craft distilleries

Craft distilleries around South Africa are producing spirits full of flavour

Craft distilleries are become more and more popular but, contrary to popular belief, the distillation of spirits is a relatively modern art. It was only at the time of the industrial revolution that the whiskey, rum, vodka and gin, as we know them today, began to be developed.

Although distillation is a rather simple process of separating the alcohol from a fermenting, carbohydrate-based brew by selective boiling and condensation, the equipment required for efficient and safe spirit production took many hundreds of years to develop.

The earliest evidence of distillation comes from Alexandria, in Roman Egypt, in the 1st century BC. Yes, we take our favourite spirits for granted and assume that something as special as whiskey has been around since the days of Braveheart, but this is not true.

China, India and Europe all developed basic and, what we would consider, very primitive distilling processes from that time onwards.

The spirits were very weak and by the Middle Ages, chemists were reported to carry out as many as 500 to 600 distillations in order to obtain a pure spirit! In the early 19th century, the basics of modern techniques including pre-heating and reflux were developed, but it was the emergence of chemical engineering as a discipline at the end of the 19th century that was the greatest contributor to today’s delightful range of strong drink.

In the mid 1900’s, governments worldwide almost killed off the art of distilling. The thousands of micro, boutique or craft distilleries that had been handed down from father to son were banned and destroyed and large corporations obtained the sole rights to distil mass produced, but well-marketed mediocre spirits.

Return of craft distilleries

Thankfully laws around the world are being liberalised and craft distilleries are on the rise.  For those of you, who enjoy something special and want to pair their spirits with their food, mood and the atmosphere, there are new delightful, well-crafted and very special spirits appearing on shelves and more importantly, in on-line stores.

craft distilleries 2

At the Thirsty Traveler, we take our food, brews, wine and spirits very seriously and, at times, light-heartedly too. Thus, in the true spirit of investigative journalism, we embarked on some very careful research at a recent craft distilling tasting.

We spent an evening at the Brickmakers Distillery Co in Port Elizabeth where owner, Eugene Coertzen, introduced us to his distilling process before we embarked on our tasting. This is what our team of twelve – journalists, taste specialists, chefs, distillers and foodies, discovered.

Distillery 031

 Distillery 031 was founded in 2008 in Durban by Andrew Rall, who chose the name in reference to the Durban’s dialling code. 

After a trip to Scotland, Andrew was intrigued by the distillation process and fascinated in the wide variety of flavours that could come from different single malts. Rum was his spirit of choice and on a trip to the US, he discovered premium aged rums.

Inspired and motivated by his spiritual experience, Andrew converted his garden cottage into a tiny distillery in 2007, obtained a home distiller’s licence and began experimenting in a land that is one of the largest sugar cane producers in the world.

What began as a hobby turned into a business. Andrew says,  “Station Drive was the perfect home for the distillery and complemented my vision for Distillery 031, which is to capture the essence of contemporary Durban in the spirits we produce … Durban Distilled.”

As craft distilleries go Distillery 031 produces a wide variety of spirits including 031 Vodka, Bay of Plenty Rum, Ancestors Absinthe, Limited Edition 10-Year-Old Potstill Brandy, Durban Dry Gin, Barrel Aged Gin, Agua Zulu Cachaca and four liqueurs – Vanilla & Baobab, Naartjie & Rooibos, Cinnamon & Wild Dagga, Heart Of Darkness.

“Because our spirits are produced in small batches, we are actively involved in every step of the distillation process, from the sourcing of high quality, local raw materials to the hand distilling, bottling and labelling,” adds Andrew.

We tasted Distillery 031’s Durban Dry Gin and Barrel Aged Gin.

Durban Dry Gin

Durban Dry Gin

This is a classic London Dry style gin. Having sampled many of the countries boutique gins, I have to say that this is the most quintessential gin to come out of South Africa. Think gin and tonic, think Durban Dry Gin.

Although the gin is made with a blend of ten botanicals including African Rosehi, the juniper still stands forth.

The Distillery 031 website describes Durban Dry Gin as having a strong citrus nose with distinctive but subtle juniper coming through. There’s a ‘sweetness’ and a distinct floral character in the background not found in most London Dry gins. The palate is deliciously oily and thick, covering the tongue thoroughly.

At first, on the tip of your tongue, juniper hits you square in the palate – nice and fresh. The middle has a nice build, with a touch of a floral nature orris root, cardamon and African rosehip. Lemon follows before giving way to a touch of heat, juniper in the back of the mouth with subtle pepper and cassia bark on the finish. It is a well-rounded Classic London style gin.

