It’s time to assess the state of craft gin in this rainbow nation of ours. How do we fare in the global market? With over 270 SA craft gins on the shelf at the moment, are they all decent? Would they all stand proudly on a gin shelf in the rest of the world? Or are we going a bit ‘bos-bevok’ on the fynbos and producing a whole new category of spirits?
South Africans by nature are bold, innovative and a bit nuts. We tend to take an idea and put our own SA stamp on it. We are the home of Mrs Balls Chutney, Bovril, NikNaks, Ouma’s Rusks, biltong, boerewors and of course, Amarula! We take a chip and throw bags of flavour all over it and create the most delicious, unhealthy, addictive NikNak. Admittedly I am a NikNak addict! I cannot put them down when a packet is opened AND THEY GO SO WELL WITH GIN!
Is SA craft gin really gin?
The same “make it our own” attitude seems to apply to our craft gin. We have South Africanised it in such a big way; think fynbos, rooibos, honeybush and bushveld botanicals. I find it difficult to think of another category of SA produce that has exploded in the way craft gin has. But some of the recent SA craft gin launches have pushed the boundaries of what defines gin, and I do wonder if these should be categorised as ‘flavoured vodka’ rather than gin.
According to Gin Foundry: “With many of these SA craft gins, one has to seek out the juniper and while it may be well made, botanically intense and entirely evocative of its SA heritage, it leans more towards being a botanical vodka than it is a gin.”
So what! I hear you say. Who cares what it is, I like it. Screw the Brits and all their posh taste preferences.
Perhaps you’re right. However, international reviews of SA craft gins are hardly complementary. Gin Foundry has this to say:
“Our hope, as wavers of the Gin flag, is that [South African gins] go heavier on the juniper and lighter on the Fynbos with at least one of these editions. It’s become something of a mantra here, but progress and innovation do not have to come at the expense of the category’s heritage. It’s great to see the South African provenance of the product so celebrated in their gins, but given the blistering speed of development here (and with wider context in this diverse era of gin) it’s worth just taking a moment to pause and remember what it’s all about in the first place. The very soul of the category lies in a tiny little pine cone, and while you can transport it to new and uncharted waters, you need to keep it firmly on your person.”
So does that mean that more than half of the SA craft gins on the market are not actually gins but rather botanical spirits? Possibly.
By our own standards
Our loose definition of gin in South Africa does not state that the spirit has to be distilled, nor does it define exactly how much juniper we need for a spirit to be classified as a gin. Our ABV level is higher than most at 43% and that is possibly another reason we are inclined to throw in so many fynbos botanicals, since the high alcohol levels tend to alter the taste.
Until recently, international gins were uncoloured, juniper-forward and very classic. Yes, Hendricks does have cucumber in it and Opihr is a spicy smorgasbord of deliciousness and recently we have seen the classics coming out with colours, but generally, they are milder in botanicals and tend to be strictly juniper forward.
For those that want a classic juniper driven spirit, one would be inclined to go for a British gin. Especially now that many international gins are more reasonable cost-wise than their SA craft counterparts. Case in point: Japanese gin Roku has been retailing for a very reasonable R299. It’s a beautifully smooth gin and one of my favourites. The question is, why are these international gins so cheap? Perhaps the easiest way for them to break into this competitive market is to send an entire pallet to SA and sell it with no margin to ensure market penetration. They have many international markets and tend to strategically break into new markets with favourable pricing. For Roku it appears to be working. I am seeing this gin everywhere and it’s such a beautiful bottle – who can resist? It’s certainly seems the more reasonable choice if one considers the enormity of the local category and the fact that some are barely drinkable.
Local is still lekker, right?
There is no doubt that there are some quality gins on the SA shelf right now.
Still, we do need to support this booming local craft. Sadly, I have heard so many people saying they went into their local bottle store and decided to follow their hearts, went with the prettiest bottle for R450 and got home to find the juice inside was disappointing. There are some risky variations out there, so when you find a good SA gin, stick with it.