Gin tasting evening South Africa

In Good Spirits – A South African Gin Tasting Experience

The amazing world of gin small batch distilleries

Gin has recently seen a tremendous revival. In fact, the last time gin was this popular was back in the early 1700’s. The big difference between then and now is that back then, gin was considered a social evil, hence the origin of the derogatory terms ‘gin-soaked’ and ‘gin joint’. In fact, gin was so bad 300 years ago that most of its flavour and content was derived from turpentine!

This was not always the case. Gin, or juniper, as it was originally known, was first distilled in Holland as herbal medicine in the 1500s. History records that soldiers drank juniper for its calming effects before battle, hence the term ‘Dutch courage’.

Gin only became popular in Britain when William of Orange, leader of the Dutch Republic, occupied the English, Scottish, and Irish thrones with his wife, Mary, between 1689 and 1702.

At this time, the English government allowed unlicensed gin production, and, at the same time, imposed a heavy duty on all imported spirits such as French brandy. Gin was thus, the cheapest and least controlled spirit available and its production methods became quite dubious.

Gin received another revival in the 19th century in tropical British colonies where gin was used to mask the bitter flavour of quinine. Quinine comes from a very bitter tree bark, which was the only effective anti-malarial compound at the time. Quinine was dissolved in carbonated water to form tonic water, which resulted in the now world-famous gin and tonic.

As one would expect, today’s gin is subject to more rules and regulations than ever before, especially since the European Union got involved. 

There are at least four different legal definitions for gin and any beverage bearing the name gin, must be produced in the manner stipulated. However, the one common rule is that gin is a liquor, which derives its predominant flavour from juniper berries, Juniperus communis specifically. 

Most gin today is not distilled from juniper berries but is based on some other spirit of agricultural origin and then flavoured with juniper berries. Many other flavours may be added provided that the junipers are dominant.

This allows distillers a wonderful amount of leeway and has resulted in today’s gin being one of the broadest categories of spirits with some interesting, exciting and downright fun ingredients.

Today’s craft or boutique distillers have let their imaginations run wild and we now have a massive selection of wonderful gins. Much fun can be had in discovering, which gin pairs deliciously with a particular meal, flavour or mix.

So, we at Home Food and Travel, along with a couple of experts in the tasting, distilling and mixing business, took it upon ourselves to sample some of the amazing small-batch, well-crafted gins from South Africa.

Here’s what we found.

1. De Vry Distillery – Free State

Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin, De Vry Distillery, Free State, Die Soet Rooinek

Located in the heart of the sorghum-growing area of the Free State, this craft distillery produces rum, vodka and, of course gin. Sorghum, naturally, is the base for all their spirits with specific other natural, local ingredients being added to produce their range of spirits. 

Owned and managed by the three Du Plooy brothers, who will tell you that their passion for distilling began in a manner similar to partaking in an after-school sport just for gags only to find out that you’re really good at it.

“We started De Vry Distillery as a fun initiative that soon became a meticulously crafted and truly authentic local distillery,” they described.

The minimalistic label and branding of these gins belies the complex tastes. The gins are retailed at selected locations around the country, but may also be purchased online at
www.devrydistillery.co.za

We enjoyed both their Cherry Gin and the Dry Gin.

Die Soet Rooinek Cherry Gin

Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin, De Vry Distillery, Free State, Die Soet Rooinek

This gin was well-liked by everyone of its six tasters. Almost every taster said that it reminded them of sherry.

Many of our tasters claimed that it was as tasty neat or on the rocks as it was when mixed with various tonics, cordials and herbs.

We were told that Die Soet Rooinek Cherry Gin is a seasonal gin as it is made with cherries harvested in Ceres. Handpicked and gently crushed, the cherries are then macerated in our dry gin before being filtered and bottled. 

Their website claims that Die Soet Rooinek Cherry Gin bursts with the flavour of ripe fruits, almonds and spices.

Liande Barnard, from our tasting group, says, “Tastes like sherry. I’ll be able to enjoy this gin as is as it is not overly strong; is almost sweet and has a lovely cherry aftertaste. I can see myself enjoying this gin on a cold winter evening.”

“To me this is a slow drinking gin. It is very like sherry and warms the mouth with its spicy taste,” adds Anne Udemans. 

2. Rottcher Wineries – White River, Mpumalanga

gin tasting Rottcher, Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin,

A German immigrant with the surname Rottcher settled near Greytown in the KwaZulu-Natal in 1916 and began producing orange wine, some of which became communion wine!