Liesl, one of our team, commented, “This is a very complex gin, starts off with botanical, floral notes and in the middle the juniper and cardamom come through. The finish is woody and peppery.”

Barrel Aged Gin

Barrel aged gin

Essentially similar to the Durban Dry Gin, the Barrel Aged Gin differs in being aged in French oak barrels.

Distillery 031 describes the Barrel Aged Gin as being aged for a limited time to retain the freshness that characterises a good gin. This unmistakeable gin has a subtle citrus nose, with juniper and some of the warmth of oak coming through. The palate is smooth, oily and thick, covering the tongue thoroughly. It begins on the tip of the tongue with the freshness of juniper.

The middle has a nice build, with a touch of florals, natural orris root, cardamom and African rosehip. Subtle citrus follows, then gives way to a subtle spiciness in the back of the mouth, imparted by the French Oak.

The oak mellows the spirit, generating tannins that transmit a light sweetness combined with vanillins and fruity flavours. It adds a hint of toasted almond flavour to the finish.

Liande, from our team, said, “Citrus at first, the sweetness of the oak is prominent and comes with almond in the end.  Delicious with tonic.”

Agua Zulu Cachaca

Distillery 031 has produced Africa’s first cachaça (kuh-shah-suh). Essentially, a white rum, cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice that is fermented and distilled.

Água Zulu Cachaça is crafted in small batches in their copper pot, using high quality KwaZulu-Natal sugar cane for a uniquely Durban flavour. The sugar cane juice used for Água Zulu Cachaça is pressed and fermented within 24 hours of harvesting to ensure that it retains the freshness of the sugar cane from which it is crafted.

Described as having an inviting nose, which alludes to the verdant sugar cane fields from which it is born. On the pallet fresh, grassy flavours open, followed by citrus and earthy notes.  The finish is extremely smooth with warm butterscotch and vanilla flavours.

Darren described this as, “Not your average rum. Sharp taste, but finishes very smooth.  A unique take on a classic rum.”

Eugene, himself a distiller, says, “Clean aromas with neat but subtle tastes. Sweet with a hint of vanilla. A very good white rum.”

Brickmakers Distilling Co

Owned by Eugene Coertzen this boutique distillery has only been going for few years, but is already producing some top class rum. 

Eugene developed an interest in wine making, brewing and distilling thanks to the influence of his grandfather’s amateur wine and brandy production.

Eugene decided to take his interest to a professional level and hence the incorporation of Brickmakers Distilling Co

As craft distilleries go this is a gem. This distillery currently produces two rums, Rhino Rum and Spiced Rhino Rum.

Rhino Rum

Rhino rum

Eugene says this rum has strong tastes of raisin, toffee, butterscotch, vanilla as well as a hint of smoke.

Kirsten, from our team, said, “The nose is very good in terms of blend descriptors. The taste of raisin is strong initially with a heavy smoke aftertaste. I find this to be a well-balanced rum with good body. It is fantastic when mixed with coco-pine juice. A great summer dink with loads of ice.”

“This rum reminds me of Sunday afternoons as a child making sure I eat all my lunch to be awarded with two scoops of rum and raisin ice cream.  The most delightful mix I had this evening was when mixed with pear and coconut juice,” says Janine.

Spiced Rhino Rum

This was one of the evening’s favourites with tastings accompanied by strong exclamations of delight. I think every person tasted this rum at some point during the evening and all the comments were very complimentary.

According to Eugene, it has a taste of cinnamon, liquorice, citrus, vanilla with a hint of ginger.

Liande said, “This is amazing! My new favourite drink. I love how the spices come through in layers, each of which I can taste individually. I loved this rum neat, on the rocks and I tried it with a variety of mixers. The best was crushed lemon, ice and soda water.”

It says a lot about this rum that the ladies on our team enjoyed it as much as the men.  When we first put our team together, many of the ladies asked not to be rum tasters.

“Wow, wow, wow. This rum wants to make me gather my troops and join an island party! It is an amazing mix of spices. Liquorice is the first flavour sensation, followed by subtle hints of vanilla and ginger,” adds Janine.

Boplaas

Boplaas of Calitzdorp is a well-known wine estate in South Africa and their port has become legendary.

