My most vivid memories of gin are associated with my grandparents. Although I grew up in the Eastern Cape, I come from a long line of G&T drinkers from the sweaty climes, deep in cane-growing KwaZulu Natal. Mid-summer Saturday afternoons became much jollier when ‘spots’ where served out on the verandah. The all too familiar waft of that high-spirited juniper, characterised by its notes of fresh, resinous pine needles and citrus, combined with the bitter-sweet Schweppes tonic — the only part we were allowed to imbibe as the kids mimicked the shenanigans.
A G&T has always been my go-to drink on a hot day and of course synonymous with game drives and sundowners. A far cry from the hipster, small-batch distillers and the consumer profile of gin’s current craze.
Various factors are driving the interest. Following the global food and drinks trends, the new discerning consumer is seeking a more meaningful, authentic experience and wants to know more about the provenance of what they consume — whether locally sourced, how it is made, and who is making it. Gin is the only spirit that you create by infusing natural botanicals into a neutral spirit and thus presents more opportunities for telling a variety of ‘stories’.
Although researching your botanical profile could take months, compared to the lengthy aging process required of say making whisky, a distillery can produce gin in a relatively short time. The fashion spotlight on the Steampunk movement in recent years, also brought with it a neo-Victorian penchant for gin mixed with just about anything, including tea. Let’s not forget the Spanish who are the biggest gin-consuming nation and purveyors of buenos tiempos.
It was Bombay Sapphire who first introduced us to this idea of the drinking ‘experience’ through their exotic botanical infusions when they launched in 1987. Before that the standard was Gordon’s or Beefeater at the county club. Bombay’s fresh marketing and success through design collaborations, attracted a new set of trendy drinkers.
A decade later the clever people at William Grant & Sons seduced the world with the Bulgarian rose and cucumber infused Hendrick’s Gin. With its black medicinal shaped bottle, the company’s marketing genius is revealed through its adventurous ideas of fantasy and anarchy associated with that of the Steampunk movement.
Although vodka is still one of the biggest sellers, the industry is taking note of the gin boom. The Guardian newspaper reported that “Britain exported such a vast amount of gin last year  that it was enough to rustle up a refreshing 1.6-billion gin and tonics, making the UK the world’s greatest gin exporter once more. Mother’s ruin is now big business and in the past two years alone, 56 new distilleries have sprung up.”
According to thedrinksbusiness.com “exports of gin from the UK were worth £394m in 2014, a rise of 37% in value since 2010 off the back of a ‘revival’ of the spirit in the UK. A taste for craft gin has helped boost the industry, with handcrafted and bespoke botanicals driving demand.”
Sipsmiths who opened in 2009, were the first London-based copper distillery in 200 years, cracking archaic licensing legislation to clear the way for other small-batch, handcrafted producers.
In South Africa, the gin narratives are as diverse and colourful as our nation. The business opportunities are ripe and small local producers are starting to cash in. Our premium gins are even making an appearance in bars abroad. Google South African artisan gin and you get Jorgensen’s Distillery who must be credited with making our first premium gin; Inverroche who’ve really put us on the map; and relative newcomers Hope on Hopkins, Musgrave, The Woodstock Gin Company, Distillery031, New Harbour, Bloedlemoen; and this is only the beginning.
The story of the Inverroche Distillery is the furthest thing from a hipster, inner-city establishment, and as a former Tukkies drama student, founder-distiller Lorna Scott knows how to tell a good story. The distillery sits on a small farm near Stilbaai, which Lorna purchased when she returned 10 years ago after living in Scotland for 20 years.
“I was involved in local community work and economic development and the land presented challenges as we couldn’t get anything to grow in the sand. There was very little water. It was while working with the department of agriculture to find indigenous plants or anything with commercial potential, that we discovered fynbos.
“On the distilling side we were on holiday in Italy many years ago and I saw on sale a baby pot still. My mother had one when I was a child. We got a bakkie load of pineapples and made beer and it started exploding and she said: “kom ons stook”. She made a still from a pressure cooker and a few pipes from the fish tank pump. We made mampoer from the pineapple beer.
“So, it really started as a hobby, nothing more. I discovered an old vine on my property, overgrown completely under the aloes. I though that if an old vine can grow here, then the area has the potential for viticulture.
