Cape Town may be renowned for its wine tourism but it’s the emerging artisanal gin scene that truly captures the distinctive flavor of this unique city. By Annie Brookstone
There was a time when the only people into gin were my grandma and Snoop Dogg. People would avoid it because the ‘good stuff’ was only found in ultra swanky bars and the rest of it tasted like a combination of antiperspirant, pot pourri and ethanol. Recently, though, gin has started becoming cool. At the same time as gin was shedding its stuffy associations, a parallel overhaul was starting in Cape Town. A city renowned for the dusty cellars and rolling hills of its iconic wine route was birthing something newer, shinier, louder and drunker — artisanal gin. Surviving a journey through this burgeoning scene with my liver intact is going to be a tricky prospect…
Inner city distillers
Stepping into the quaint coffee shop storefront of The Woodstock Gin Company, nestled in the creative hub of Woodstock, the first thing I notice is the scent in the air. It’s strangely familiar but it’s definitely not coffee and probably not gin. It’s the warm, malty smell of a brewery, a clue to the unusual aspect of this craft distillery.
“Most gin is distilled from a wheat or sugar base, but we distil our gin from wine and beer,” the company’s founder and distilling fanatic Simon Von Witt explains. Its flagship Inception gins take on very different characters thanks to these bases: the wine-based spirit is smooth and elegant, while its beer-based counterpart is robust and punchy.
While there are plans underway to turn the coffee shop area into a bar space after hours, to serve the off-the-clock hipster crowd, the distillery does offer gin tastings and even makes its own tonic (gin’s reputation as a depressive has nothing to do with gin and everything to do with all the sugar in poor quality tonic, Simon tells me). My favorite thing though? I get to take a memento home with me: a small bag of ‘tea bags’ containing a mix of indigenous spices to enhance the flavor of your G&T.
A few minutes away, on another bustling Woodstock street with minibus taxis zooming by, distiller Nic Janeke and wife Andri are poster children for gin’s youthful regeneration. They’re in their 20s, and everything about the genesis of their New Harbour Distillery screams millennial: the brainchild of a designer and a chemical engineer; merging their passions for art and science; the crowdfunding campaign to get it off the ground; and the storybook success that’s just seen them move into expansive new premises where they offer tastings by appointment, as well as a fortnightly gin blending course.
“We started this process three years ago,” Andri tells me, as we sip New Harbour’s Rooibos (red bush tea) Infused Gin on ice at a long table in the center of their new distillery. I’m not sure if it’s the booze or Andri’s bubbly personality, but I want her to be my new best friend. When she talks me through their two, eight-botanical offerings, the Rooibos and the Spekboom, (a small-leafed succulent indigenous to South Africa), she jokes, “I for one don’t have a palate so sophisticated I can taste 42 botanicals at a time.” I laugh. It’s just gone noon and I’m fairly drunk.
I sway smilingly into Hope on Hopkins in the neighboring industrial suburb of Salt River. Run by partners and former lawyers Lucy Beard and Leigh Lisk, the distillery draws inspiration from the many years the two spent living overseas. With its open tasting room overlooking the production floor, and its two huge, gleaming stills (named Mildred and Maude), it’s also very, very big compared to the other two inner city gin producers. Apart from producing three of its own flagship gins, Hope on Hopkins creates gin for various clients and crafts limited-release runs — such as Lucy’s Winter Warmer, which is infused with juniper, orange, cinnamon, nutmeg and sour figs.
They’re also catering to a much bigger fanbase than ever before. “In the two years that we’ve been going, we’ve seen people go from drinking gin but not being that interested in it, to wanting to know all about it and being keen to learn,” says Lucy. “It’s amazing to sit at a bar listening to people talking about gin in the same way that you’d talk about coffee or wine.” Booking in advance is recommended for Hope on Hopkins’ gin tastings — which take place every Saturday afternoon — and while you probably won’t arrive drunk, I can’t promise you’ll be sober when you leave.
The next bar is hard to miss, situated on trendy Bree Street, the road to trawl for all things artisanal and bespoke — from locally made designer handbags to a restaurant dedicated exclusively to bacon. Sundowners turn to nightcaps here in Mother’s Ruin, as the city’s beautiful people spill out onto the sidewalk. This updated colonial house is the place where you can try more than 90 types of local and international gin, overhear intimate details of the Cape Town dating scene in the crush for the bar and drink your gin with juice without worrying that you’re offending the purists.
The cocktail list offers a mix of ‘Olden Day Classics’ and what they call ‘Gin Re-invented’, an imaginative selection of drinks that prove that tonic isn’t the only mixer in the world. At the charming barman’s recommendation, I go for the Klein Slaaitjie (literally, ‘small salad’), a hefty glass of gin, elderflower cordial, tonic, fresh mint and fresh cucumber. It’s so good that I dig my fingers between the ice cubes to eat the garnish (just lining my stomach for later, of course).
The creatively named Gin Bar is a sanctuary compared to Mother’s Ruin — locals call it the ‘secret’ gin bar. Just down Wale Street from the historic Bo-Kaap district, the colorful center of Cape Malay culture, this speakeasy-style bar is modeled on a vintage apothecary. Its enchanting fairy light-decked courtyard is accessed through artisanal store Honest Chocolate, and it hurts to tear myself away from the piles of brownies and truffles.
Gin Bar’s four signature drinks — variations on the classic G&T, each with a different tonic, gin and garnish combination — are the Heart, Head, Soul and Ambition. If you’d like something with a little more kick, go for the Corpse Reviver; darkly apt as the building once housed a mortuary.
I try to forget the rumors I’ve heard about the bar’s marble slab countertop as the barman sets down my drink. It’s a casual, quirky spot — the best sort of place for enjoying balmy Cape Town evenings.
The drunken daytrip
While tipsy touring in the city is nice, half the beauty of Cape Town’s wine route is actually traveling through the stunning vineyards. Wilderer Distillery in Paarl is a welcome haven of tranquility on this hungover Sunday morning. This is exactly what founder Helmut Wilderer wanted, distiller Johan Monnig tells me as we bask in the morning sun, sitting round an outdoor table at the distillery’s Ristorante Pappa Grappa. “He wanted visitors who come here to feel comfortable, as though they’re in a friend’s garden.”
Wilderer’s 2016 Meininger International Spirits Award-winning gin only hit the market a year and a half ago, says Johan, with another 18 months before that spent on developing the recipe. “We went from 40 botanicals to 27, which include wild dagga, honeybush, buchu and devil’s claw. Each one plays a crucial role in the flavor profile and all are locally sourced. The ingredients we picked were also chosen for their homeopathic qualities,” he adds. It’s here, when Johan starts talking about gin’s history as a health drink, and the medicinal properties of the botanicals, that I really get interested.
However, let’s just talk about Johan’s beard for a moment. It is no mere trendy accessory. It is bushy and orange and vibrant; the beard of a man who’s only ever known rude health. He’s studying oenology full-time — his second degree — while still producing more spirits than most Ouija boards and looks like he could run a marathon without breaking a sweat — and if he did, he’d be sweating pure health tonic. If Johan tells me something is good for me, I’m going to buy five of it.
It turns out that he’s right. It only takes one G&T for the fugue of my hangover to begin to lift. And when Johan tells me that the term ‘Dutch courage’ was inspired by gin, I’m not surprised.
Cape Town is a city that, like much of South Africa, is characterized by contradictions and juxtapositions. While it may be one way to pass a weekend in a drunken daze, exploring the city’s gin route is also getting to know the ins-and-outs of a city not interested in reliving its colonial past but, instead, creating a rich new future — with distinctly African flavors.