That’s the spirit! South Africa’s urban craft distillers

Forget craft beer: artisanal spirits are where it’s at.  From Cape Town to Durbs, these are the pioneering inner-city distillers crafting the future of cocktails.

TIME ANCHOR DISTILLERY

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When Shanna-Rae Wilby infused vodka with Skittles for parties during her varsity years, she had no idea that this would spark a passion for making spirits from scratch.

She launched Time Anchor Distillery with her boyfriend, Warrick Brown, in September 2015, having spent two painstaking years setting up the business – while they both juggled fulltime jobs.

She explains that “time” in the name represents the patience required to distil spirits “properly”, while “anchor” represents the distilling traditions their processes are anchored in.

Time Anchor’s launch spirit is a white rum in a good looking French bottle (that weighs almost a kilogram) – a homage to Wilby’s sugar cane-fringed Ballito upbringing.

“Rum’s a hard sell – it has a really bad rep, but when made right it’s actually a really good product,” Wilby says.

Made from blackstrap molasses from TongaatHulett, the slightly syrupy spirit can be enjoyed in a cocktail – or even on ice (with a squeeze of lime) where there are hints of liquorice, vanilla, coconut and macadamias.

Time Anchor also offers a Rum Arrangé  – which contains a vanilla pod that has infused into the alcohol: a technique popular in Réunion, the French Indian Ocean island. It’s gorgeous: smoother than the white rum, with banana notes complimenting the sultry vanilla.

“Ingredients to us are really important: we’re a farm-to-glass distillery. What that means is that we do everything from scratch. I try and keep it as local as possible because we are a local brand.”

Time Anchor Distillery is in Aerial Empire, one of the newest blocks to become part of the Maboneng Precinct in downtown Joburg.

Wilby and Brown deliberately chose to be based here because they wanted to be part of a community that is actively involved in urban regeneration. Home to the 200L copper still, Charlotte, the distillery doubles up as a tasting room. There are 120,000 5-cent pieces cover the floor while an artwork by Haroon Gunn-Salie, who lives nearby, graces the wall. Tastings on Saturdays (which must booked in advance cost) R50 and include a free cocktail.

HOPE ON HOPKINS

“It was quite a leap!” Lucy Beard says of the decision she and her partner, Leigh Lisk, made to trade their 16-year legal careers in London to set up a craft distillery in Cape Town’s gritty Salt River.

On a sabbatical exploring southern Europe, “We soon realised that we didn’t want to go back to the frantic pace of corporate life and rather wanted to do something with each other and work for ourselves,” she says. “The Spanish drink an incredible amount and variety of gin and there we started to get to know just how special and how different gins could be.”

Starting their own distillery seemed a logical next step. Hope on Hopkins launched last year with a London Dry-style gin – a smooth classic with juniper, fresh rosemary and lemon verbena combined with malted barley-base alcohol that has been triple distilled in Maude and Mildred, the two large stills named after their grandmothers. Two other gins have followed, both representing different chapters of their life: the Mediterranean Gin (savoury, accented with olives, rosemary and thyme) honouring the region where the idea for the distillery was born, and the Salt River Gin which stars Western Cape botanicals such as buchu and kapokbos. A few limited release gins are in the works too.

“Consumers are more aware of provenance and there is a move to traceability and an appreciation of things made in small batches using high-quality ingredients,” Beard says. “The joy of craft distilling is that consumers can get to know who is making the spirit they drink and what they are making it from.”

The airy white-walled distillery is open for tastings and tours by appointment; Wednesday or Saturday afternoons are best.

WOODSTOCK GIN CO.

“The craft beer market is now saturated and people are looking for something new and different to drink, which is not mass produced,” says Simon Von Witt, founder of the Woodstock Gin Co.

Having experimented with making Italian liqueurs at home since 2012, Von Witt, an environmental consultant by day, launched his Inception Gin in February last year. He double distils his base alcohol from top-notch local wine and beer, infusing it with rooibos, buchu, honeybush and other Cape botanicals. It’s a hike through mountain fynbos captured in a bottle.

