ALCHEMY IN AC­TION

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A PASSIONATELY CRAFTED TIPPLE, GIN TOPS THE RANKS OF SO­PHIS­TI­CATED SPIRITS

SA’s see­ing an ex­plo­sion of all things gin – craft dis­til­leries, bars and fes­ti­vals – mir­ror­ing the global en­thu­si­asm for the ju­niper-in­fused spirit. Lo­cally, gin ex­presses it­self in an ar­ray of flavours and colours – fyn­bos-, rooi­bos- and hon­ey­bush-in­fused, crisp cit­rus and soft orange blos­som tastes, as well as blue-hued gins that trans­mute into del­i­cate pink with a splash of tonic. “In coun­tries like the UK and the USA, gin’s been grow­ing a good 10 years longer than in SA,” ex­plains Rowan Leib­brandt, Di­rec­tor of Tru­man & Orange, a Cape Town-based pre­mium drinks com­pany that’s just launched the new Malfy Gin Orig­i­nale. “This coun­try was slow to catch onto the gin trend.” The aro­matic spirit, he be­lieves, is only be­gin­ning to have its mo­ment here.

LIQ­UID MAD­NESS

Gin’s had a rocky past. It’s been pau­perised and gen­tri­fied, as­so­ci­ated with the ruin of fam­i­lies and glo­ri­ously re­in­stated.

Ex­perts say its ear­li­est men­tion was in the 13th-cen­tury nat­u­ral his­tory work, Ja­cob van Maer­lant’s

Der Na­turen Bloeme. Ac­cord­ing to www.bel­gian­gen­ever.com, gen­ever (known as the “grand­fa­ther of gin”) has been Bel­gium’s tra­di­tional drink for over 500 years.

In London in 1714, Wil­liam III’S re­lax­ation of the dis­til­la­tion laws, in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, over­crowd­ing and an in­crease in labour­ers’ wages, among other fac­tors, led to the poor work­ing class seek­ing refuge in cheap, crude gin. Its in­famy as “mother’s ruin” was bru­tally cap­tured by Wil­liam Hog­a­rth in Gin Lane, an illustration fea­tur­ing a drunken mother whose baby is fall­ing to its death. This “Gin Craze”, as the trend was known, came to an abrupt end with the grain short­age in 1757 and a sub­se­quent ban on dis­til­la­tion.

THE GINAISSANCE

To­day gin is a re­fined spirit hand­crafted by peren­ni­ally cool trend-set­ters around the world. There are over 50 in­de­pen­dent gin dis­tillers pro­duc­ing 75 – and count­ing! – South African gin brands.

“I don’t think there’s ever been an­other drink that’s been so un­ex­pect­edly rein­vented,” says Leib­brandt. “Whereas Gordon’s used to be the only game in town (my gran drank it!), we’ve seen an ex­plo­sion of in­ter­est­ing gins.”

“Gin’s ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a global re­nais­sance, with sales grow­ing world­wide at around 15%, year on year,” adds Lorna Scott, who’s cred­ited with be­ing at the fore­front of the craft gin revo­lu­tion in SA.

To­gether with her son Ro­han and daugh­ter Lau­ren, she launched In­ver­roche Gin in Still Bay in 2012. She was the first to in­fuse gin with fyn­bos. “What sets In­ver­roche apart,” she says, “is the fact that we’ve launched a set of three gins – Clas­sic, Am­ber and Ver­dant – which have a strong sense of place and his­tory. Col­lec­tively, th­ese vari­ants rep­re­sent the di­ver­sity of this unique biome.”

The In­ver­roche gin-mak­ing process in­volves weigh­ing the botan­i­cals and hand-peel­ing fresh zests. “This is all then placed in bags which are put into a gin bas­ket sus­pended above the neu­tral al­co­hol base spirit, in a 1 000-litre cop­per pot­still called Meg. The aro­matic flavour com­po­nents and del­i­cate oils are cap­tured and in­fused into the al­co­hol as it heats up,” ex­plains Scott.

