Making your own gin

Get into the spirit of blending your own fragrant gin at New Harbour, Cape Town’s newest craft distillery.

For a spirit that’s been around for more than 400 years, gin continues to be surprisingly misunderstood. Most people don’t know, for example, that it’s really just neutral spirit (aka vodka), with a bunch of botanicals infused in it to make it interesting.

Luckily, help is at hand. Master distiller Nic Janeke, who established New Harbour Distillery earlier this year (the third craft outfit to emerge in Cape Town’s gritty Woodstock-Salt River industria) conducts gin making workshops on the last Saturday of every month. By the time you’re done, you’ll know your juniper from your genever; you’ll also get to take home a bottle of your very own custom-made gin, to share with friends while you expound to them the secrets of this special spirit.

It’s no wonder that with its gleaming pipes and measuring jars New Harbour’s HQ resembles a laboratory: Janeke calls it “an experimental distillery”. Here the chemical engineering graduate puts to the test different ingredients and distillation methods – such as the steep-and-boil method where all the botanicals are “steeped” (like a teabag in tea) in neutral spirit, and the vapour infusion method where the botanicals only encounter the spirit when its in vapour form, allowing for a much more delicate flavour profile to emerge.

We taste six different gins to give us a taste of how different each can be: from the classic Gordon’s Special London Dry, with heavy juniper giving it a clear, pine-like taste to the silky sweet Hendrick’s. We also sample New Harbour’s subtly citrus Spekboom Gin (which has infused spekboom leaves grown hydroponically at the distillery along with five other botanicals) and the amber-coloured Rooibos Infused Gin which reminds me of Cederberg river water with a touch of whisky.

We’re also introduced to various botanicals – stored in glass jars – that Janeke uses – sniffing, squeezing and tasting coriander seeds, grains of paradise, liquorice and others. The most important botanical is juniper – without these berries (which provide gin with its pine and camphor accents), a gin doesn’t qualify as gin.

And then it’s time to give making our own a go. Janeke has done the hardest part for us: he’s distilled individual botanicals with neutral spirit, and has given us guidelines on how much of what to include. He stresses, though, to be subjective – to make something that we’d want to drink: if we like fire, there is pepper; if we’d prefer something more floral, why not lavender?

Nic Janeke and Andri du Plessis, the distillery’s founders.

Pouring glasses and pinching pipettes soon make me realise what a challenge it is to get the correct amounts into my measuring jar. I concoct a passable test run; on my final attempt, though, I lose patience, fudge the amounts, and pray this hasn’t screwed it up.

The whole experience leaves me with a renewed appreciation for gin’s subtlety and complexity – and also relief that there are enthusiastic experts like Janeke at hand to make gin properly. God help us if it was left to the likes of me.

I avoid the gin that I’ve made (well, poured) for a whole week following the workshop, then finally summon the courage to try it out in a G&T. I brace myself and take the first sip. And… it’s fucking delicious. The drink disappears from the glass faster than a snowball in the Sahara, so I pour myself another – raising my glass to toast sheer luck of having made a killer gin.

An edited version of this article appeared in the 21 August 2016 edition of the Sunday Times.

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