Tag Archives: Musgrave Gin

The gin list

What to try before the summer fades.   Patrick Leclezio explores six of the best.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2017 edition).

Everyone’s making gin these days.  The world has rediscovered a taste for it, and in an era of educated consumption, this burgeoning appetite has provoked a plethora of options, ranging from the old and established (and their more recent offshoots), to a raft of new entrants that are both industrial and craft in scale.  Unlike brown spirits gin doesn’t need to be matured (although some are), so the barriers to entry are relatively low, and accordingly they are being vaulted in droves.  This is an exciting unfolding of events – there’s never been more variety than there is at present.   Ten years ago a local aficionado would have been scratching around amongst a handful of products, today you can board a ride on a virtually endless gin adventure.   But being swamped by an embarrassment of riches brings its own problems – what to choose?  It’s a first world problem I grant you, but let me nonetheless help out with some first class solutions.

Plymouth

If any gin can claim a legendary aura, then Plymouth is it.  Bottled at 57% ABV, the so-called “navy strength”, because that’s the proofing level at which alcohol ignites gunpowder, this is a big gin in every sense.  It has longstanding ties to the British Navy, and it even has its own geographical indication – Plymouth Gin is (somewhat bizarrely) both a brand, and a protected regional name (like Champagne).  The bold nose leads out a complex, tight spectrum of flavours onto a settled palate: juniper and pepper, hemmed in by a barky, earthy woodiness, and strong herbal cologne.   It may be a touch less dry than your typical London Dry Gin, but this is unequivocally masculine stuff nonetheless, projecting a tethered depth of power and an incredible balance.  There are no wild lurches or veering detours here – nothing is out of place, and nothing is arbitrary.  You get the sense that this is liquid that has been evolved to a state of military precision over many years, with any kinks that it may have had progressively chiselled away.  It’s expensive, but keep in mind that it goes a lot further than its lower-bottling-strength compatriots.  The label says “for almost 200 years the navy never left port without it”.  I’m hardly going to be setting off any cannons, but it’s a sentiment that I can take to heart, for the sheer drinking pleasure of it.

Musgrave Pink

Simone Musgrave’s eponymous gin now has a stablemate that despite not being an incendiary is setting the local craft scene alight.  It’s not a pink gin in the conventional sense, but it’s pink in colour and in intention.   This new variant adds rosehip to the signature botanicals and is further infused with rose water, resulting in a flavour that’s dominated by rich floral notes, with the spiciness and the muskiness of the original still evident, but receded into the background.  The common theme amongst new wave gins (in South Africa specifically but elsewhere too) is the demotion of juniper, with this one being a case in point.   This may not be traditional, and it may even flout regulations (the EU set for gin dictating that the predominant flavour must be juniper), but I for one like it (and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one).  It represents an intrepid expansion in gin territory, giving us new and more varied landscapes to explore and vistas to enjoy.  The Musgrave Pink iteration is probably a gin that’ll appeal more to women than men, but regardless of your sex, it’s striking and distinctive, and it’s stirring things up, so it should be on your radar.

Wilderer

Wilderer has a reputation for creating delightful small-batch liquid, grappas, eau de vie’s and the like.  It’s a name that’s become synonymous with craftsmanship in the little liquor niche that it occupies.   The chaps have most recently turned their hands to gin, their first foray into a big, popular category of spirits, with predictably impressive results.  A menthol nose and a peppery palate poke out above a dense herbaceous canopy, with tendrils of liquorice injecting a fleeting sweetness.   This gin is a flavour window into an olde worlde apothecary, or so I imagine it: vaguely medicinal, herby aromas dancing one with the other, leading, following, then rotating, throwing off your perspective.  There’s a lot going on here – it’s entrancingly interesting, and demanding of your attention.   You’ll spend a lot of time with this gin without getting bored.

Inverroche

The Verdant and Amber have long been two of my favourite gins.  In these drinks the Inverroche crew at Stilbaai has forged some sort of an alignment of the stars, I kid you not.  The former evokes dried flowers, the latter a balance between boiled sweets (a lollipop nose) and bitter-ish tannins.  But this crude attempt at describing their superbly cohesive flavours leaves much to be desired; the finely wrought combinations of fynbos ingredients, both distilled and infused, defy facile interpretations.  Gin is a versatile drink, but let’s be honest – any pretender lives and dies on its rendition of a GnT, and to a lesser extent a martini.  Some gins fight with the tonic, others are overwhelmed.   These two, I want to say serendipitously but that would be disrespectful, are the perfect complements, enhancing the tonic whilst maintaining the integrity of their characters.  I happened to try them in martini recently for the first time – less dry, and atypical, but mouth wateringly delicious.  No one-trick-pony these.   It’s very simple: if you’re South African and you claim to like gin, then you’re doing yourself a gross disservice if you haven’t drunk from the Inverroche well.

