Cape Town Gin
It seems a week can’t go by at the moment without another South African Gin emerging, and while there have been some utterly batshit interpretations of the spirit bursting out of the country, we’d been waiting with baited breath to try one that tasted like… well… juniper. And then, like rain in a drought, came Cape Town Gin.
The Cape Town Gin & Spirits Company (note company, not distillery – there is no copper to speak of yet) launched its first product in 2015. Cape Town Classic Dry Gin was, according to its website, designed to be a distinctly South African celebration of “the vibrant diversity of Cape Town,” which is a little weird, because it feels nothing like that.
We’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with that most South African of ‘ingredients,’ fynbos; as botanical nerds it’s exciting, but as Gin purists the wild South African vegetation can often be broad, strange, overwhelming and sometimes destructive, corrupting spirits with medicinal anise notes and taking them far, far away from what a gin should be.
“Fynbos is a massive collection of plants,” Cape Town Spirits founder Jaco Boonzaaier says by way of explanation, “some not even known by most distillers.” It’s true – the biodiversity on South Africa’s Cape is incomprehensibly large, with 9,000 plant species flourishing across the region. There is an infinite combination of plants with which to make a gin hyper-local, and many, many gin makers in the country have at it aggressively, entering into the wild with nothing but a glimmer of hope and a pair of shears.
This doesn’t leave people with a great deal to work with when it comes to churning out classics cocktails, so – perhaps unwittingly – by making a gin that uses a combination of liquorice, bitter orange, juniper, coriander, cardamom, star anise, orris and angelica as its recipe, Boonzaaier has created something very rare indeed: A South African gin that, perhaps contrary to its aim, celebrates none of the diversity of Cape Town. We couldn’t be happier with it, honestly.
Cape Town Classic Dry Gin to taste…
Juniper leaps out of the bottle and straight up the nose, with orris and angelica close behind, commanding attention and shining a great big gin-shaped spotlight on the liquid. Orange brings a pithy, not-quite-fresh smell (think the P.E. store cupboard) while star anise sends little flickers of flame up the nostrils.
All of the flavours land in the mouth at once: Fresh, juicy orange with waxy, Christmas-tree juniper and a warming star anise, which burns brightly on the tongue before blinking, quickly, out of existence. This gives the juniper a chance to rise like a phoenix, wherein it coats each inch of the mouth with an almost urgent sense of life. Excellent.
With tonic, the orange is brighter somehow, the quinine bringing a new lease of life to the citrus. It’s a surprisingly sweet G&T, though that juniper flush is loud, as is the spice burst. We’re never ones to shirk when it comes to writing a tasting note, but there is little to say other than it tastes likes a G&T should, and if you’re a fan of classic gins, you’re bound to love this.
Cape Town Classic Dry Gin is made by a third party contractor, who steeps all of the botanicals overnight in a neutral corn spirit. The gin is made to concentrate in a 600lt tank, a process used, supposedly, to keep its price competitive within the busy region that is only really beginning its love affair with the spirit, and whose majority audience still insist that the price tag needs to be as low as possible…
If it seems we’ve been dismissive of Cape Town Gin & Spirits Company’s attempt to celebrate its home, then rest assured we aren’t cruelly dismissing the company’s efforts. Cape Town Classic Dry Gin is indubitably an homage to Gin as a category, but it’s not an only child. It’s twinned with Cape Town Rooibos Red Gin, a very similar product indeed, but one with a bright, loud tea infusion. While the former was designed to showcase the firm’s ability to create something of superb classic quality, the latter is very much a chance for the company to show off a truly South African ingredient.
To make Cape Town Rooibos Red Gin, rooibos is added to the original gin’s concentrate. It is left to stew for three hours (no longer, as rather than a warm amber, the colour goes all sorts of haywire) before being cut further with neutral spirit and brought back to bottling strength – 43%, same as the Classic – with water.
Cape Town Rooibos Red Gin to taste…
To taste, that smoky tea whips its way around the tongue, holding all of the other botanicals in the gin hostage. The spice, though, is light and bright – catching in the back of the throat and burning all the way down. The tea infusion is to the star anise what E-numbers are to a five-year-old. The spice runs around like a lunatic, loud and fast, dizzy and silly.
In a G&T it’s the rooibos’ more medicinal and dry flavours that emerge, with the quinine and tea embarking on a valiant quest to make you cough, there’s no way this’ll ever be a match that works. All is not lost, though; with ginger ale it’s a different beast. Characterful, complex and incredibly spiced, this is an autumn drink – one that’ll warm your cockles as you attempt to take in the last of the sun.
While flavour preferences between one gin and another are always going to be subjective, there something indisputably admirable about how the two gins compliment each other in their range. Incidentally, keep your eyes peeled on the horizon as we heard there will be a third joining them very shortly. By having a classic gin, it has allowed Cape Town Spirits the chance to state pedigree and showcase their understanding of the category. With it, purists are kept happy and it gives them the ability to have a solid base off which to depart from (both figuratively but also literally when it comes to infusions). The rooibos is a clear statement of provenance, yet it’s grounded not just in its flavour by the classic gin, but conceptually also.
Boonzaaier had spent the best part of two decades in the liquor trade, including a vast stint at Pernod, so it’s safe to say he knows how to commercialise a product. As such, both of the Cape Town Gin bottles wear clear branding, created by wine label designer Vanessa Vogel. They’re elegant and classically styled, each wearing a crest that commands a certain level of respect, making them look as if they were here all along and you just hadn’t noticed.
The Cape Town Gin collection is widely available in South Africa, where the rooibos in particular thrives. There is an obvious taste for the peculiar over in South Africa, though, and while we undoubtedly like to embrace the strange over in this side of the world, we can’t help but think that it’s the Classic that, in time, will perform better. We’d love to be proved wrong, though, so get your freak on.
For more information about Cape Town Gin, visit their website: capetowngincompany.com/
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