Gin: It’s not just the stuff your gran used to drink

Juniper-infused gin brands – and there are a lot – are the hottest tots among South Africa’s cool crowd. By Telford Vice

Gin. How many other words can you say legibly when your lips are comatose caterpillars? But this is about drinking, not drunks – the people drinkers step over to sidle closer to yonder classy bar.

Increasingly, they are doing so to drink gin. It’s here, there and everywhere worth being and being seen in Cape Town, with more than a tot or two also going down in Joburg and Durban.

Not for these sophisticates the florid fluid that ruined mother. The modern riff on gin comes bespoke for the bourgeoisie, who sip long and languid of an elixir that can be as expensive as it tastes. Sometimes it is set softly and simply aprickle by the bubbles of an elegantly contoured tonic. Sometimes it is the jewel in a cocktail’s crown. Sometimes it intoxicates naked, on ice. Gin is fynbos in fine crystal.

But just how much jumping juniper juice is out there? A call to Manie Potgieter of Roeland Liquors in Cape Town, a shop awash in the more interesting stuff of a drinking life, seemed a decent stab at finding an answer. How many gins could Potgieter shake a swizzle stick at?

“One, two, three,” he began, “four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 …”

He paused for breath …

“Sixteen, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22. And that’s spread over … hang on … nine different brands.”

The mass-produced perfume on lesser shelves than Potgieter’s is often alcohol laced with a dash of juniper essence. Proper gin is distilled.

Which is the best of them? In Cape Town, where a certain glaze in lieu of approval slides across the faces of those who know the next big thing when they see – or taste – it, nothing so Joburg as crass competition is tolerated. Gin people here tend to talk up others.

Nonetheless, a competitive subculture has sprung up among drinkers. Common or garden Cape Town hipsters, who have jobs because they need their own money to pay their bills, neck their nectar at Mother’s Ruin, a sleek as smoke gin bar deep in the bearded, plaid, single-speed-bicycle-riding heart of Bree Street.

But that will not do for those who aspire to true hipdom. These wizards of odd fly their artisanal magic carpets to Honest Chocolate on Wale Street. Chocolate? Gin? Eh?

If you cross the chocolatier’s floor all the way through the back door, nudge left over the walled square beyond that and look to the right, you will see a gorgeous bar.

If Paris married Madrid circa 1930, this is what the wedding cake would look like. Aficionados talk about “the gin bar on Wale Street” (TGBOWS) but it doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t stoop so common as to tell the world it even exists. One simply has to know.

Peter Lebese, one of TGBOWS’s two head bartenders, doesn’t have a degree in gin. But he sounds like he does: “South Africans are starting to see that gin isn’t just that stuff your gran used to drink. It doesn’t limit you in the way that whisky does. You can manipulate the flavours, that’s the exciting part.

“I can give five people gin and they will each find a different note. But the next time you try it you might find the more I spoke about, or I will find the note you or someone else spoke about.”

Lebese says there were 51 different gins officially on the books at TGBOWS, “but we probably serve more than 60; there’s always a bottle of something else turning up”.

Simone Musgrave sat down and sighed. “I need a bloody gin,” she said. It was lunchtime in, alas, a coffee shop. She was running from the pillar of her day job – marketing cupboard clutter like rusks, mayonnaise and peanut butter – to the post of her passion.

Her grandfather, a teetotalling English missionary who worked in Africa and was translating the Bible into Swahili when he died, aged 97, in 2014, never knew his sweet Simone made the demon drink.

For Musgrave, gin was equal parts family memories and business smarts. “I remember being in the Victoria Falls Hotel and on the houseboat on Kariba, and my parents drinking pink gin. I remember the smell. It resonates.

“But I track trends in my day job and I noticed craft gin exploding in the UK and in other countries. It’s the fastest-growing white spirit in the world.”

The trend is an extension of crafted food, which spawned crafted drinks, beginning with beer. Now, spirits are in the spotlight.

The gin business was “awesome, scary in terms of cash flow and time”. Musgrave launched her gin last June and planned to make 1,000 bottles in her first year. She has already made 5,000 to meet demand.

Simon von Witt, owner of The Woodstock Gin Company, knows how she feels: “I’ve got an order from Belgium, and now Brazil wants to order 2,000 bottles before the Olympics.”

He has no idea how word of his gin made it all the way to Brazil.

Von Witt was part of an engineering consultancy “doing impact assessments and site auditing, that kind of thing” when he started mucking about making liqueurs in a friend’s garage. He cracked his first bottle in March last year, and by May he was distilling fulltime. There were 60 bottles in his first batch. Now he make 150 a day, most of them pre-ordered.

Potgieter was adamant that “the whole gin ‘ding’ is a very Cape Town thing”, but Von Witt isn’t so sure.

“It’s a completely Cape Town idea but the market is much bigger in Joburg; there’s also more buying power there. People there seem to drink more and spend more. I suppose they don’t have the mountain and the sea. But they’re more social – they go out and braai. That side of life is more important there.”

And for drinkers and drunks everywhere.


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