The spirit that’s col­lected rests in stain­less steel tanks and a sec­ondary in­fu­sion process takes place for the Am­ber and Ver­dant, adding more fyn­bos botan­i­cals to the con­cen­trated gin base to en­hance the aro­matic pro­file.

Scott calls gin-mak­ing “alchemy in ac­tion”. “It turns the dis­tiller into an artist, as they’re us­ing their palate and skills to paint with flavours,” she says. “Ex­tract­ing a myr­iad of de­li­cious, aro­matic com­po­nents and then con­cen­trat­ing and merg­ing them into a sen­sory de­light of ever-chang­ing flavours and aro­mas is unique to gin.”

CRAFT LOVE

Pien­aar & Son is a tiny op­er­a­tion that pro­duces small-batch ar­ti­sanal gin. “Our fam­ily’s def­i­nitely had a multi­gen­er­a­tional love af­fair with gin. As far back as I can re­mem­ber, G&TS on fold-out chairs have been a Pien­aar pas­time, from my grand­par­ents all the way down to me,” says An­dré Pien­aar, the son of a chem­i­cal en­gi­neer who de­signed and built stills.

In 2013, he bought a 20-litre cop­per still with the in­ten­tion of mak­ing whisky or gin as a hobby. “When I started mak­ing gin, I loved the cre­ativ­ity it al­lowed. Many spirits are gov­erned by strict rules of what to use, how and for how long to age it, etc. Gin has far fewer rules, so there’s a lot more room to rep­re­sent your per­son­al­ity through the spirit,” he says.

“I DON’T THINK THERE’S EVER BEEN AN­OTHER DRINK THAT’S BEEN SO UN­EX­PECT­EDLY REIN­VENTED.”

Pien­aar & Son has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing smoother and less medic­i­nal than other gins. The Pien­aars use maize as their base. “It gives rise to a beau­ti­ful, hearty spirit which has a lot of uses, from gin to vodka to whisky. I be­lieve in mak­ing gin that’s de­li­cious enough to drink neat,” says An­dré.

The op­er­a­tion pro­duces two vari­ants: The Em­pire, a flo­ral, re­fresh­ing gin in­fused with cu­cum­ber, grape­fruit, lemon and car­damom, and The Ori­ent, which is in­fused with every­thing from vanilla, rose­mary, orange peel and al­monds to all­spice, ginger and cin­na­mon.

A Mari Ocean Gin, owned by Jess Hen­rich and Niel du Toit, is the only gin in the world dis­tilled with Atlantic Ocean wa­ter. “We’re both ocean-lovers and grew up by the sea,” says Jess. “We wanted to make a gin that was unique and en­com­passed the char­ac­ter of the Cape coast­line. Our newly-launched sec­ond gin, A Mari In­dian Ocean, is in­spired by the East African coast. It features botan­i­cals like ajwain seeds from In­dia, Swahili lime from Kenya and Mada­cas­can pink pep­per­corns.”

From har­vest­ing the botan­i­cals to hand-num­ber­ing each bot­tle, Jess and Niel do it all. “For us, the ap­peal of mak­ing gin lies in the abil­ity to trans­form amaz­ing plants into unique flavours – and then cre­at­ing a gin out of all of those com­po­nents. It’s an ex­cit­ing process.”

• Don’t miss the first Lowveld Gin & Tonic Fes­ti­val at Elmswood, Nel­spruit in April. Visit: http://lowveldg­in­fest.co.za

“I BE­LIEVE IN MAK­ING GIN THAT’S DE­LI­CIOUS ENOUGH TO DRINK NEAT.”

Above: In­ver­roche.Left: Al­ways in­no­vat­ing Pien­aar & Son re­leased its drought-edi­tion gins in Fe­bru­ary. It’s twice as strong, so add a sin­gle shot to your G&T.Op­po­site: Su­gar­bird.

Be­low: In­ver­roche Gins. Op­po­site: The rock­star queen mu­ral at Tonic.

Above: Pien­aar & Son.Right: A Mari Ocean Gin. Op­po­site: Wilderer Fyn­bos Gin.

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