1993, Helmut won a golf trip to South Africa.
During this week-long trip, he drank the worst grappa, imported from Italy, he had ever tasted. After complaining about the poor quality of grappa in South Africa, the Swiss owner of Rozendal farm in Stellenbosch convinced him to start his own distillery here. The very next day, the two set off to register the distillery and a few months later Helmut received a licence for the first privately owned distillery in SA.
Helmut took various international courses to learn the tricks of the trade and become a master distiller. Despite numerous international awards for his grappa, the business only started making real money when his son, Christian, persuaded him to make his own gin.
Christian, how was Wilderer started?
My dad swore he’d never get involved in the restaurant business again, but when he acquired the property in Simondium for his distillery, he opened his premises for grappa tastings. During the tastings, people would ask whether he didn’t have any coffee or snacks. Before long he opened a restaurant again, called Pappa Grappa. The idea was for the restaurant to serve authentic Italian and German cuisine to complement the grappa experience.
How did you get involved in the business?
I worked for my dad for three years after finishing my B.Com degree, but left in 2005, because we clashed too much. I got a job at Core Catering and within two years worked myself up from rep to a department manager with more than 60 people under me.
But when my dad decided to sell the distilling operation, I knew it would be a financial disaster to sell the property. So I offered to help him out. He would continue producing grappa, while I would take over the restaurant and find an independent distributor for the grappa. I reasoned it would be easier to find a distributor than a good restaurant manager.
Why was the business struggling?
Grappa was not taking off the way my dad envisioned – drinking grappa simply isn’t part of the South African culture. In addition, he was operating the restaurant half-heartedly because of the BadenBaden experience in which he suffered huge financial losses. He also struggled to find good staff, most probably because of language and cultural differences. He tried to import good chefs, but this didn’t work out.
Father and son team Helmut and Christian Wilderer tasting gin at the Wilderer Distillery.