Owned by the Nel family, the distilling history of this farm dates back to their pot still brandy of 1880. After the repeal of distilling licenses in the early 1920’s, Boplaas’ copper pot lay dormant for almost 70 years until it was fired up again in 1989.  Boplaas is one of the top craft distilleries in the country.

Today, Boplass produces excellent brandy. The fertile alluvial soil and climatic conditions of the region allow the Colombard grapes to thrive and are ideal for the crafting of the finest rabat or distilling wine. Brandy production at Boplaas is a craft and only a few barrels are bottled annually.

Lately, Boplass has produced a number of other spirits with the same dedication and passion. We thoroughly enjoyed tasting the Cape Pink Gin and the Small Batch Blended Grain Whisky.

Important note: Whiskey that originates from Ireland contains an ‘e’. Whisky distilled in the same tradition but from outside of Ireland is spelt without an ‘e’.

Cape Pink Gin

Boplaas gin

The pink of this gin is, not surprisingly, a product of a Port infusion. Boplaas claim that this is South Africa’s first premium Port-infused gin and that they have brought their skill and innovation to the crafting of this one-of-a-kind gin.

Their tasting notes say that Boplaas Port-infused Gin stands out with the alluring King Protea combination of pink and silver flashes. Its juniper core leads on the nose, accompanied by notes of ripe red berries, rose petals, sprightly orange zest and a tinge of star anise complexity. The aromas linger through to the palate, providing a lively, dry and satisfying finish.

“The berry and rose notes are prominent. The orange zest makes this gin quite fruity. An enjoyable gin,” says Liesl.

Lindsay adds, “This is exactly what I expect when I drink a pink gin. It looks likes roses and tastes like roses! Its mix of flavours gets your taste buds tingling and the dry aftertaste is perfection.”

Boplaas Small Batch Blended Grain Whisky

Boplaas whisky

The Scottish and the Irish hold all the cards when it comes to Whiskey but, nevertheless, they are being challenged by some wonderful local Whiskies, one of which is the Boplaas Small Batch Blended Grain Whisky.

This Boplass whisky is finished in old brandy maturation barrels resulting in a medium-bodied whisky that most palates will enjoy.

On the palate, the whisky is smooth and luxurious with a sweetness that evolves into a mouth-warming sense of buttery toast and dried fruit. Its finish is dry with a gentle lingering note of oak sawdust, say the Boplaas tasting notes.

Luxurious, I find, is the perfect adjective for this whisky. Whereas most Scotch is rather austere, the Boplaas whisky fills the senses with velvet smoothness.

Eugene says, “Very interesting from the first inhalation. It reminds me of an old plaas huis.  On the palate it is very smooth and subtle but also fruity and almost brandy like.”

Deep South Distillery

The Deep South is the name given to the part of the peninsula south of the Old Cape Road (Oukaapseweg) and it now lends its name and identity to the southern-most distillery in Cape Town.

Steve Erlank, owner of Deep South Distillery, clearly loves the mountains and fynbos of this beautiful part of South Africa.

Steve says that he was, “Inspired by the natural beauty and creative life style in the valley, and decided to forsake corporate life and pursue a long-held dream of establishing a craft distillery.”

Only having opened its doors to the public in December 2017, Deep South has already won awards with its gin.

Deep South Distillery is able to manufacture and bottle almost any spirit, but currently focuses on gin, vodka and rum.

Steve adds, “We cannot rule out the occasional experiment here and there!”

We had the pleasure of tasting Deep South’s Cape Dry Gin and Ruby Gin.

Cape Dry Gin

I prefer my gins to be in the London Dry tradition as I found the Cape Dry Gin to be. In fact, this is one of the best gins that I have tasted and it is not hard to see why it was awarded a double-gold medal at the 2017 Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Awards.

The Cape Dry contains a balanced blend of juniper, coriander, angelica root, honeybush, cardamom, lemon peel, and mountain buchus.

The tasting notes for the Cape Dry Gin say that the aroma has bright pine and lemon scents underscored by soft herbaceous fynbos and a surprising hint of sweet spice.

The palate displays across the full juniper spectrum with sweet candied citrus and floral herb complexity from the mountain buchu and the finish is one of sweet honeybush and a hint of pine forest woodiness.

Eugene describes his experience of Cape Dry Gin as, “Juniper notes and I enjoy the citrus and dry taste. One of the few South African craft gins that I enjoy.”

“Fresh botanical notes. There are hints of rosemary and other herbs. The juniper and fynbos flavours are very subtle, but delicious. This is a fresh, clean tasting gin that is perfect for summer,” adds Liesl.

