New Harbour Distillery
Opening a distillery in South Africa is the definitive “which came first” scenario. The chicken, the egg or the bureaucrat? Before you can produce spirit you need to apply for the correct license, but to apply for the license you need to have premises established and a product bottled and tested by the Department of Agriculture. You know… the product you can’t make, because you haven’t yet got the license you need. Needless to say, it took New Harbour Distillery founders Nic Janeke and his wife, Andri, a lot of patience and a lot of time – a year and a half, to be precise – to turn their dreams of full time booze making into a reality.
Distilling had always been a hobby for Nic; he studied Chemical Engineering and would toil away his evenings making bizarre liquid concoctions. While at university he built a pot still from a pressure cooker and hid away in his parents garage, making vast batches of vodka and mampoer – Moonshine’s South African cousin.
In 2012, Nic met his wife. Andri’s creative mind coupled with his weird science skills meant that it wasn’t too long before the duo – both fully submerged in the corporate world at the time – started wondering what work they could do to combine their skills. Given Nic’s moonshining history a distillery was the obvious choice, but what to make?
“One of the reasons I chose Gin as the first product to produce is because the legal definition of this spirit is wide open,” Nic told us. “Gin is something you can put your own stamp on and (with which you can) be as imaginative as you want to be.”
He and Andri had witnessed the rise in craft beer across South Africa. “I noticed my friends and everyone around me growing more and more open minded of premium craft products and thought craft distilling should be my next step.”
We often discuss the rampant overuse of ‘craft’ as a marketing term, but the hands-on elements, educational aspects and transparency of New Harbour Distillery seems to amply justify its use of the word. It’s both re-assuring and heart warming to see Nic and Andri share their love for the category far and wide, hosting gin making experiences from their on-site Gin Lab, along with tours and tasting sessions.
The Gin Lab was funded by a crowd funding campaign held at the end of 2015. Using a platform called Thundafund, Nic and Andri offered incentives ranging from a public thanks, to bottles of spirits, to the opportunity to name their still. Through this they raised R67,000 (£4000), which gave them just enough to build a tasting room in full view of the distilling equipment.
That this all happened before their product had even been bottled shows the thirst for small scale spirits in the region. Already – just a year since they began selling – they are seeking new premises, wherein they’ll be able to expand the lab further.
New Harbour Distillery has two gins to its name: Rooibos and Spekboom. Neither is considered to be the flagship, rather they are two very different items, made in very different ways, and with different base spirits (Rooibos uses cane neutral, whilst Spekboom uses grain neutral). What they have in common, though, is that their recipe was based around their namesake ingredients. Obviously juniper is imperative to gin, but New Harbour Distillery places a focus on spekboom and rooibos, tailoring the surrounding botanicals so as to shine a spotlight on them.
To make Rooibos Gin, Nic places eight botanicals (juniper, coriander, angelica, liquorice, almonds, cassia, sweet orange peel and orris root), into their still’s vapour chamber. By not being in the tank with the liquid, but above so that the cane spirit can pass through the ingredients and soak up their essential oils, it has resulted in a fresh and delicate gin.
A percentage of the gin is then married over several days with rooibos tea leaves (which adds viscosity and colour), before being mixed back in with the rest of the gin and blended down to bottling strength – 43% – with water.
New Harbour Distillery’s Rooibos Gin to taste…
Rooibos Gin has a soft and strange nose; the tea dominates, evoking the smell of a haystack in the sunshine. It conjures images of dusty light poking its way through the slats of a wooden barn on a warm summers day. We can’t detect juniper on the nose, but there’s a distinct complexity.
Dry hay greets the tongue first when sipped neat and there’s a sweetness from the almonds and orange peel, but about half way through the sip spice hits the tip of the tongue and expands to fill the entire mouth. It brings typical cassia fire: loud, bright and, when combined with the Rooibos, numbing. There’s a backdrop of juniper in there but the infusion is overwhelming (a sign that is evidenced by the alluring amber colour) and when tasted neat, is not in our opinion a particularly pleasant spirit.