Bombay Sapphire

Despite all of the recent activity the benchmark in gin remains the London Dry style:  large in juniper, dry – as the name suggests, and often tangy, with well-integrated, fully distilled botanicals, and in Bombay it has a beautifully representative ambassador.   This is the ideal everyday gin – premium of quality but affordable, complex in flavour but not challenging, tiring or polarising, and soft, versatile, and accessible but also full flavoured and interesting.   The sight of that electric blue bottle behind my bar gives me a certain sense of inner peace – I’d feel off-kilter without it.  Bombay Sapphire is a gem indeed.

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Gindigenous

Hot on its heels. Patrick Leclezio tracks the local response to the global gin explosion.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2016 edition).

If there was even a slight hint of doubt about how searingly hot gin has become in the last few years it would be persuasively quelled by the extent of the local craft gin industry. I’d set out late last year with preparations for a review, which I’d hoped would be comprehensive, but my ambitions were thwarted by sheer numbers, and by what seemed like a constant stream of new entrants. My selection was eventually limited to nine, resulting in a mix of the more established, the new, and the brand new – in practical, manageable proportions; but keep in mind that there are a lot of others out there, with more joining by the day. There’s a gin heaven manifesting itself in South Africa and the gates are wide open. Join me for a quick tour.

It can be difficult to make any kind of systematic sense of gin. There are so few objective rules, and so much potential for variation. Juniper is ostensibly intended to be the dominant flavour – the word gin is in fact a derivative of juniper – but this has become doubtful (and somewhat controversial) in recent times, as new gins have been increasingly pushing the boundaries in attempts to carve out distinctive niches for themselves. Resistant purists claim that without the strong juniper a gin is simply a flavoured vodka. It’s a classic conflict between innovation and tradition. In fairness this was a regulation that was crying out of be trampled. How do you legislate flavour? Action may need to be taken though to tighten things up, such is the pace of developments – a subject for another time. Our local legislation is less prescriptive, simply calling for the presence of juniper amongst the botanicals, but not specifying anything further. The result is a whole new style of “African” gins – based on the use of indigenous ingredients – in which juniper is either receded into the background, or in fact entirely undetectable. I’ve had my nose in a big pot of juniper extract on more than one occasion so I’m confident that I’m familiar with its pine-y flavour – enough to identify its reticence. Anyhow, despite this departure, these gins are nonetheless is unmistakeably gin, in the nature and composition of its other botanicals.

The two most long established brands are the well-tractioned Inverroche, which has entrenched itself as the country’s flagship craft gin, and the more reclusive Jorgensen’s. The three variants of the former – Classic, Verdant and Amber – and two variants of the latter – its eponymous gin and saffron gin, were assessed for this review. The Inverroche Classic sets the benchmark for the profile of a fynbos based gin. Its base of cane spirits redistilled with limestone fynbos botanicals imparts peppery and savoury flavours – creating an interesting, edgy drink that’s likely to find favour with those who prefer their gins in the Beefeater mould. Jorgensen’s by comparison has a fuller, richer flavour – with hints of its grape base peeking through. I used it in a martini on whim, yielding impressive results, the only detraction being that it maybe lacks the “sessionability” (the dubious advisability of sessionable martini drinking is noted) of something softer. But that’s a question of personal taste. The other Inverroche variants use different recipes of botanicals, mountain fynbos for Verdant, coastal fynbos for Amber, whatever these might mean, as well as undisclosed fynbos infusions, resulting in gins that are substantially contrasted to the Classic and to each other. Most importantly both combine astoundingly well with tonic – not something that I say lightly. Jorgensen’s Saffron is a more subtle deviation from its parent – likely because the distillate used is the same, or very similar. Distillation is a dark art, one which I don’t pretend to fully understand, but what knowledge I have has made me partial to copper pot distillation – the method used by both Jorgensen’s and Inverroche – as a superior attributor of flavour. Whether this is justified or not it’s a preconception that’s certainly borne out by the well-crafted depth of flavour in these two gins.

The other bookend comprises newcomers to the scene in the form of Musgrave and Blind Tiger gins, the latter yet-to-be-launched. Musgrave is a bold gin that is African in both theme and flavour. Its broad and pronounced ginger flavour is derived from its use of African ginger as a prominent botanical. Less pronounced but discernible nonetheless is the cardamom – I’m a big fan of spicy tea, so I was particularly pleased with its inclusion. Blind Tiger occupies what seems like a separate space from its local peers, and from the defining local style. It is softer, sweeter, and more classical, more international. It also packs some additional value at 46% ABV, which shouldn’t be overlooked.  The in-betweeners are two variants from the Woodstock Gin Company. I found them to be little spirity, with flat flavours, but this may be unfair, especially since they were evaluated alongside more premium priced gins. Apples and oranges. The one is made from barley spirit and the other from a grape spirit – but both from the same recipe, offering fascinating insight into the influence of that base spirit. Worth checking out on that basis alone.