Ruby Gin

The tasting notes for this gin say that it challenges you to play and that it is equally delicious sipped neat, on the rocks, as a cocktail in a tall glass with muddled fruit and a mixer, or enjoyed with tonic or a dry ginger ale and garnished with citrus and herbs of your choice.

The aroma has top notes of rose and citrus on a scented herbaceous lavender background, spiked with sweet spice.

The palate combines juniper and lavender on the mid-palate, encased in Turkish Delight flavours from the pelargonium. Complexity and density provided by the honeybush and spices. It finishes with deep berry jam and fynbos linger with sweet spice and persistent lavender.

The botanicals in this gin contain coriander, angelica root, honeybush, lemon peel, orris root, cassia bark, lavender, elderberry and rose pelargonium.

“A very rosy taste and light on the palate. A highly flexible gin when it comes to garnishes. I experimented heavily with everything from cucumber to strawberries and watermelon and they all worked deliciously,” says Liande.

Liesl commented, “A very sweet and heady gin. Think ruby red velvet on your palate. There is a strong flavour of rose and hibiscus and finishes off with lavender notes.”

Qualitico Craft Distillery

Proudly located in Phalabowra, this husband and wife owned and run distillery produces a wide variety of spirits. 

Master Distiller Pierre Raubenheimer began distilling as a hobby and enjoyed it so much that he and his wife now own a thriving and popular distillery.

We have tasted and written about Qualitico Craft Distillery’s wonderful Grey Hawk Craft Gin in the past. 

At this tasting we sampled their Whisky.

Aging Qualito Heimer Craft Whisky

Qualitico whisky

The most noticeable feature of this whisky is the bottling. It is nothing like the shape or labelling found in the more traditional whiskies and, most notably, it has pieces of oak sitting in the bottom of the bottle. Johnny Walker is rolling in his grave!

However, if you look past these anomalies, and open your mind, this is a very pleasant spirit.

On their website, the Raubenheimers say, “Hold a measure of authentic hand-crafted Aging Qualito Heimer Craft Whisky up to the light. Drink in hues reminiscent of a Lowveld sunset or the heart-warming coals of a Rooikrans campfire. These rich golden tones are the gift of time.”

They add, “Our Whisky slumbers in barrels of red wine oak before being perfected by oak flakes added by our master distiller to each individual bottle before further maturation. With the passage of time, notes of hazelnut and butterscotch flow gently into each other just like the Olifants and Gai Selati Rivers come together in this beautiful valley that we call home.”

We found this Whisky to be more of a liqueur in taste and as it is not chill-filtered, when you add ice or water, a haze might appear.

Janine, our most descriptive taster, said, “This is definitely a sweet, pleasant liqueur rather than a whisky.  Caramel and nutty flavours are clear.  It reminds me of the inside of Rolo chocolates.”

“Very pleasant as a dessert drink. The butterscotch is distinct,” added Jonothan.

Draymans Brewery

Moritz Kallmeyer is the dedicated owner and passionate brewer and distiller of Draymans Brewery located in Silverton, Pretoria.

Since a very young age Moritz has been interested in brewing and what started out as a hobby has grown into a profession. In 1997, Moritz began brewing full time in his garage.  Malt was stored in the spare bedroom and the car was parked permanently outside the garage!

In 2000, he moved to an old house in the Silverton industrial area and had it revamped into a fully functional craft brewery. Drayman’s beer is distributed throughout the Gauteng area to popular restaurants, bars, pubs, taverns and selected bottle stores.

With his desire to experiment it is not surprising that Moritz expanded into the distilling business too. Today, Drayman’s produces mampoer and whisky.

We had the pleasure of tasting his single malt whisky.

 Drayman’s Single Malt Whisky

Draymans Whisky

Made in the same way as its Scottish inspiration, Drayman’s whisky, by South African law, faces the same stringent quality controls as Scotch.

Moritz says, “Being on the Highveld, the unique maturation influence of terroir was anticipated with excitement. I have a small but devoted operation where care and passion are the essential ingredients and my aim is to make premium quality whisky.”

He adds, “I do know that in consumer perception I can never in a 100 years hope to match the legendary counterparts from Speyside or Islay. However, I am both humbled and enthusiastic about the challenge of striving to achieve ‘Scotch’ perfection in South Africa.”

I personally enjoyed this whisky very much. It is, in many senses, similar to Scotch but also uniquely different. 

