Four craft spirits to try before you braai
First published in Sawubona Magazine (March 2019).
The last five years have seen a mushrooming proliferation of craft products on the local liquor scene. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to contend that we are experiencing something of a spirituous golden age. Taking inspiration from wine and beer, and moving from early rumblings in brandy, South Africa’s signature spirit, to the heady days of the ongoing gin boom, this momentum is now being felt across a variety of sectors and styles. Our brandy heritage reaches back centuries, but it’s only in recent years that smaller producers have been re-emerging. Backsberg, Boplaas, and Joseph Barry, were and still are some of the standout frontrunners, issuing interesting, distinctive small-batch brandies of international quality, and forging the path for a chasing pack, with the result that we’re awash today in these amber riches. Gin may not be home-grown, but we’ve made it our own – what is South Africa if not a melting pot of vibrant, varied and sometimes adopted influences. The resources of the Cape Floristic Kingdom, accounting for the greatest non-tropical concentration of higher plant species in the world, served as both input and catalyst for local gin production. Pioneers like Roger Jorgensen, and Lorna Scott of Inverroche, the latter perhaps more than anyone else, showed that fynbos botanicals have the potential to create extraordinary, unique gins. The distillery’s “Amber Gin” made infusions and local ingredients sexy, elevating this style into the popular imagination. The quality and creativity of these trailblazers, their warm reception by the drinking public, and the surge of the rising tide which brought them about in the first place, seem to have generated a perfect storm. A plethora of South African craft spirits is now taking the expression ‘local is lekker’ to a whole new level.
The appeal of this exciting new landscape is unfortunately also its drawback – there are, as an example, 250 plus gins being manufactured locally. It’s getting difficult to see the wood for the trees. Those that have already made their names stand out, but those that haven’t yet, the new generation, can be lost in the growing clutter. We got stuck in, did a bit of homework, and identified a few which we thought might be worth your attention.
Styled by its four founders – Yongama Skweyiya, Thami Banda, Nkululeko Maseko, and Francois Bezuidenhout – as an African gin, made for Africans, with African flavours, an African story and an African home, and named after one the original towns that formed what was later to be called the South Western Townships (contracted to Soweto – who knew! ), this gin is intended as celebration of the charm and energy of African townships.
The outcome has been a robust gin, instilled with juniper, marula fruit, baobab, and, most prominently in our reckoning, African ginger, that is faithful to and a tribute to its mandate. There is a flavour continuum for gins that ranges from retiring wallflower to life-of-the-party. Pimville marches to the boisterous beat of an African drum, asserting its presence in martinis and with tonic. A bold gin for a bold era.
James Copeland is a character study of a craft entrepreneur. An internationally-renowned, globetrotting Trance DJ, he became inspired by rum during trips to Mauritius. Armed with a burning passion he decided to make his own…in Kommetjie (which thinking about it just seems like a place where rum should be made – and drunk!). We met him during the recent Rum Festival in Cape Town, slinging drinks from his “rum shack” (a beach bar fashioned stall) and bringing the message to the masses.
Copeland Rum is a white exponent distilled from a brew of blackstrap molasses, surprisingly polished for an unaged spirit, and exuding a full, rounded fruitiness, notably banana in our estimation. Although he has plans for aged variants – with various trials currently in maturation – Copeland’s ethos and focus is about and on creating definitive, fermentation-driven rums, bursting with concentrated flavours. This may be a drink that nimbly straddles rum’s penchant for unruly fun on the one side, and elegant enjoyment on the other.
The chaps at Boplaas have some serious ambition, and from all evidence, the skills to go with it. Wines, sparkling wines, fortified wines, brandies, gins, and “now” whiskies; it seems nothing is too much for this Calitzdorp clan. Whisky is tricky beast, which is probably why it’s one of the least prevalent spirits in the craft arena. The production can be complex, the maturation extended, and the market extremely competitive, making it challenging to put out an affordable product that strikes the right balance, and that is sufficiently distinctive to resonate.
The Boplaas 6YO is a creditable single grain whisky finished in Cape Tawny (port) casks that have exerted a significant influence on its flavour. It’ll appeal we’re sure to fans of wine-casked whiskies. Most importantly it’s a distinct drink with a strong identity, speaking of the region, the estate, and of the people who created it – and transforming consumption into exploration. We’ll look forward, as we sip at it contentedly, to more of the same from this industrious outfit.
Agua Zulu Cachaça
If you’re familiar with Brazil’s national cocktail – the caipirinha, served just about everywhere in that country – then you’ll be enthused with this selection, and if you’re not then it’s something you’d be advised to remedy. A masterpiece of delicious simplicity, it’s made from sugar, lime, ice, and, most importantly, cachaça: a distillate of sugar cane juice, similar to the rhum agricole of the French Caribbean. What we should ultimately want from the local craft industry are products that go beyond the obvious, that cater for niched, overlooked needs, and that provide the type of diversity and particularity not feasible on a mass scale. The fact that this speciality spirit is now being produced locally is an encouraging signal that this aspiration has come to pass.
Distillery 031’s Agua Zulu, made in the Brazilian style from local cane and with a local touch, is bursting with the distinctively funky, pot-stilled cachaça flavours that guarantee a rousing caipirinha. This initial incarnation is unaged, but with luck it’ll be succeeded by matured variants in the future, perhaps borrowing from the tradition and being casked in unusual, local wood. As they say in Brazil: there comes a time when no matter what the question is, the answer is caipirinha.