ALCHEMY IN ACTION
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.
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.
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.”
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.