Perhaps it is the veld, perhaps it is the thin air but the Highveld has a very distinctive smell and I found a hint of this nose in Drayman’s Single Malt Whisky.

Kevin says, “A gentle nose with a smooth palate. An easy drinking whisky.”

Wilderer Distillery

We have enjoyed Wilderer’s gins at past tastings and we looked forward to the Rogue Apple Pie Moonshine and Fynbos Grappa with anticipation.

Wilderer was established by Master Distiller Helmut Wilderer in Stellenboch in January 1995 and enjoys the distinction of being South Africa’s very first state-of-the-art private grappa distillery.

The Wilderer Distillery produces a number of award-winning spirits including gins, grappa and eau de vie from two premises.

Helmut hand-picked Ulrich Kothe to design and install the stills for Wilderer Distillery as Kothe is world-renowned as an innovative, experienced supplier to the most advanced distilleries.  

Rogue Apple Pie Moonshine

Apple Pie Moonshine

Moonshine is such a lovely name and is derived from the illicit distilleries that were hunted by American authorities during the period of Prohibition. To avoid detection, the distillers conducted their art at night with only the light of the moon looking down on their secret hiding places.

There are no rules governing the use of the name Moonshine in spirits, but traditionally Moonshine as distilled from fermented corn.

The Rogue Apple Pie Moonshine was another of the evening’s favourites.

Lindsay loved the Moonshine and says, “This takes me to a log cabin on a snowy Christmas Day in the USA. The nose is amazing and the taste even better.”

Janine, another fan, adds, “What a delightful burst of flavours! It is sweet but not overly so. I love the cinnamon and nutmeg.  To me this is a meal finisher and I would sooner enjoy a glass of this Moonshine than have a plate of apple pie.”

This wonderful spirit is a typical example of what makes craft distilleries so awesome.

Fynbos Grappa

grappa

The Wilderer website has the following to say about their Grappa, “This healing herb bitter is a uniquely South African speciality produced from over thirty fresh herbs endemic to the Western Cape, including wild rosemary, African wormwood, devil’s claw and buchu. The herbs are distilled without any added flavouring, colourants or sugar. Expect detailed herb aromas that range from nut and spice to revitalising mint. Enjoy after a meal as a digestive or before retiring for the evening.”

In reading my tasting notes, I described the Fynbos Grappa as “refreshing and clean; reminds me of my hike of the fynbos-covered Cape Fold Mountains. I love the buchu!”

Kirtsen says, “I love the nose. Reminds me of baked biscuits – perhaps vanilla or butterscotch. The taste is bitter and sharp as you would expect from a grappa. Best on loads of ice.”

Zululand Distilling

Zululand Distilling is located on the KZN North Coast and their premium rums carry the Tapanga label. A tapanga being the tool used to chop down sugarcane, also known as a machete.

Tapanga Rum is one of South Africa’s first ‘Rhum agricole’ or cane juice rum’s. This style of rum originated in the French Caribbean islands and Brazil and is distilled from freshly squeezed sugar cane juice rather than molasses.

The Tapanga Rums are single estate Rum and are bottled in limited batches.

Tapanga White Rum

Tapanga white rum

The Tapanga website has this to say, “This clean, smooth Rhum Agricole is delicate and soft on the palate, with an aroma of tropical botanicals is ideal to mix with your favourite mixer or that special cocktail. Our fresh sugarcane ingredient magically escapes the bottle proving the authenticity of this rum.”

Well-liked by all who tasted this rum, Darren, a Star Wars fanatic, says, “The force is strong with this rum. Smooth and best enjoyed neat and any mixing will dilute the awesome flavour.  The nose is sharp but pleasant. An after dinner, fire side rum.”

Eugene, a rum distiller himself, adds, “Very good aroma of vanilla and caramel. There is also something mysterious that I cannot identify and it intrigues me. Smooth on the palate. I would say that this is the best Rhum Agricole that I have tasted.”

Tapanga Gold Rum

This is the barrel aged Tapanga Rum and it has a prominent vanilla nose with an attractive, well-balanced, dry taste and long fruit and floral finish. The barrels add a touch of class and Tapanga Gold Rum is ideal sipping neat or on the rocks.

Kirsten shouts, “Vanilla, vanilla, vanilla. Fragrant and sweet on the nose. Spicy and full on the palate. Very good overall.”

“Very sharp at first but smooths off wonderfully on the palate,” adds Darren.

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