This burgeoning story of local gin is vibrant and inspiring, and hopefully it’ll continue to instil interest and gather momentum. The scene has been set, and the narrative has been populated with an expanding cast of compelling characters – refer to the handy table adjacent for a plot summary. It’s safe to say I’d venture that you can look forward to a persisting and varying injection of quality liquid for your GnT’s and your martinis. May the botanicals be with you.

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Painting the town red

The Mother’s Ruin episode. Patrick Leclezio reviews a seminal Cape Town nightspot.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2015 edition).

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My ideal bar– if I could venture to describe it in these terms – would be something between the Korova milk bar from Clockwork Orange, and Cheers, the place where everybody knows your name: friendly and welcoming, but also interesting and verging towards the edgy. I’d obviously draw the line well before lacing drinks with narcotics, and the serving of minors, but you get the general drift… I hope. Anyhow, when a friend of mine started murmuring about opening a niche bar late last year, I felt that this might be the one. Mother’s Ruin was launched in December, to little fanfare, but in the space of a few short months it’s become one of Cape Town’s hottest bars.

You might have deduced from the name, especially if you have an interest in history, that this is a gin bar – notably Africa’s first specialist gin bar. Gin wasn’t always the high-brow drink that it is today – at one point in its less savoury past it was referred to as “mother’s ruin”, for reasons that don’t need to be explained. Mother’s Ruin the bar somehow isn’t hampered by this association, its harking back is quirky if anything, and a nod to the heritage of the spirit that it celebrates. Gin may have travelled a colourful road, but it has survived, it has flourished and, with its multitude of botanicals and flavour permutations, it has captured our contemporary imaginations. You could say circa 2015 that it’s the drink of the moment.

Perhaps the most appealing feature of Mother’s Ruin is what I’d also consider to be the most important feature of any bar focused on a particular drink – the selection (…in this case of gins, of course). The bar has racked up a still growing assemblage of some 90 odd varieties. The standards are all there of course – Beefeater, Bombay, Tanqueray, and Gordon’s – but this is the type of place that offers an opportunity to cut loose and experiment. With exotic gins from all over Europe, from Kenya, from the United States, and with a fair few from within local reach, it’s got the makings a many a happy hour – you can read that any way you want – trying a bit of this and a bit of that.

Five gins to try at Mother’s Ruin:

1. Monkey 47
This fruity gin from the Black Forest in Germany chock-a-block with 47 different botanicals is as complex and layered a gin as I’ve ever tasted. A standout!

2. Gin Mare
With its principal botanicals being thyme, rosemary and olive, this is a Mediterranean gin indeed. Dirty martini baby.

3. Bombay Amber
Something strikingly different. Amber has been finished (in this case meaning matured for a short period) in French vermouth oak barrels, which is highly unusual for this typically unaged spirit.

4. Inverroche
The Inverroche gins from Stillbaai, Classic, Verdant and Amber, are the three best-selling gins at Mother’s Ruin. The people have voted – local is lekker. Be sure to also try Jorgensen’s gin and the gingery, spicy Musgrave gin.

5. No. 3
If you have classical taste then look no further. No. 3 strikes all the right juniper and citrus notes required in a great London Dry symphony.

Now, any gin bar worth its salt, no matter how good its collection, would need to engage in all the traditional deployments of this fine spirit: G and T’s, cocktails, and martinis (which I consider distinct from regular cocktails). Mother’s Ruin excels with each. The G and T’s are offered with a variety of tonics, from the standard (Schweppes, Fitch and Leedes) and the premium (Fever Tree, Fentimans), to the craft (Socks), and also with a variety of garnishes: if that means lemon or lime to you, then you’re clearly far too old school – the bar serves up mango (reckoned to be the pinnacle), grapefruit, cucumber, orange, rosemary, lemongrass, mint, and apple. Owner Mark Mulholland, a compulsive tinkerer with a food flavours background, has devised a cocktail menu that teams a few gin classics with his own imaginative creations – his “Klein Slaaitjie”, I won’t spoil the surprise, being the most popular. Last but not least, martinis are a serious business at Mother’s Ruin – twisted, dirty, perfect, the Vesper, they’re all represented, along with a constant stream of tweaks and experimentations. It’s a rich vein of conversation here – with suggestions and ideas welcome as they strive to create the ultimate martini. I should flag that they unfortunately subscribe to the Bond approach – minus points, so if you don’t want to risk an overdiluted, aerated affair, be sure to specify that you want yours stirred. On the plus side I spotted a few bottles of genuine French vermouth (Dolin) on my last visit – a rare treat in South Africa. Get some of it whilst stocks last.

Mother’s Ruin is nestled at the top of Bree Street, in an expanding, upmarket, vibrant nightlife district, where it’s kept company by Orphanage, Odyssey, and a few other bustling restaurants. It’s a must-visit venue for all gin loving gadabouts. See you there.