The craft gin scene is a phenomenon – but beware of fakes

The craft gin scene is a phenomenon – but beware of fakes

The craft gin craze is everywhere as hobbyists turn their garage and stoep ventures into profitable businesses. But who’s really crafting fine gins, and who is hoodwinking us with flavoured vodkas? It happens – happily, the genuine gins are in the ascendance. TGIFood got its tumbler ready and stumbled out to look for guidance.

There are numerous festivals, exclusive appreciation clubs, dedicated bars and gin experiences mushrooming all over South Africa to heed the call of the craft-gin-crazy consumer. Quirky names and bespoke packaging add to the dizzying dilemma of discerning fact from fiction in the budding industry. It’s a bit of a maze, especially when you’re a few cheap, imported gins down and want to sip the “real” stuff.

It’s safe to say craft gin is a bit of a thing in South Africa. In 2015, there were about a dozen gin distilleries in South Africa and now there are over 65. In 2018, gin consumption shot up by 50% and totalled 15.2 million litres. 

Image of juniper berries by Markéta Machová from Pixabay

South Africa has mapped out quite clearly what counts as gin legally. Gin is produced by distilling fermented and mashed grain plus one essential ingredient – juniper berries. It doesn’t matter which “common salt or harmless aromatic plants or seeds have been added thereto”, nut juniper berries are a non-negotiable. It must have the distinctive taste and aroma of gin and must have an alcohol content of at least 43%.

Photo of juniper berries with lemon wedges by Jez Timms on Unsplash

What counts as a craft gin is much harder to define.

For Lorna Scott, the founder of Inverroche gin distillery, a craft gin is one that is locally made in small batches in a non-industrial way. She says most start life being hand-crafted in small stills on a stoep or in a garage and launch into the industry with outlandish names, labels and bottles. 

At Inverroche, a bottle of gin passes through 16 pairs of hands during production and they grow and harvest their own fynbos. That all goes into Scott’s original pot still, Meg.

Ginologist, a gin made in Johannesburg, started life on the stoep of Albert van Wyk’s apartment in Stellenbosch while he was working at Distell. He says his entry into the industry was “a hobby that went too far”. Now, Ginologist exports to 11 countries and has gathered 50 awards in three years.

He echoes Scott and adds that a small batch can be defined by no more than 100,000 litres absolute alcohol or 310,000 bottles being produced in a batch.

Behind an artisanal chocolate shop in central Cape Town, and in what used to be a morgue until recently, you’ll find The Gin Bar. The “speakeasy” stocks over 70 local gins and its signature G&T menu includes “cures” for ills such as pessimism, impulsive buying and toothache.

The Gin Bar’s interior is light, bright and breezy. Outside is a courtyard decked out with twinkling lights and greenery. Photo: Joelle Davidson/The Gin Bar

The bar’s manager, Kenan Tatt, says a craft gin is one that is “a product of its environment” – it’s made with locally sourced ingredients and love from the distiller.

South Africa’s privilege of having an entire floral kingdom conducive to adding depth and flavour to gin is what inspired Scott to start Inverroche in Stilbaai a decade ago. At the time, she was the deputy mayor of the local municipality and wanted to help to develop the local economy.

She had noted that craft gin was taking the United Kingdom by storm and realised the small coastal village could use the botanicals from the surrounding Cape Floral kingdom to make a luxury product which would create employment and honour the indigenous knowledge of its medicinal and culinary use.

She also hoped that by raising more awareness about the plants it would contribute to stopping the encroachment of farming and invasive alien plants on the endemic biome.

Inverroche runs a Gin Sensorium and School at its distillery in Stilbaai where visitors can make their own bottle of gin from start to finish. Video: Inverroche

She believes that the diversity in fynbos is what allows local gin makers to experiment with new and unusual flavours. Van Wyk says this is what makes South African gin stand out and Tatt points out that these gins introduce these relatively unknown flavours to the world.

However, spotting a good craft gin in South Africa is becoming increasingly difficult as the local market is flooded with gins cloaked in misleading packaging and prices.

A good craft gin is all about taste. The juniper taste must be noticeable – if not, you might be sipping a flavoured vodka. Tatt urges gin drinkers to look beyond the botanicals and decipher whether the gin is made with a quality base spirit.

Van Wyk warns that a lot of gins are made using poor quality spirit and are poorly balanced. He says you’ll only know this once you buy the bottle and pour a drink. To guard against this, he recommends buying gin which has won awards. 

Scott recommends researching the gin by asking your bartender about it, scouting its website or visiting the distillery yourself to check its authenticity before making a purchase. 

When tasting a gin, Scott advises that you taste it neat with a few drops of water. This will release the aromas and make it more accessible.

First smell it – pick up the “piney juniper back note”. Take a small sip and roll it over the tongue. If it’s well-made, you will experience a smooth mouth feel and taste a mix of citrus, dry, spicy and floral notes.

Add some tonic and a curl of citrus zest and keep an eye on how well it mixes.

A Gin Bar White Negroni. Photo: Joelle Davidson/The Gin Bar

While the interest in gin has picked up, the misconceptions have ballooned too.

Tatt has found that many people think that a locally made gin automatically qualifies as a craft gin – he reminds them that passion and care are critical ingredients too. He believes  craft gin should challenge people’s ideas and get them to move beyond the traditional G&T.

Scott has found that many gin fans misunderstand the often high price of craft gin. She points out that craft gin makers do not benefit from economies of scale like global brands, yet they too need to pay for local production and botanicals. A lot of money is also put towards getting the brand out there “because of the glut of local craft gins, especially copy-cat gins, it also costs more to be noticed”.

Van Wyk has found that gin drinkers believe that the colour of a gin impacts on its flavour; however, the colour is added purely for a bit of visual flair. He also says that many people think gin makes you depressed – he says this might apply to traditional dry, bitter gins but he that the bright and bold flavours of today make gin a “cheerful drink”.

Yes, the Gin Bar serves the hangover cure Corpse Reviver cocktail. It’s made all the more poignant since it’s served in a refurbished morgue… Photo: Joelle Davidson/The Gin Bar

He says gin is now a creative drink and that the pride discerning drinkers have in what they drink is what will make sure craft gin remains popular in South Africa. He predicts that the number of brands will decrease over the next few years as the market consolidates.

“They no longer want to shoot vodka or mix it with Coke so you can’t taste it. They want to drink it because they enjoy what they’re drinking. They also want to express themselves and their taste; I drink this gin because I like this about it, and I like to pour it differently to everyone else with strawberries and cucumber because that’s how I like it,” says Van Wyk.

Scott says she expects the industry to keep growing for at least the next few years. She commends it for being an industry that incorporates men and women of all ages and has few barriers to entry.

Not only is it an attractive business opportunity, but South Africans seem to have genuinely taken to it.

“I also think it will become a staple. South Africans love the outdoors, and what better than to have a Gin & Tonic at the braai, the pool or at sunset at a watering hole in the wild.” DM


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