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Gin aficionado, Michelle Lippert, reviews our new favourite tipple, craft gin.

Craft gin is taking the good old G&T to a whole new level. Think elevated drinks … I’m talking pink, Indian and elderflower tonics, and glasses bejewelled by fresh fruit, mint leaves and even spices. Your imagination, and that of your mixologist, is the only limit.

With so many craft gins available in South Africa, and new tonic water flavours that almost overwhelm, the combinations are literally endless. And there’s even a craft G&T for those who prefer a whisky on the rocks or brandy and coke, so vast is the flavour palette. So, get ready to paint your very own G&T masterpiece.

Crafting a classic gin

Matt Beech tells me about a journey that began when he decided to take a gap year. It was when he started working on a boat that he took the first step, venturing into the cocktail industry. From there, he says, it was a bit of luck and a lot of mentoring.

Now 22, he is South Africa’s youngest distiller, running his own still. His philosophy is simple: “I don’t care for what anyone else is doing, what I am trying to do is focus on the classics. Gin done right.”

When the godfather of craft gin Roger Jorgensen has mentored you that philosophy is second nature.

Remember what I wrote about fruit bejewelled glasses? When I ask Beech about this trend, he nearly jumps through the phone. “That’s a South African trend, and it’s just wrong. It’s about simple garnishes that complement a gin, not about a fruit salad in your glass.”

And on the topic of tonic, he is equally purist: “Pink tonic gets its colour from additives. The same with cucumber tonics, that flavour is artificial. Just stick to Indian Tonic.” His brand’s pay-off-line explains the reason behind naming this award-winning gin, “success is when your signature becomes an Autograph”.

The Gin Guide, a prestigious body dedicated to celebrating the most exceptional in the world of gin, named Autograph the Best Gin in Africa for 2019, and just last year it bagged the award for the Top Scoring Craft Gin at the Michelangelo International Wine & Spirits Awards.

So, what’s next for the “mad scientist” behind Autograph? “New developments include limited-edition releases once a year. I’m thinking botanicals that are going extinct, creating something from ash … I’m not interested in creating anything sugary or fruity.”

Taking on your sense

Barely a year old, and Smiths Gin has already taken the craft gin industry by storm. All three inspired gins have bagged awards in the 2019 SA Craft Gin Awards: double gold for the elderflower and spiced gins, and gold for the citrus.

Rachel Smith describes her namesake as a gin for every palette. Smiths Gin’s Citrus, she says, is a starting point for traditional gin lovers to expand their palette just a little. Her Elderflower Gin is “light, floral, delicate and perfect for those who don’t like heavy flavours”.

And then there’s the Spiced Gin, double gold winner, and for very good reason. It is, simply put, bold and complex. Taking on your senses the moment you raise the glass to your nose. Smith describes it as “that moment you walk into the Oriental Plaza in Johannesburg and you are enveloped in a hug of spices, that’s what I envisioned with my spiced gin.”

And it doesn’t disappoint. I try it on its own as a shot, in a negroni, and as a single gin with Indian Tonic. (Don’t worry, these were tasters!) And I’d have to agree with the creative mind behind this triumph of a gin, but I liken it to my Cape Malay roots. Especially in the G&T, I immediately get that spiced aroma. First, I smell it, and then when I take a sip, that aroma turns into the same flavour.

It envelops me, but it doesn’t overwhelm. Probably because Smith had some of South Africa’s masters of flavour back her vision. Celebrity chef Peter Goffe-Wood, head of the Cape Wine Academy Harry Melck and renowned mixologist Chantelle Horne.

For Smith, this is not just about award-winning gin. It’s also about being a part of growing the South African economy. In the pipeline are plans to award two bursaries for education in the hospitality industry every year from the proceeds of her business endeavours.

Rooted in sustainable harvesting

When thinking about a brand with purpose, Ginsmith pretty much ticks all the boxes, with conservation and sustainability being core values of the brand.

