The gin-nification of Cape Town is showing no signs of slowing down. Not only have we seen an unprecedented expansion of new and established craft distilleries, but also some really avant-garde interpretations of this age-old juniper-based spirit. Capetonians are now blessed with a vast selection of gin with different style and quality profiles, and the movement looks set to leave other global gin capitals quaking in their boots. Benn van der Westhuizen shines a spotlight on some of the dark horses making waves right now in the South African gin scene. Stay tuned for a follow-up feature showcasing our list of prime hotspots to enjoy gin in the Cape.
Here’s another Cape Town first – A Mari Ocean Gin (43% ABV) is currently the only gin in the world using Atlantic seawater for its distillation process. But there’s a science behind what at first seems like a fad. Game-changers Jess Henrich and Niel Du Toit did their homework and discovered that ocean water actually helps with the extraction of natural oils and flavours from our coastal Fynbos and other botanicals during distillation. This process ultimately results in a rich, layered and very smooth terroir-style gin with a faint minerality towards the finish. “We started playing with the indigenous coastal fynbos which involved spending a lot of time on the coastlines of the cape, in the dunes and in the sea. Our aim was to extract the essence, the flavours of the Cape Atlantic coastline,” says co-creator Jess Henrich.
A Mari Ocean Gin’s flavour profile is boosted by citrussy overtones such as naartjie, orange and lemon, all spice, and a secret selection of Cape Coastal Fynbos. The Michelangelo Award-winning duo went the extra mile to capture the essence of the Cape Atlantic coastline for their stunning gin by cultivating their own Cape Fynbos produce from plants supplied by well-known botanist, Roushanna Grey from Veld & Sea. With such an innovative gin, it’s best to savour that fresh and complex flavour experience neat at least once. Otherwise, the signature nautical undertone coupled with just a splash of Vermouth makes for a killer martini. And why stop at one ocean, you might ask? Henrich and Du Toit are currently tweaking the final details of an equally ambitious second installment – A Mari Indian Ocean Gin. This counterpart will showcase a special selection of East African botanical accents for a truly Indian Ocean-inspired gin.
A Mari Ocean Gin is currently available at a wide variety of chic haunts such as The Willaston Bar at The Silo Hotel, Ellerman House, Twankey Bar, Kloof Street House, Wine Concepts, and Vino Pronto.
Distillers Jayde Maasdorp and Mike Sayers ditched the shackles of the corporate world by tapping into their creativity and entrepreneurial ‘spirit’ (pun intended) to kickstart the unique Black Meerkat ‘Old Town’ Gin (44% ABV). The entire process of experimenting and securing botanicals, hitting stumbling blocks, and finally putting a cap onto this slick beauty lasted eleven months. And the result was worth the wait. What we get is a daring bouquet of eleven botanicals distilled exclusively at the uber-chic New Harbour Distillery, using a mix of organic and ethically sourced botanicals such as Pineapple Sage, Liquorice Root, Rose Geranium and Coriander. Black Meerkat ‘Old Town’ Gin is currently the only Old Tom-style gin in South Africa. For those not familiar with this niche varietal, Old Tom gin is a more versatile and slightly sweeter style of gin which will appeal to non-gin drinkers and fanatics alike. Maasdorp and Sayers cleverly renamed their gin ‘Old Town-style’ instead, perhaps an allusion Woodstock, where the distillery is located.
And the meerkat is not only their favourite animal, but also lends somewhat of a South African twist to the ‘black cat’ urban legend which surrounds the classic Old Tom gin. The duo recommends their gin served neat on the rocks, or with a dash of Fitch & Leeds tonic. Black Meerkat ‘Old Town’ Gin is available at quite a few outlets in the Cape such as Bar Keeper in CBD, Birkenhead House Hotel in Hermanus, Siegies On Huguenot in Franschhoek, Bottelary Hills Wine Centre in Stellenbosch, or any of the Norman Goodfellows branches across the city. For a taste of this gin wunderkind in more of a chic setting, head to Asara Wine Estate’s relatively new Sansibar Gin Bar.
