Six Dogs Karoo Gin
The Karoo is a natural area so vast that it accounts for all of the seasons at once. It’s a semi desert: hot, dry, arid and inhospitable; it’s also cold: bitterly, frostily, bone-achingly. There are severe droughts, dangerous floods and seemingly, there are contradictions at every turn. Sheep graze on the patchy grassland, picking their way across hundred-million-year-old fossils. Farmers pop up here and there, tending to the flocks, pulling up water from bore holes. It’s an alien landscape, crammed with almost all of Earth’s history. No wonder, then, that South Africa’s Six Dogs Distillery wanted to cram as much of that landscape into their very first product – Six Dogs Karoo Gin.
“A lot of South African distillers are doing fynbos gins,” Master Distiller and co-founder Charles Bryant explains. “But we wanted to do something different, so we turned to the Karoo, which intersects our farm. There are so many beautiful plants from this semi-arid region, and from there, Karoo Gin was born.”
Bryant, along with his brother Glenn and their friend Luigi got the ide to start making gin back in 2013. Bryant had been seeking a creative outlet for some time. He began with wine (“very poor, couldn’t give it away!”), before moving on to his wife, Marie-Louise’s, favourite tipple -Gin.
The Karoo Gin story begins in a garden shed, a space that until booze came along belonged to Bryant’s six dogs – Obelix, Cloud, Bodrum, Flea, Blue and Midget. The aim was to create something totally unique and really quite special, using a custom still forged from the bones of a copper geyser. The use of local flora, however, required a little something extra, too. Flowers are a precious bunch when it comes to distilling; they cook very easily, often taking on a stewed tea taste. By distilling the more delicate ingredients under glass (and at room temperature), the trio were able to preserve the flavours as they are on the bush, creating as authentic a Karoo experience as possible for drinkers. Sure, this dual distillation method is a fiddly process, but the end flavour almost always makes it more than worth the effort.
There are 11 (or 12, depending on what you read. Bryant told us 11, though, and as the gin’s distiller, we’re going with his numbers) botanicals featured in Karoo Gin in total, half of which are local. These are either grown on the farm (lemon buchu, Persian limes, mandarin) or harvested from the wild (Acacia thorn tree and wild lavender). Then there’re the ingredients that anchor this in a more ginny direction – juniper, angelica, cassia and chamomile and it is the cunning marriage of the two and the subtlety in which locality is matched by classicism that makes Karoo Gin special.
To make Karoo Gin, Bryant and co steep all of the botanicals in a neutral spirit for 24 hours. They are divided off into two categories – heavy and light. The heavy ones go into the copper still and the lighter ones go into the vapour infusion basket. The most delicate (lavender or chamomile, if we were to guess) goes nowhere near the still, diverted instead to the rotary evaporator to be cold distilled. This separate distillate is added to the gin during the blending stage, when water taken from the mountains surrounding the distillery is brought into the mix, cutting the ABV to 43%.
Karoo Gin to taste…
Karoo Gin is transporting liquid at its very best. If there’s just one reason we invited the distillery to hold the international bursary spot at Junipalooza 2018, it’s because it is nothing short of a holiday in a glass. To smell its all citrus and shrubbery, with the lemon buchu and limes bringing a crisp, zinginess and the mandarin adding softness, earthy layers. There’s no burn on the nose, but if you close your eyes and breathe deep, you can almost feel that South African sun tickling at your toes. Juniper pushes through towards the back, dragging a shy (that ABV is working hard to suppress it, saving a surprise or two for the inevitable G&T) lavender with it, leaving just a sprinkle of sweet florals to round of the nose.
Tasted neat, cassia leaps right up on the tongue, though the gin has clearly had a great deal of copper contact, as there’s no burn whatsoever. It’s soft and gentle, despite the fire. Its like a magician’s coat – we can see the flames burning across our sleeves, but we can’t feel the heat. The thorn tree and juniper berries get all tangled up together in the middle, bringing a huge, green, vegetal sensation, one that’s so thick you feel as if you were chewing on an air freshener. As on the nose, the lavender is given a helping hand by the juniper, which pushes it to prominence towards the end of the sip, bringing a sweet, just-shy-of-soapy petal taste with it.
Neat, it’s impressive. With tonic, it’s a whole other story. The botanicals swirl together in one big exotic mess, creating something that can be none other than the Karoo. There are sherbet lemon sweets, succulents and shrubbery. There are great bursts of vivid pink flowers exploding on the tongue. There’s juniper, of course, and plenty of it. It’s all there, but its there as one, adding up 11 botanicals and receiving a number much greater than the sum of its parts. We love it. Can you tell?
Because we spoke about the all-important ‘what’s on the inside’ stuff first, we’ve earned the right to discuss the most shallow part – the looks. This is a good lookin’ gin! A beautifully illustrated light green label is wrapped around a tall, square necked bottle. A dog, of course, features on the label, along with botanical drawings and a neat, hexagonal shape loaded with the name and logo. It’s a package and a half! Gift worthy through and through, and definitely due to sit centre of attention on your booze shelf, this is one of those rare packages in which both looks and liquid are perfectly matched.
There’s already a variant on the shelves – Karoo Blue Gin, named not just for their youngest dog, but for the blue pea flower that gives it’s bright blue hue. Those in the know will be familiar with the magical properties of the flower – when mixed with citric acid (tonic), it transforms into a beautiful dusky pink drink. It’s a gimmick, yes, but in our experience the gins that wear this botanical do tend to be quite excellent. We’ve not managed to get hold of it to sample yet, but when we do the review will be added right here.
Karoo Gin up to this point has only really been available in South Africa, but we expect the Junipalooza launch to show the brand just how well they are going to be received on foreign shores, and will mark its UK debut with a bang. Hopefully that will inspire them to seek some broader foreign distribution within Europe and the US too and by summer, expect to see them easily available across the UK.
This whole project began as a scientific quest. It was botany, technology and chemistry all rolled into one. It quickly became a passion project, once with the end product at its core. “To us,” Bryant explains, “creating Gin is about waking up every day and loving what we do. It’s about setting out to make the finest gin we can, one batch at a time. It is about creating something extraordinary. Something to be proud of.”
We think that’s a full house, chaps. Everything about this is everything we love about the Gin category.
For more information about Six Dogs Distillery, visit sixdogs.co.za
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