Von Witt says craft gins are “far healthier than some of the mass produced gins, many of which use a juniper essence added to ethyl alcohol. You will be thankful you spent the extra buck on a craft gin the next day.”

The Woodstock Gin Co.’s tiny distillery in the Salt River Arcade, a complex of shops, studios and offices just off Woodstock’s bustling Albert Road, is open for tastings and cocktails from Monday to Saturdays.

DRAYMAN’S

When Moritz Kallmeyer told people he was going to make whisky, they said, “It can’t be done.” He didn’t let that stop him, however, and in 2010 he launched Drayman’s Highveld Single Malt – one of only two single malt whiskies made on the African continent.

The former biokineticist had turned his hobby of brewing beer into a fulltime job back in 1995 – when “nobody knew what craft meant”. He thought making a whisky would be a good way of using his micro-brewery’s spent yeast which otherwise just ended up being thrown out.

The industrial area of Silverton in Pretoria is the unassuming home of this Scotch-style whisky – a world away from the dramatic island settings one normally associates with single malts. Kallmeyer says the ageing happens twice as fast as it does in Scotland because of the Highveld’s dryness and the huge temperature fluctuations between summer and winter.

“For every bottle I distil, I get a quarter bottle out because of the evaporation and the ageing,” he says. So that he doesn’t deplete his stock, he only sells 1000 bottles a year – which may explain why you probably haven’t heard of it.

“Big, fat and complex” – but still wonderfully smooth – the Draymans Single Malt has spicy, honeyed notes with a hint of chocolate against a backdrop of tropical fruit.

It’s truly a South African whisky: made with water drawn from on-site and malt from Caledon. It ages in French oak barrels brought from the Cape where they were first used to mature red wine.

Kallmeyer describes the process as “a magic alchemy”, “bringing top quality spirit together with top quality wood; the climate does the rest”.

He blends whiskies that have been sitting in barrels for between four and eight years in his storeroom to create the final product.

Kallmeyer believes that age doesn’t determine quality: it’s not how long whisky has spent in the barrel, but rather, “it’s in the wood policy, it’s in the control you have over what’s happening inside the cask, the skill of the blending” that makes a good whisky.

Kallmeyer does tastings by appointment in the distillery’s no-nonsense sitting area. In addition to the Single Malt there’s also the Spanish-style Solera whisky (which is made with a cascading cask system), a honey whisky liqueur and variety of other spirits (Hakkiesdraad mampoer anyone?) to try.

DISTILLERY031

When Andrew Rall returned to South Africa after time spent working in the UK, the “avid drinker” wondered “Why are there no quality spirits – besides very high quality brandies – produced in South Africa?”

He had also noticed the craft distillery movement’s growth in the US.

“I reasoned if the public responded to craft spirits as they had to the fledgling craft beer industry then there would be an opportunity for a business. The opportunity excited me because it would provide me with a creative outlet – creating completely new products – and also help put Durban on the map as a producer of craft spirits.”

Inspired by the city it calls home, Distillery031 is located in The Foundry, a three-storey former clothing factory on Station Drive that Rall has transformed into a mixed-used development that includes a café, office pods, and microbrewery.

Its craft spirits range launched in 2015 with 031 Vodka, 031 Durban Dry Gin and 031 Absinthe.

The classic Durban Dry Gin emphasises juniper, but also features botanicals indigenous to KwaZulu-Natal, including the subtle African Rosehip.

Rall is at work the 031 New World Gin – a more American-style gin which has less juniper, allowing local botanicals the limelight so that it “really captures something of Africa in a bottle”.

Distillery031 offers tastings and distillery tours on Saturdays, where cocktails concocted by local mixologists are paired with street food.

“Craft spirits offer a far wider range of flavours and sensorial experiences than industrially produced drinks,” he says. “I think that people are also starting to support local producers and so they are excited to be able to find spirits produced in the own areas.”  

An edited version of this article appeared in the January 2016 issue of British Airways Highlife.

POSTSCRIPT (October 2016): Since this was published, yet another urban craft distillery has joined the ranks of these stellar outfits: New Harbour Distillery. Oh, and Time Anchor Distillery now also offers a gin and three liqueurs – visit the Facebook page for more.

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