Part of the early gin renaissance in South Africa, Charles and Glenn Bryant, with the help of their friend Luigi Marucchi, set up a small batch distillery on the fringe of the Karoo in 2013. And many can vouch for the classic brilliance that is Six Dogs Karoo Gin. But not content with garnering rave reviews and gathering a solid following, the three alchemists recently handcrafted a new spirit to bowl over South African gin fanatics. With a distinctive indigo tint, Six Dogs Blue (43% ABV) changes colour when tonic or lemon is added. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a gimmick. The natural potent colour actually develops due to a post-distillation infusion of rare Indonesian Blue Pea flower petals, scientifically known as *ahem* Clitoria Ternatea. The name alludes to the fact that the Blue Pea flower is believed, in Ayurvedic medicine, to boast aphrodisiac qualities. But beyond the ostentatious appeal lies a multitude of pronounced botanical influences such as Rose Perlargonium, Naartjie, Coriander and Angelica Root.
The trio are gradually working towards producing their modern gin using mostly native plant-sourced ingredients. They’ve braved the cultivation of the Blue Pea Flower locally, while the hand-picked and morning-harvested Rose Pelargonium is sourced from a neighbouring farmer. Six Dogs Blue is a genteel, harmonious, and aromatic drink best served properly chilled. Or play up to its colourful side by blending it for show-stopping cocktails such as an Ink Martini. Being such an established brand the distribution is fairly well developed across the Cape. You can catch Six Dogs Blue or Karoo Gin at a number of discerning retailers, bars and restaurants.
While not exactly a ‘new kid on the block’ (they’ve been going for well over two years now), Step 5 Dry Gin (43% ABV) is definitely one of the craft gins to try at least once. Those familiar with Nataniel Currier’s A Drunkard’s Progress, basically a wino companion to the world famous Rake’s Progress series, will quickly pick up on the allusion behind the odd title. Step 5 Dry gin was hatched with the idea of creating a new world craft gin after touring local distilleries across the UK. The distillers set about producing a traditional London Dry-style gin with more of a distinctly South African taste profile. And what they’ve achieved is a thoroughly accessible yet cosmopolitan spirit which personifies the meeting of an old and new world in more ways than one.
Step 5 Dry Gin’s robust flavour character carries a blend of native and traditional botanicals and sports aromatic herbal and floral notes with a subtle citrus complexity. Quintessentially South African botanicals such as Cedarberg Rooibos are married with worldly counterparts such as Indian Coriander, Malaysian Lemon Grass and Belgian Angelica Root. This quaint myriad allows Step 5 Dry Gin to linger a little longer on the palate, making it a fine and crisp gin to use in a Dirty Martini or in a dense and bold G&T.
Step 5 Dry Gin is available at Bar Keeper in Stand, Liquor City in Claremont, and a host of cool city bars such as Twankey Bar, The Gin Bar, and Sansibar Gin Bar at Asara Wine Estate. And they often host tasting events during First Thursdays – you can follow their social media feeds for updates. But your best bet would be to try one of the brand’s recommended cocktails at CauseEffect, the upcoming hotspot by local mixologist extraordinaire Kurt Schlechter. We’ll keep you posted!
Aptly touted as ‘a creature of the Cape’, Sugarbird Cape Fynbos Gin (43% ABV) is a London Dry-style gin made using organic Cape Fynbos as its key accent. The addition of our rare, native Cape Fynbos serves to balance the traditional unsweetened spirit with floral and citrus flavours, giving this gin a fresh local twist. In particular, the fragrant Rooibos, Honeybush, and Rose Geranium along with coriander and cardamom notes provides a bold flavour and a long finish, rounded out by a dash of cinnamon.
The team behind the gin – Rob Heyns and Nzeka Biyela (who together founded League of Beers), and winemaker and distiller couple Kelly and Mark Goldsworthy – are seasoned players in the Cape Town craft beer and spirit scene. And they’ve honed in on that experience to present something that is more than just a tasty beverage: Sugarbird Cape Fynbos Gin functions entirely on crowd-funding via Thundafund, and with their uniquely modern take on the principle of ‘give and gain’, the team has struck up a special partnership with Koi group to offer a 4-Day ‘bootcamp’ to empower self-starting innovators in work towards their dream.
Sugarbird Gin is available at Yuppiechef and a host of other online outlets, as well as at local hotspots such as Jason Bakery, Norman Fellows branches, and Liquor City in Claremont. Alternatively, take part in their limited promotional offer and donate R270 (RRP is R299) to the Thundafund campaign to get a bottle of Sugarbird Gin delivered to your door for free.