African sage, wild rosemary and buchu are all hand-harvested on the farm, which, along with the distillery, is powered by the sun. The gin itself is made from pristine mountain water. If this isn’t enough, Ginsmith has also partnered with the Cape Leopard Trust — R10 from every bottle sold goes towards the trust.

“Everything we do is rooted in having an ethical and sustainable relationship with the environment and all who inhabit it. It would be unthinkable for us not to have a meaningful cause at the centre of our endeavour,” say Colleen Smith and Lesley Clarke, the partnership behind Ginsmith.

And you can tell these magnificent, endangered cats are close to the hearts of both Smith and Clarke. The farm is named Tygerkloof and the image of the extremely shy Cape leopard graces every bottle.

Smith says: “We cannot think of Ginsmith separate from the environment in which we create it, or from the magnificent Cape leopard that graces our farm and the Grootwinterhoek Mountains. We have been fortunate enough to have sighted the leopard on a couple of occasions, to have heard them, and to have seen their spoor.”

But let’s get down to the gin itself.

On the issue of tonic water, Smith prefers Indian Tonic because, “some of the coloured and flavoured tonics do not complement our gins, tending to rather overwhelm the subtlety of the botanicals used in many a craft gin”.

Why choose Ginsmith? Well, Smith says, because it is the real thing. “If the consumer wishes to experience handcrafted gins, made in small batches of 200 bottles at a time, where mountain botanicals are hand-sourced by the people who then distil, bottle and package, then Ginsmith answers all of these criteria.”

And to top it off, it’s a multi-award-winning gin, having bagged seven gold medals, including one double gold, in its first 14 months on the shelf.

An authentic pedigree

The Cradle of Humankind is the home of and the inspiration behind the flavours of Flowstone Gin.

When Glyn French describes the labour of love one can’t help but smile with her. “These soft, wonderful flavours are foraged from the lush, mostly indigenous trees right here, around my home. Authenticity and pedigree, that is what Flowstone is about.”

She and her son Mark laugh when I say that it’s like the trees surrounding her property were just waiting for someone to infuse their flavours into these award-winning gins. Unlike the centuries of history that surround her property, Flowstone is just over two years old.

Even more remarkable, is what it’s achieved in this short time, as the first gin range in the history of the Michelangelo International Awards to be awarded three concurrent double gold medals in 2019.  And just a sip of any of the three will tell you why.

The Wild Cucumber gin, which won gold in the year it was launched, is lovely with a slight back note of citrus. The Marula is fruitier and lighter, but it’s the Bushwillow that wins me over. It’s very soft, but very, very flavourful. Glyn says this is the gin lover’s gin, with woody, earthy tones. But I pick up a floral, sweet citrus note, which Glyn attributes to mace.

These uniquely South African gins will soon find themselves in bottle stores in the US and France, with China showing some serious interest. An incredible feat, given the craft gin craze sweeping the globe, from Iceland and Russia to the UK and Spain. Not forgetting the Philippines, which consumes more than 43 per cent of the world’s gin.

But Flowstone Gin manages to hold its own in a market that is constantly growing.

 Chin, Chin!

True to his motto of not complicating his flavours, Autograph Gin’s Matt Beech recommends the Dr Rosso — 25ml Martini Rosso, 25ml of his Distillery Road gin, topped off with tonic and fresh orange slices.

Smiths Gin’s Rachel Smith enjoys her spiced gin with Indian Tonic and either black peppercorns, rosemary or mint to garnish.

Colleen Smith describes as “simply delicious” a Ginsmith Navy cocktail from Alchemy bar in Ballito, made using a dash of Angostura bitters, a dried orange wheel, and some fresh coriander leaves.

Glyn French recommends using Flowstone’s Bushwillow gin with Indian Tonic, for a refreshing G&T. And here’s the twist, char a few cashews in a dry pan until well blackened, and serve with some fresh thyme.

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