“I phoned Elsenburg and they discovered that it was a cultivar of a really ancient hanepoot grape. When they did a soil sample they found that our sand is the closest they’ve had to the ground in the Champagne region. So the limestone is extraordinary. It is hydrophilic so it retains water and this is why there is such rich fynbos in the area.
“We did establish a vineyard and a small cellar in my garage. We started out with quite a few varieties of grape but the most amazing results have been with the Pinot Noir.”
But her focus shifted to gin.
The local ANC office asked her to become a councilor and soon she was deputy mayor. Part of her portfolio was to further develop the “green” aspects of the projects she was already working on. So she went back to university at the age of 55 to do an executive course on sustainable development.
“In the process I had the realisation that we have the most incredibly inspiring potential in our region to bring people together and to bring awareness around what we have as a modern SA culture. The core story to tell is sense of place and our ‘brand’, which involves the use of botanicals that have been used by humans for more than 250,000 years, gives us this sense of belonging.
“The idea of making gin was born out of that. Gin is the only spirit that you create by infusing natural botanicals into a neutral spirit. So I could play. I could work with this palate of 9,500 different floras and species of which the majority are aromatic and have a history of medicinal and culinary use.
Gin is the only spirit that you create by infusing natural botanicals into a neutral spirit
“When I started seven years ago, nobody would give us the time of day. My son Rohan and I used to mess around with my little pot still. About two years into my journey I realised that we had a second resource in the Stilbaai retirees most of whom are highly educated and bored stiff. So I managed to inspire a couple of them to get involved and support my vision. Among them was a retired Oude Molen master distiller, the late David Ackar. (He also developed the first Booth’s and Gilbey’s gin). The kindest person, who took my hand and helped us refine our recipes. And I had botanists like the late Dr Tol Pienaar. His wife still grows and propagates my fynbos. He’d take me out foraging in the veld and teach me about everything and I’d try out each plant in my pot still.
“I started out working with 9,500 plants — they keep discovering new ones and I think we had about 12,000 last year. Tol helped me select about 150 medicinal plants that were available close by and I worked through one by one and ended up with three little heaps, because they tasted nice together. We also developed an in-house steam procedure because they are all so delicate. You have to boil the juniper in the spirit to bring out the flavor but doing the same thing to fynbos really changes the character. You lose a lot of the soft, delicate flavours.
“I was originally just going to launch the Classic gin and was looking for the local botanicals that would fit the citrus profiles. So we used a lot of buchu, pelargoniums with a natural citrus element, and aniseed notes. But then we found flavours that didn’t fit so I ended up with three. They actually designed themselves because, as Tol noted, the three profiles contained plants that came from three distinct regions mountain, coastal and lime around this area. Classic has limestone fynbos and is refreshing, dry and crisp citrus; Verdant is the mountain fynbos, soft, smooth and floral for summer; Amber with coastal fynbos is rich and aromatic with woody notes, a more winter feel.”
For the base Lorna prefers a neutral spirit. “We now buy in neutral pure cane spirit. It is the best, cleanest pure ethanol basically but it has a lovely sweet character, and is a better vehicle for the kind of florals we use. Most other gins use a grain but it is a bit like a whisky, which has a distinct malt base note that you don’t lose.”
I asked about the rumors of a buy-out and her answer comes fast and clear.
“I’ve been bombarded with offers form some of the big guns who really didn’t grasp my vision. I obviously need a cash injection to grow from what is still very much a garagista operation to something that can keep up with the demand. This group of investors shares my vision to move the company to the next level. They assist with their individual strengths and are great sounding boards.”
With production doubling every six months, Inverroche now produces 10000 to 12000 bottles a month. Despite this growth, they have retained their core identity, remaining authentic and investing in the local communities. They separate the line productions and there is a lot of outsourcing. Fynbos is propagated under controlled situations in various private nurseries but then grown wild and all hand picked. “My vision is to keep every aspect of what I believe our business is about: the story of man being close to the environment and tangible skills we can retain and pass on.”
This is a totally handmade story from start to finish. Even the labels are hand written. “As demand grows we will grow our ‘nodes’ with individual pot stills, but with centralised labeling and boxing. It’s not about taking advantage of economies of scale. We are about empowering people.
Inverroche distributes to 14 countries and the UK just opened up. “Down the road from Sipsmiths there is a bar that doesn’t have any of their gins on its shelves, but it does have Inverroche.”