We’ll drink to that: the gin craze looks like it’s here to stay
Dreamers behind SA craft gin boom tell us how they set up distilleries in Cape Town's inner city
More than a century ago fishermen named their neighbourhood after a hotel where they liked to drink: Woodstock. Now it is famous for another kind of drinking – craft gin tasting at its distilleries – near hip developments and street corners where textile workers smoke.
If Cape Town is the heart of SA’s “Ginaissance”, Woodstock provides the beat. More than a dozen craft gins are being made at four distilleries which have sprung up there since 2014.
An informal “gin route” through the inner city – SA’s first – was launched in 2018 and Hope on Hopkins, on a hill bordering Salt River, is the oldest of them. Hope on Hopkins was the first craft gin distillery in Cape Town.
“Do you think we can do gin?” Leigh Lisk asked his wife Lucy Beard, after they had taken 2012 off from their law careers in London, to travel in a caravan through Spain, where 45 million litres of gin was drunk that year. Some of it by them.
“You would walk into a bar in a small village and find 200 gins infused with botanicals on the shelf and 15 types of tonic,” said Beard, seated at the Hope bar where 15 of the craft gins they make are lined up. Proof that they can indeed make gin.
The bar overlooks a warehouse where column stills, nicknamed Maude, Mildred, Mouma and Mad Mary after the couple’s grandmothers, gleam and bottling machines hum. The South African founders of this pioneering distillery got the keys to the space in Woodstock in 2014 and within months they had their own stills and potions, plus Mimo the distillery cat.
“Unlike wine, many of the craft guys are not from generations of distillers,” Beard said.
At the time they started, South Africa had only two craft gin makers, Lorna Scott who made Inverroche in Still Bay and Roger Jorgensen.
“Roger Jorgensen taught us so much, spending time in the distillery with us,” said Beard. “We did lots of playing around and experimenting and, when we got our licence a year later, we were ready to go.”
In 2015 Cape Town had only two gin bars and Hope on Hopkins was a frontrunner in stirring up the gin explosion that hit the city.
Beard said the demand for craft gin was much bigger than they had imagined and was still rising.
Gin, for example, is the fastest-growing spirit among Pick n Pay liquor customers and the store offers 100 types of gin, compared with about 20 eight years ago.
“Almost a quarter of the gins we stock are local brands,” said Katie Bailie, Pick n Pay trade marketing liquor. “In 2018 we saw a rise in local celebs introducing their own gin brands, namely Mi Casa’s J Something Jin Gin, Tbo Touch’s 48Gin, and Jeannie D Finery Gin.”
Beard and Lisk make brands for others, like Musgrave Gin for Simone Musgrave, along with their three popular craft gins, vodka and a limited-release tequila.
Cape botanicals infuse their recipes and only the 200kg of juniper berries they need a month, to turn the pure spirit (that is vodka) into gin, is imported from Tuscany.
“We make 15 gins and they are all completely different,” Beard said. “Sometimes people come to tastings and say they don’t like gin, but most of them find a flavour profile they enjoy.”
Even small batch gin makers, like Woodstock Gin Co, offer visitors fine choices. Their stills are so compact that distiller Gift Chisi could virtually throw his arms around the smaller of the two.
“We do double distilling from (Darling Brew Slow) beer or (chenin blanc) wine over 48 hours. Out of about 400 litres, we get 20 litres of 90% pure alcohol,” he said, gesturing to rows of botanicals, including buchu.
The manager of Woodstock Gin, Jacques Wessels, hopes that the distillery, next to the trendy Biscuit Mill, could start its own “gin alley” like they have in London.
“We have lots of tourists coming here from the UK. Cape Town is becoming known as a major gin destination,” he said.
Barman Jerry Mbamu served gin cocktails – half a shot of gin to two of tonic - with a flourish and enticing garnishes.
But the premier “cask-aged” variety – aged in a whisky barrel – was adorned with only pink peppercorns.
Gin maker, biochemist and chemical engineer Andre Pienaar, the son in Andre Pienaar and Son Distillery, has a meticulous approach to his craft.
Their Empire craft gin won silver and the Waskis craft vodka won the gold trophy at the 2018 Michelangelo International Wine & Spirits Awards.
On their success, he said their set-up was unique with its interlaced columns of “continuous still”, designed by his father.
“We use cutting-edge technology and have very low waste,” said the frontman of Cape Town band Electric Ashtray.
Despite his scientific approach, Pienaar admitted that distilling is “part art, part science”. “Gin is about the recipe, that’s where the magic lies.”
Pienaar – who personally tasted combinations until his head spun – has the devotion of an alchemist. His first tiny copper still bought on the internet even looks a bit like Aladdin’s lamp. “Everyone was making beer in their garage as a hobby and I thought I would try gin and whisky. I started playing around and it ticked every box in my head.”
“My father made the stove (the still) and I am the chef,” said Pienaar. “Everything here is built locally by hand.”
When they got a liquor licence in 2016, Pienaar thought they were too late to catch the trend because there were eight craft gins for sale, double the number when they applied.
“Every year I think the demand will plateau, the gin bubble will burst, but it just gets bigger and bigger,” said Pienaar.
Not bad for a spirit which is, in essence, flavoured vodka.