Three brothers bring Free State flavours to life in your glass
“Cosmos and khaki bush”, the way Gerrit du Plooy says it, makes it sound like he is talking about a saucy radio story or a steamy novel. But this morning, in the old milking shed on Oppermanshoogte, his mother-in-law’s maize farm between Oranjeville and Deneysville near the Vaal Dam, he’s actually singing the praises of two of the more unconventional botanical ingredients in the “pure Free State” gin he and his two younger brothers are distilling and selling under the De Vry brand.
Although these two weeds were brought into the country with animal feed from Argentina way back when, they’re such a big part of the cultural landscape of the Free State today that the Du Plooy brothers simply had to use them. Their dream was to distil spirits from grain they – or farmers in the area – grow so that the final product reflects this environment.
Here’s how the De Vry story started: Gerrit, the oldest brother who farms on Oppermanskraal with cattle and “a few sheep, maize and sorghum for the the fun of it” (but nowadays focuses mostly on his abbatoir), went to visit his middle brother, Pasch, who heads up the restaurant Dutch East in Franschhoek.
“See, we all love cooking and genuine stuff, quality goods: good meat, good red wine, good gin, good fish, good brandy, good rum, good coffee. So that holiday we ate lots of meat and looked deep into a lot of bottles – just around the time gin fever really hit, especially in the Cape,” says Pasch, who’d already been experimenting with a still in his garage by then. He’d been thinking of starting a unique, proudly South African distillery, but wasn’t sure how to get the ball rolling.
After their holiday chats, and on his way back to the Free State, Gerrit had an idea. He phoned Pasch and, in February 2016, they began converting the old milk shed into a professional distillery. Albert, the youngest, with a background in sales and marketing, got involved to manage the marketing and consignments from Pretoria.
“For us, from the outset, it was about quality and making something that is unique to the Free State. Our big dream was to make a single-grain whisky and rum, but at that stage the big thing was gin, a spirit we happen to like too. >
You could call us boerseuns if you like, but we grew up with gin and tonic and bitters – ironically because our grandmother, who couldn’t stand the British, loved to drink it,” laughs Gerrit.
“We thought we’d start with a cherry gin – cherries are, after all, another Free State export – but as we did more research and read almost every possible book and website about the process, we realised you should first make a good gin before you can flavour it with cherries. We were fascinated by all the botanicals and the different styles used for gin, and so happened upon the cosmos and khaki bush that grow here on the farm,” says Pasch.
“We decided: come on, we want to do our thing and try on our own, because Pasch is attuned to tastes… He got that big nose of his for one reason: his
sense of smell is better than ours,” says Gerrit.
“Right,” chips in Albert, the youngest brother who owns a fuel station in Pretoria and is called “Boere” by his brothers, “and so you made the worst damned gin in history – basically a massive gin slush puppy – and served it at my wedding in October 2016!”
The other two look pretty sheepish, but counter immediately: every single one of De Vry’s recipes has since been perfected to taste exactly the way the brothers want it to taste. Vodka, for example, was never part of their plan, but they needed it as a base for the whisky they want to produce.
In between the experiments, the trio’s path crossed with that of Whitespace Creative Direction, a creative agency in Cape Town, who helped them build a brand from their wild idea.
“We had to fill in a form, and our only request was that we weren’t looking for any Afrikaans at all. This had nothing to do with the language, but we didn’t want to create any controversy… It was just around the time when the ‘Fees must fall’ movement was at its peak, and here come three Afrikaans
boertjies from the Free State who’ll be making gin and rum and vodka…”
That’s how De Vry was born – and along with it, their motto (Passion Freedom Country), the amusing, historical and, go figure, Afrikaans names for their products, as well as stylishly minimalist packaging that won a silver award at the 2017 Loerie Awards.
The three brothers gaze proudly at the small mountain of barrels they started accumulating in 2016. There are about 2 500 litres of alcohol that are slowly maturing, “about 300 litres of whisky, which we’ll probably release by 2020, about 300 litres of barrel-aged gin, of which we’ll release up to 400 bottles a year, and the rest is all rum”.
Oh, yes, says Gerrit, you know about the cattle manure, right? Manure?
“Look, the Scots use peat for their whisky, and peat is basically compost. Plant material. Exactly what cattle manure is. So… we want to try to smoke our whisky with manure. Cattle manure has an incredible smell. Like the Free State, you could say.”