Three generations later, his grandson, Kurt, was still continuing with this wonderful family tradition.  

Kurt moved his winery to White River in Mpumalanga in 1959. Over the years, the winery changed hands a few times until, in 2012, Frank Theron bought Rottcher Wineries and enthusiastically began to expand operations into distilling.

Still located in White River, and now a major tourist attraction, Rottcher Wineries has become famous. Frank now produces a variety of Orange based liqueurs, a handful of gins, a delicious limoncello and of course, a mampoer.

Rotttcher Wineries products may be found at a small number of exclusive retail outlets around the country or you can purchase online at rottcher.com.

We tasted their Orange Gin and the Gin Infused with Strawberries, Mint and Black Pepper.

Rottcher Slowveld Gin – Orange

Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin, Rottcher Wineries, Slowveld Gin, Mpumalanga

Frank says, “In October 2016, I produced my first gin – the first citrus-based gin in the world.

“Instead of using grain alcohol, I extract the alcohol from my orange wine and used that to make gin. This handcrafted gin is unique in that 100% of the alcohol is made from oranges,” he adds.

I found this gin to have a wonderful orange nose. The Plantation Tonic concentrate, topped up with soda water, worked very well with this gin.

Frank says that this gin should best drunk with a good tonic and a sprig of rosemary.  We also found it delicious neat and on the rocks.

Janine, in the best simile of the day, said; “My first thought after tasting the neat Slowveld Orange Gin was of childhood memories of hockey matches and the sliced oranges being handed out at half time. This gin should be passed around in shots at half time now that I am of drinking age and playing club hockey.”

3. Qualito Distillery – Phalabora, Limpopo

This distillery is driven by two Master Distillers, who also happen to be husband and wife, Pierre and Loumarie Raubenheimer. 

To quote their website; “Since 2005, Loumarie and Pierre have formed the perfect duet with Loumarie enhancing Pierre’s fine spirits with innovative combinations of traditional and exceptional modern organics.”

Clearly, this couple, are passionate about what they do.

“A true craftsperson puts a big part of themselves into what they do. Time. Learning. Creativity. Passion. If I put something special into every bottle, then people will get something special out,” says Pierre.

Qualito is a small batch distillery based in Phalabora, in Limpopo Province, and produces a whisky, a gin and three Vodka based spirits. They also offer tours of their distillery and you can purchase their products online at: www.qualito.co.za.

Grey Hawk Classic Graft Gin

Grey Hawk gin gin tasting, Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin

Beautifully-packaged in a clear, short bottle with a wooden stopper, this gin proved to be much-liked by our tasting team. One of our tasters claimed that this was her favourite.

The tasting notes that we received from Qualito say that this gin is produced from the crystal-clear waters of the Olifants River and non-GMO grain. The spirit goes through a triple fractional distillation process, which means that complete control of the quality and character is maintained through.

“Only when we’re satisfied that we have crafted the spirit to be as a pure, clean and crisp as the Phalaborwa sky do we move on to infusing Grey Hawk Classic Craft Gin with traditional juniper berries along with three carefully selected botanicals,” says Pierre.

Loumarie adds, “Inhale the classic aroma of juniper, lemon zest and unique herbal notes. On the palate, anticipate bold juniper, sweet floral spice and fresh citrus delivering a dry lemony finish. Grey Hawk Classic Craft Gin pairs with subtle cheeses, the smokiness of salmon or the sweet saltiness of oysters.”

We also found that Grey Hawk Classic Craft Gin is complemented by a dash of Plantation Tonic concentrate.

Nadine Lombard, from our tasting team, says; “It starts crisp and fresh and the aftertaste is pure Turkish Delght.”

“Paired with cinnamon I had a definite taste of melktertjies,” adds Katherine Grewar.

4. Red Stone Craft – Clarens, Free State

Named for the beautiful Rooiberge or Red Mountains, which surround the village of Clarens, the home of Red Stone Craft, these gins are made from the delicious fruits that grow so well in this region.

Stephan Meyer is crazy about beverages. Not only is he the distiller at Red Stone Craft, but he is also the brewer at Clarens Brewery. He hasn’t just limited himself to alcoholic beverages, but has also produced a range of fruit juices.

Red Stone Craft, together with Clarens Brewery, is a tourist attraction all on its own in Clarens. They have a wonderful Gin Bar where you can sample, not just Red Stone Craft gins, but a variety of others from around the country and the globe. Also on site is a restaurant.

