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South Africa’s Gin Revolution

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Gin culture has surged across the world in recent years, with South Africa being no exception. The country is enjoying a craft gin revolution. I caught up with craft distiller and Durbanite, Andrew Rall, to get the lowdown on craft gin and why it’s become so popular.

While gin culture continues unabated, Durbanites are relishing the fruits of the craft gin distilling culture. Owner of award-winning Distillery 031 (the number is Durban’s dialling code) located in the city’s trendy Station Drive precinct, Andrew is passionate about his hometown and the art of distilling. He’s been making craft spirits for ten years but was not all that mad about gin from the outset. “For me it was what my grandparents drank. It was a bitter, strong-tasting drink and I wasn’t interested in it. Then I travelled to the US and the UK where I tasted lots of craft gins and realised I really liked them,” he says.

With anything that is mass produced, there is a limit to what you can achieve and the method in making craft gin sets it apart from other gins. “Just like a homemade cake made by your gran, there is something different about a spirit made in a craft distillery. As opposed to mass produced spirits, craft spirits are made in batches which means the distillers can experiment more with higher quality ingredients. This makes things more expensive, but you get the benefits of a better product with a much better, more subtle flavour which is easy to drink,” he comments.

Gin originated in the Middle Ages and derives its name and flavour from juniper berries, a conifer that grows in Europe. Known in those days as genever (Dutch for juniper), it was originally a herbal medicine to be enjoyed socially and later became a commercially manufactured drink in the spirits industry. The Dutch are credited as the pioneers of the drink and its believed that gin gave birth to the term ‘Dutch Courage’ after Dutch soldiers, fighting alongside the English in the Eighty Years’ War against Spain, would drink the stuff for its calming effect before battle.

So what has propelled gin’s popularity in recent years? According to Andrew, gin is a great drink because it transcends gender and age boundaries.  Whereas craft beer is largely a very male orientated drink, gin appeals to a wide range of drinkers.  “These days you’ll often find a couple going into a bottle store to buy some gin and tonic where in the past it would’ve been a case of beer and a bottle of wine,” he comments. As a spirit category it is also open to innovation and experimentation with many new flavours and combinations that have entered the market, more so than any other spirit category.

Gin’s approachability as a spirit has also increased its popularity. “People know that gin goes with tonic,” says Andrew, “and it also allows plenty of scope to be creative. Whether with different tonics and garnishes or as a full-scale cocktail, it’s an interactive drink where people can really get involved with the experience. This contrasts greatly with other premium spirits which are traditionally drunk neat or with water.”

Distillery 031 has three signature gin brands which both offer three unique gin experiences and pay homage to their South African origins. Their D’Urban Dry Gin is a classic London Dry (meaning no sugar) style gin which is made with a blend of ten botanicals including indigenous African rosehip. About this gin Andrew says, “It has a prominent citrus note with distinctive but subtle juniper coming through. The African rosehip provides a unique floral character in the background not found in most London Dry gins.”

New kid on the block is D’Urban Scarlet Gin, an American style gin made with cascara (coffee cherry) and is less juniper forward. Naturally pink but with no colourants, Scarlet stays true to its name and won three prestigious awards in the UK and US in 2018. Andrew states, “even though its pink, this is not a flavoured gin. It has a beautiful subtle flavour with berry notes coming through but it’s not berry flavoured.”

Last but not least and a first for South African gins is D’Urban Barrel Aged Gin. Handcrafted with a blend of ten botanicals, then aged in French oak barrels, the result is a mellow spirit which still retains its fresh citrus notes. The French oak also imparts a subtle spiciness and a whisky type colour which is unique to gin.

Andrew’s current favourite gin is D’Urban Dry Gin with Barker & Quin Indian Tonic garnished with ruby grapefruit and rosemary. “Part of the fun though is trying other gins and I have many favourites. City of London Dry Gin and Japanese Roku are two of my top gins at the moment.”

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