The 10th June is World Gin Day – an excuse (as if one were needed) to indulge in a beverage whose history is more fraught than most other alcoholic drinks. The most cost-effective route to inebriation in 18th century England, gin’s image initially took a hammering: think of “gin-joints” and “gin-soaked.” Developed – as far as we know – in Holland, it took off in England following the accession of William of Orange. Within a few years it spawned an epidemic of drunkenness known as the Gin Craze. Liquor licensing, “sin” taxation and outright prohibitionism can all be traced to this unhappy era of British history, as indeed can the rise of temperance religions like Methodism. Hogarth’s 18th century engravings do not present a pretty picture of the role played by gin (“mother’s ruin”) in the destruction of family life.
Gin has long put this era behind it, passing through a happier colonial period where, mixed with quinine tonic, it helped the British in the Raj (and elsewhere in the more tropical parts of the Empire) to survive malaria. It’s had its fashion ups-and-downs – not so long ago it was regarded as a middle-aged middle class drink, the alcoholic equivalent of afternoon tea. In the past few years all this has changed. It has become the drink of choice amongst young and old, displacing almost everything else in the cocktail bars and fancy pubs of Europe and Asia, and, of course, South Africa.
Juniper is the defining flavour of gin: no matter what other botanicals are used in its production, it must have a discernible taste of juniper berries. Beyond this it’s pretty much open season. South African gins – Inverroche for example – include “fynbos” (whatever that might actually mean) just as The Botanist claims 22 botanicals from from the island of Islay off the Scottish coast, where it is produced alongside some of the world’s most distinctive whiskies.
The small print on a gin label is pregnant with meaning. If the word “gin” alone appears as the product description, then it’s possible that the various flavours were added to neutral spirit as a simple infusion. If the label claims it is a distilled gin, then you have the comfort of knowing that the base spirit was re-distilled through actual botanicals. The words “London Gin” indicate that all the flavours were derived from a re-distillation process and that no adjustments were made after the spirit was drawn from the still.
The choice of gins available in the local market has increased dramatically in the past five years, with many of the long-established standard brands losing their appeal as craft-hungry consumers chase down boutique products. The primary beneficiary of this boom has been Stilbaai-based Inverroche, now the largest of the “hand-made” local brands with three different products in the range. The TripleThree distillery on Blaauwklippen also has a three product range, one a straight juniper gin, the others defined by citrus or “African Botanicals.” Pienaar and Son operate out of a nook-and-cranny off Roeland Street in Cape Town. It is, to my knowledge, the only craft gin distillery in the country which actually produces its own base spirit (rather than buying industrially produced alcohol) and it has two markedly different products (Empire and Oriental) in its range. For those wanting a strong, almost naartjie-like note to their gin there is Clemengold, produced at the Hope on Hopkins Distillery in Cape Town. KWV makes Cruxland using neutral grape spirit as the base alcohol.
What most gin-and-tonic consumers don’t realise is that the tonic can play a more important role than the gin in the final beverage. Fitch & Leedes is a neatly branded local tonic that is a little too sweet for my taste. Adi Badenhorst’s Swann has more intense flavours, but also errs on the side of sweetness. Once you’re going to chase down the imported options, Fentimans beats Fevertree for just the right kind of dry and bitter taste.