As if this is not enough, Stephan says; “We care about your gin experience when not at home and to that end, we’ve blended our deliciously fruity Red Stone Craft Gin with our own craft tonic water and bottled it to create a perfect ready to drink Gin & Tonic.” 

Red Stone Craft gins, as well as the brews, juices and ready mixes, may all be drunk, tasted or taken away from a restaurant at the Rosemary Centre in Main Street, Clarens.

We tasted their Gin Classic and the Infused Blueberry.

Red Stone Classic Gin

Stephan says, “This is an authentic orchard-to-bottle gin. First, we harvest, crush and ferment apples nurtured in our own orchard a stone’s throw from our distillery.

“After fermentation, we put the cider through a double purity distillation process, which gives Apple Schnapps of a superior quality into which we add a unique selection of imported herbs and botanicals, juniper being the base.”

“This rich, smooth, flavoured infusion is once again distilled in our beautiful, specially designed Gin still where we collect only the highest quality, most balanced runnings.”

Janine, from our tasting group, says; “This gin has a wow factor. I added a slice of dragon fruit, strawberry and some Indian tonic. I can easily get used to this drink!”

I found this gin to be light and fresh. It melts over the tongue; makes me think of sunlight on a spring day – a gin for a day around the pool or next to the braai.

5. Ginologist – Boksburg, Gauteng

Ginologist Gin, tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin,

While almost every other distiller at our tasting emphasised the use of local ingredients and an artful approach to distilling, Ginologists, as their name suggests, have adopted a scientific approach.

Science just doesn’t seem to be an appropriate adjective when describing food and drink.  However, after sampling the amazing Ginologists wares, I can tell you that their formula works oh so well.

For the two of us in our tasting group of six, the Ginologist Floral was our favourite. Others at our tasting also sampled the Spice and the Citrus. All received rave reviews.

Ginologist is owned by Matt van Wyk and a Secret Distilling Scientist, whose name they refuse to divulge.

In developing their three gins, the Ginologists have gone to great lengths in sourcing product, flavours and packaging from the best sources around the globe. They have experimented endlessly to find just the formula that they like.

These gins can be found at almost every gin event around the country or contact them directly to find out more: ginologist.co.za. 

Ginologist – Spice

Ginologist gin, Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin

As their website says, this is a truly unique blend of spices including black pepper and grains of paradise, complemented by cassia bark, cardamom and coriander. 

Eugene, one of our tasters, and a distiller himself, says; “Great nose, the juniper and cinnamon are very pleasant and this gin offers exactly the aroma and qualities that I look for in a good gin.”

He adds, “Smooth on taste, spicy with a good juniper berry balance. A citrus based mix or fruit balances this gin completely.” Ginologists suggest the following recipe for your enjoyment: 

Ingredients

    37,5ml Ginologist Spice

    1 Slice Fennel Bulb

    1 Lemon Wedge

    Top Tonic Water

Method:

Add Fennel & Lemon, muddle. Add Gin & Ice, top with tonic water. Lift with spoon and garnish with Dill.

6. Six Dogs Distillery – Worcester, Winelands

Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin, Six Dogs gin

Located in the little valley of De Wet, between the Breede River Valley and the Hex River Valley, Six Dogs Distillery makes use of a number of local Karoo botanicals in their gin.

This distillery has plenty of character. From their name, to the infused botanicals and their beautiful packaging, they are quit distinctive. This is the only distiller in the world that uses Karoo Thorn flower and Wild Lavender to make their gin, making them unique amongst all the gins in the world. 

It is not only their botanicals that are sourced locally, their water originates from a mountain spring that flows into a kloof on the farm.  

The distillery is located in a shed, which not so long ago, their six dogs called home – and so the name was born.

Distiller, Charles Bryant, is assisted by his brother, Glenn, and friend, Luigi Marucchi, who shared the desire to create something really special. To achieve their dream they have custom-designed a traditional copper still to their precise specifications. 

Adopting both a scientific and artful approach to their business, they use a molecular distillation process to optimise the flavour of their unique botanicals.

Six Dogs Distillery produce two gins – the Six Dogs Karoo and Six Dogs Blue, both of which can be ordered online from www.sixdogs.co.za

Six Dogs Blue

Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin, six dogs gin

Six Dogs Blue derives its name from the Blue Pea flower (Clitoria Ternatea), an antioxidant and aphrodisiac in traditional medicine.  

“As chance would have it, ‘Blue’ is also the name of the smallest dog in our pack of six. The infusion of Blue Pea gives the Gin its striking blue colour. The alchemy of this unusual botanical is further revealed when the Gin is mixed with a good tonic, changing the colour to light pink,” says Charls.

