Craft gin has been exploding across South Africa for some time now.
But don't feel any shame if you're not entirely familiar with some of our fine local, home-grown producers.
Instead, let your next road trip to the Winelands take on a different flavour, a distinctly juniper and fynbos infused one - with a G&T High Tea experience with Wilderer Gin and Bark and Quin Tonic at the Light House Suites
It is certainly one that any road trip to Paarl is deserving of, whether you base yourself at this boutique Suites or stop in for a tasting at one of the Wilderer distilleries; Pappa Grappa is situated along the R45 in Simondium and their micro-distillery can be found at the ever-popular Spice Route.
Wilderer is one of South Africa's most awarded producers of Grappa, Gin and Eau de Vie, with its growth over the past few years, firmly spurred on by the growing palate for craft gins. You might also be particularly taken with their latest experiment - a delectable Apple Pie Moonshine liqueur, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
An intimate group of us were treated to a live distillation experience in the epicurean perfection of the Light House Boutique Suites, headed up by Andre Pretorius, Wilderer bulk distiller who trained under founder and master distiller, Helmut Wilderer.
The legacy of Wilderer all started in January 1994, after Helmut won a golf tournament and a trip to South Africa. To the German restaurant owner's disbelief, he discovered there was no local distiller of Grappa after requesting the drink during a meal at the North West golfer’s paradise, Sun City.
To his further astonishment, on his trip down to the Cape with the Blue Train, he learnt that there was also no Eau de Vie available. Given the plentiful vines across the winelands, Helmut decided to relocate and founded Wilderer Distillery in January 1995 – South Africa’s first private distillery, initially based in Stellenbosch.
Sadly, Helmut passed away in 2016, after an extended battle with cancer, but the family business, headed up by his son Christian continues to flourish.
While the core ingredient of gin, juniper berries are grown in SA, they are very scarce and the quality is not considered to be the best, Andre shares with our group. Wilderer sources its berries from Germany, but that's not the sum of what makes this gin so unique.
Andre reveals, a total of 27 different botanicals have been added to the Fynbos gin - however exactly what they are is not easily enticed from the enthusiastic bulk distiller.
Pretorius' passion for the product and brand brewed up a keen interest amongst our group to want to know and taste more of SA's fine home-grown gin brews. As the afternoon slowly melted on, we discovered the versatility of gin and how surprisingly simple the distillation process is, yet skilled technique is required to ensure complex, smooth and balanced flavours.
While proper, good quality gin can be drunk neat, the pleasure in enjoying this spirit is in its ability to be shaken and stirred into a range of versatile cocktail options.
Surprisingly, Andre suggests steering clear of Dry Lemon and Cucumber when drinking your G&Ts (guilty as charged) - as these tend to overpower the subtle flavour of the spirit.
This is where a premium tonic, such as the likes of Barker and Quin comes in.
An inspirational story of how one entrepreneur, Hanneli van der Merwe became obsessed with enjoying a great gin and tonic; inspired during a trip to Europe back in November 2015.
A qualified oenologist, and the first women to aquire a PhD degree in Oenology at the University of Stellenbosch, Hanneli's personal journey of the tasty world of craft gin and designer tonics began brewing in her kitchen, as she perfected the tonic currently being sold across SA today, as well as being exported internationally.
Complementing the Wilderer offering, producers of only two types of gins - Fynbos and Rose gin - the pairing sums up the communal spirit alive within Paarl.
Hanneli explained how she managed to source distribution contacts through the distillers based in Paarl, the largest in the Cape Winelands. The result is one woman's grit turned into something unique and really delicious - something non-alcoholic drinkers can appreciate too.
While gin starts at 65% in the pot still distillation process, diluted down from 96% alcohol, the process will see a complete, refined gin at 43%.
Firstly the alcohol is of course maturated with the mix of botanicals , to kickstart the infusion before the distillation process begins.
The small 2-litre pot still used for our experience takes less than half an hour, Andre tells us, "On a 100-litre distillery it takes about 3 hours, while the 700-litre distillery it takes about 10 to 11 hours to complete the process".
Andre explains that when he started working with Helmut back in 2013, they produced about 20 to 30 bottles initially.
"When we started producing the gin in 2015 it went to 600 bottles. Today we are able to produce 600 bottles a day from the estate if necessary."
But with the increase in production, the refinement of technique is vital.
"During the pot still process there is a 3 to 5% loss of alcohol, heavier components change as you distil, most of the time the first flavour you get is the citrus, all your different botanicals come out at various stages and different temperatures during the process," he explains.
"Cooling is an essential part of the process, as cooling down too quickly is always a problem, because it can build pressure in your pot still. Cooling down too slowly and it starts coming out in vapour form," says Andre.
And the beautiful, finished bottles are "labelled by hand, with a lot of love".
Currently, Wilderer exports to Europe, including Germany, Sweden and Belgium as well as the United Kingdom - but you'd be doing yourself a favour by digging into the tasting and distilling experience out in Paarl during your next weekend escape.
Added to this, the G&T weekends will become a regular event for guests of The Light House, dates can be requested when you make your reservation - click here for more info.
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