With tonic, it remains a strange experience but is definitely more palatable. The mixer helps open up the flavour to allow the more aromatic aromas of rooibos to emerges, while the quinine accentuates rooibos’ bitter leaf qualities, resulting in a fizzy, tea like and slightly implacable sensation. Again, there isn’t a hint of juniper, so we’d be hard pushed to call the resulting mix a G&T; in fact, rooibos dominates throughout, making a tonic mix nothing short of a Tea & T.
To make Spekboom, Nic undertakes a dual distillation method, beginning the process by placing juniper, coriander, angelica, liquorice, cassia and lavender into the still to be vapour infused into a neutral grain spirit.
Nic then places fresh Cape lemon peel and spekboom leaves into grain spirit and distils them in a rotary evaporator. This distillation method uses pressure to aid distillation instead of having to apply the same level of heat, meaning that ingredients retain a fresh, almost raw and crisp taste. He blends the resulting spirit with the gin taken from their still and dials the mix down to 47% ABV.
Though spekboom may sound like something Ant and Dec would have rapped about in the 90s, it’s actually an African tree, which Nic describes as a “wonder plant” because “it can remove 4.2 tonnes of CO2 per year, is edible and very high in Vitamin C.” Tidbit: The leaves are chewed by Mozambique women during nursing when they want to encourage milk production.
New Harbour Distillery’s Spekboom Gin to taste…
Thankfully, Spekboom is much more ginny than New Harbour Distillery’s other gin, though is still an unusual offering. It’s complex and mysterious, with an earthy, spiced base sitting beneath a hint of medicine and a light, floral top note.
Tasted neat, cassia whips at the tongue, fire torch in hand like a hoard of villagers trying to chase a monster out of your mouth. There’s a hint of all spice (or something very similar), which brings heat and a drying, almost cereal like quality to the delicate lavender. All spice doesn’t form a part of the line up, so that depth could well be from the base.
Tonic opens Spekboom Gin out; the reduction in ABV lessens the spice, allowing the other botanicals to make their mark. The flavours stand strong against the mixer, delivering a hint of countryside flowers alongside lemon and – presumably – spekboom. We aren’t sure at all what it tastes like, but a mouth-watering sourness has been highlighted by the quinine and, as far as we’d guess, that’s not down to the other ingredients.
Explaining the use of two different spirits, Nic said: “When we develop a gin recipe, we choose the base alcohol that will work well with a particular style of gin and the botanicals that are being used… cane neutral provides a bit of sweetness, while grain neutral creates a dryer, more European styled gin.”
Both gins are distilled slowly and softly, with each run taking 18 hours and producing 260 – 400 bottles worth. “We believe in patience when it comes to distilling,” Nic explains. “We operate the still to ensure slow extraction of the botanicals, so not to burn off the necessary flavour compounds and essential oils.”
Needless to say, we’re more impressed by the more classic Spekboom Gin than Rooibos Gin. It’s more balanced, more nuanced and more versatile. It’s also a lot more inspiring as while Gin as a category may be loose around the laws of what is possible – there’s a heritage that needs to be respected. Innovation doesn’t have to be at the expense of tradition and in our opinion, their Rooibos Gin takes it way too far into botanical La La Land. There is a big push for Fynbos Gins in South Africa at the moment and we can see the draw towards working with just one plant and more a singular flavour profile to avoid the mess that is having 3000 possible plants in a glass, but it lacks the subtlety of touch that makes great spirits truly captivating.
That said, Nic and Andri’s dedication to spreading the gin love far and wife is worthy of applause and we like their experimental nature and their combination of art and science. Curiosity is a wonderful thing, and there is something immensely satisfying about watching people chase theirs. We also love the importance they place on provenance – the Rooibos Gin may not be to our gin-loving taste, but its undeniably transportive and relevant to their geography. If only it could be dialled down… We are also looking forward to seeing what they come up with next and what their future ranges looks like.
As one of the youngest Master Distillers in South Africa, and still in the early stages of his career, Nic is the first to admit that he still has a lot of knowledge to gain. He’s more than happy to educate himself, though. “We always say we do not know everything about Gin, but we are here to learn everything about it, gathering as much knowledge about this great spirit to create the best varieties possible,” Nic says, summarising the New Harbour Distillery ethos. “But what’s most important of all is that through all of our products, services and relationships we want to add to life’s enjoyment.”
Cheers to that!
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