Katherine, from our tasting group, claimed this as her favourite gin.

Lauren, a coffee specialist with a wonderful knowledge of taste sensations, adds about the Six Dogs Blue; “It has an instant taste of pepper. This may sound harsh but it is in fact very pleasant. It also reminds me of liquorice Allsorts, which I loved as a child. When mixed with Plantation Tonic it was delicious!”

7. Inverroche Distillery – Stilbaai, Overberg

Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin, Inverroche gin

Arguably the most famous craft gin distillery in South Africa and probably one of the first, Inverroche’s gins are found countrywide.

Owned and operated by Lorna Scott and her two children, Rohan and Lauren, Inverroche is far more than just a distillery. They offer tours and even distilling training.

I found it very interesting that the name Inverroche is an amalgamation of the Gaelic word ‘Inver’ (meaning confluence of the waters), and Roche (French for rock). I am told that this is a celebration, not only of the founder’s shared Scottish and French Huguenot roots, but also the unique environment surrounding the distillery.

In all aspects of this distillery, you will find a strong influence of Fynbos, the unique and beautiful plant biome that surrounds Stilbaai, the home of this distillery. Inverroche claim to be the only distillery that infuses their gin with this remarkable and very fragrant group of plants. 

At our tasting, we sampled all three gins – the Classic, the Verdant and the Amber, to high acclaim. I have yet to try the 7-Year Old African Black Strap Rum and the Fynbos Botanique Liqueur, but look forward to the experience.

Inverroche – Gin Amber

The beautiful colour of this gin in its stylish bottle had my taste buds excited even before the bottle was opened.

“The Amber has a gentle, but distinctive rooibos flavour. I particularly enjoyed this gin on the rocks and found it further enhanced with a sprig of thyme and a slice of grape fruit,” says Janine, one of our tasters.

The Gin Foundry, who Inverroche quote on their website, say that there’s a good complexity to Gin Amber and with a dry, woody finish it offers up a fantastic depth. 

Lindsay, from our group, adds; “Once mixed with tonic, the rooibos flavour intensifies with every bubble popping on your tongue.”

8. A Mari – Ocean Gin, Cape Town

A Mari means ‘from the sea’ in Latin. Hence, A Mari uses Atlantic Ocean water in its distillation process.

This gin, apart from the traditional juniper, is also infused with a number of botanicals from the plant species located on the West Coast of South Africa.

A Mari Gin was created by Neil du Toit and Jess Henrich. They are two old, entrepreneurial friends, who share a passion for the ocean, distilling and, to read their brief biographies, exciting new ventures.

Their love of travel, the ocean and fauna is clearly part of the A Mari brand, be it in the taste or the packaging.

A Mari gin is mostly retailed in the Western Cape, but may be ordered online from Morvino Wine Merchants by emailing bubbles@wineorder.co.za

A Mari Atlantic Ocean Gin

The predominant flavours in A Mari include the traditional juniper, coriander and citrus, which, in A Mari’s case are tangerine, lemon and orange. Additional ingredients include angelica, allspice, cardamom and a secret selection of cape coastal fynbos.

A Mari’s tasting notes say; “The nose shows a citrus-forward freshness, echoed on the palate with highlights of citrus merging into a mid-palate of rich florals and peppery spices.”

Eugene, one of our tasters and the owner of Brickmakers Distilling Company, had this to say about A Mari; “Roses and flowers on the nose. There is a very good blend and balance of citrus and botanicals. The taste is dry and spicy with well-rounded flavours that develop after every drop.”

9. Wilderer Distillery – Paarl

Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin, Wilderer gin

Wilderer Distillery is named after Master Distiller and owner, Helmut Wilderer. Helmut has been distilling since 1995 and has the distinction of owning South Africa’s first state-of-the-art private grappa distillery.

Helmut expanded his distillation business over the past 13 years and today Wilderer produces Grappa, Eau de Vie, Schnapps and gin from two premises.

Both the Simondium premises and the Spice Route Destination Farm, have their own restaurants. Pappa Grappa and La Grapperia offer tastings of Wilderer’s wonderful spirits and liquors.

Helmut had Ulrich Kothe, a world-renowned supplier of the most advanced stills, design and install the stills for Wilderer Distillery.

These amazing stills together with Helmut’s passion, artistry and desire for perfection have resulted in the Wilderer Distillery accumulating over 50 international medals and awards.

The Wilderer Distillery has an online store found at www.wilderer.co.za.

Wilderer Fynbos Gin

The Wilderer Fynbos Gin is produced from wine spirits and unique mix of 27 botanicals including some local fynbos and the clearest spring water from the Franschhoek Mountains.

Some of the local botanicals include wild dagga, honeybush, buchu and devil’s claw, all of which offer very unique flavours as they are endemic to South Africa.

Nadine, from our tasting group, describes this gin; “It is very smooth on the palate with a soft, herbal taste. The aftertaste comes through beautifully and is spicy and strong.”

10. De Rocco Pink Gin – Benn Koppen, Port Elizabeth

Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin, De Rocca pink gin

Jonathan Roch, the owner of Ben Koppen, first became famous for his craft beers. His ambition was to create great tasting, refreshing and enjoyable craft beers.  

Surprisingly, Jonathan does not do any of the brewing himself but has recipes that are followed by various brewers around the country.

The Benn Koppen outlet is located along Main Road, in Walmer, Port Elizabeth and works on the growler exchange principle. Buy your beer and your first growler and once finished, return the growler and only pay for the refill. 

The growlers are sealed, ensuring that the beer stays fresh.

Following the same principle, Jonathan has introduced a pre-mixed gin and tonic that is also sold in a growler.

Da Rocca Pink Gin and Tonic

Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin, De Rocca pink gin

“We have taken a classic dry gin with a round and smooth mouth and combined it with Cape botanicals, the most recognizable aroma being Fynbos,” says Jonathan.

The gin itself is distilled in Stellenbosch and when delivered to Benn Koppen in Port Elizabeth. Jonathan then creates a mix with a tonic that he says best compliments the gin.

Most of us agreed that Jonathan had created an easy-drinking, uncomplicated gin and tonic. You could spend the afternoon finishing off a growler on your own, it is that good.

Janine adds; “It has cucumber and rose undertones and pairs well with a few slices of cucumber. It is a perfect summer drink!”

11. Misty Mountain Wine Estate – Stanford

Misty Mountain, Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin, Firefly gin

Misty Mountains Estate is the first member of the Stanford Wine Route to greet you as you drive to Stanford from Hermanus. Located between the banks of the beautiful Klein River Estuary and Klein River Mountains, this estate is a fully functioning wine farm.

Besides producing craft beer, cider and naturally, gin, Misty Mountains make their wines, red and white, on the estate. The gins are beautifully named; Dragonfly, Firefly and Butterfly.  

The Dragonfly Gin carries juniper and spice flavours and is very smooth while the Butterfly Gin is pink in colour and slightly sweeter than the Dragonfly.

This estate offers comfortable accommodation in beautiful surroundings and allows you all the time you need to sample the great variety of beverages offered.

Firefly Gin

Firefly Gin is the only gin that we have encountered that is infused with Peppadews.

Taryn, one of our tasters and a professional mixer, says; “There is a honey smoothness that balances well with the spicy peppadew. I found that this gin was brought to a new level of life by adding a cinnamon stick and orange zest.” 

12. Angel Heart Beverages – Johannesburg

Gin tasting, gin distilleries, South Africa, origin of gin, Ginnifer Gin, Angle Heart distilleries

Angel Heart Beverages is located in Johannesburg and they produce Angel Heart Liqueur, Two versions of the Ginifer brand of Gin, Westcliff Gin and Luvoa Vodka.

The owners say that the company was born out of a passion for creative and extraordinary alcoholic products. Having tasted their three gins, I have to say that they are certainly on the right track.

Angel Heart Beverages are very proud of their Jo’burg heritage. Many of the rural distillers in this article sourced their botanicals from the surrounding farms and even from the local veld and bush. In Jo’burg, when producing the gins, Angel Heart Beverages visit Faraday Muthi Market to source a few unique flavours.

Based in Linbro Park, they offer tours of their distillery and have a tasting area where they encourage you to mix your gin with a wonderful array of spices, herbs and non-alcoholic drinks. 

All their products may be purchased online from their website www.ahbev.com.

Ginifer Chilli Gin

I love chilli and made sure that this was the first gin that passed my lips at our tasting. The chilli comes through strong and almost, but not quite, aggressively. I was content to enjoy the Ginifer Chilli neat but found that adding ice and soda water took away some of the zing, but left it very refreshing.

This gin is made up of 13 botanicals. It takes four days to make and is aged for two months. The unique African herbs and the chilli give this gin a distinctive taste and smell.

Janine, one of our tasters, says; “I loved the chilli infusion. I can just imagine pairing this with Mellisa’s Chilli Fudge!”

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