A Mari Gin
Some nights fit a whole lifetime into them. You can fall in love across a dance floor, form lasting friendships in chip shops, dance ‘til you drop or walk till you flop, stay up for the sunrise and see the world through new eyes. You can change your whole life in a night, a fact that A Mari Gin founders Jess Henrich and Niel Du Toit know very well indeed.
The duo met at University in Cape Town a good 15 years before the A Mari Gin story began. Swedish/German born Jess and South African Niel became good friends at university, though inevitably (because adulthood is long and complicated) went their separate ways, with Niel pursuing his architect career to London and Jess following her entrepreneurial talents across the globe.
During a stint in Ibiza in 2015, Jess developed a real appreciation for Gin. She firmly embraced the balloon glass lifestyle, sipping on huge G&Ts whilst surrounded by wild growing juniper plants. Niel’s introduction to the spirit came one year later, when he and Jess returned (separately) to Cape Town and met up for dinner. “We ended up having an all-night conversation about Gin and exciting new ideas, which culminated in us buying a still on the internet at 3am” Jess told us, as though this were the most natural thing in the world. Some ideas can’t wait…
Within three – yes three – months, A Mari Gin was on the shelf. As we said, some ideas can’t wait. Or maybe won’t. “It sounds insane,” Jess agrees, “but we put all our savings, hearts and energy into it… It’s fair to say we hustled. It was hugely, hugely stressful, but so rewarding.”
Neither of them had even an inkling about how to distil before launching the gin, so when it came to developing the recipe they headed to the Jorgensen Distillery in Wellington. There they learned the basics of distilling – enough information to see them through recipe development, anyway, but not quite enough to make them full time distillers. At the time of writing, A Mari Gin is still very much made at Jorgensen’s (although we suspect it will most likely find a home elsewhere in due course).
To form the recipe, the duo spent hours wandering up and down the Atlantic coastline, nibbling their way through the flora that dots the landscape. “We tried everything,” Jess said, “distilling with various seaweeds and ocean plants before we moved onto coastal fynbos as we preferred the flavour profile. We spent a lot of time freezing in the ocean and thinking about the sensory experiences of the coastline and the sea. It was immersive. We’ve eaten things we never thought we would, experimented with plants endlessly.”
They spent twelve hour shifts distilling, blending and tweaking, performing mini-runs on Sebastian, their tiny little test still who, according to Jess, is “a bit of a tosser and very sensitive.” They ran recipe after recipe, finally setting on a couple that they believed had merit, before taking these to a panel of friends.
The botanicals the trio ended up selecting are a strange mix of tradition (juniper, coriander, citrus, cardamom and angelica), all spice, fynbos and – most surprising of all – Atlantic sea water. “We wanted to make a gin that was true to the terroir it was produced in. In the case of Atlantic Ocean gin, it’s Cape Town in a glass. Plus, the salt and minerals in the seawater enhance the oil extraction from the botanicals, but the gin itself isn’t salty at all. It has a very faint minerality to the finish, which we feel adds another layer of complexity to the gin.”
To make A Mari Gin, the trio add all of the ingredients to the still at once – hard botanicals, foraged botanicals, spirit, sea water and all. The still is fired up and left to run for seven hours, yielding 235 bottles at a time. So far just 1500 bottles have been produced, but given that the gin wasn’t even a twinkle in its parent eyes this time year, that’s not a bad start…
South African gins, it’s fair to say, push the envelope. Sometimes we can get on board with it, and sometimes it’s a bridge too far, with fynbos often providing such boisterous flavours that its inclusion can throw a gin off balance, even with just a few grams too many.
When we broached this, Jess was quick to defend her compatriot gin makers, saying: “Our gins stand up to international competition and yes, fynbos features in many of them, but I think that is to our benefit. We have this immense playground of incredible plants around us, I think Table Mountain alone boasts 2200 species. Obviously not all of these are edible, but the ones that are have such interesting flavour profiles, such unique flavour profiles. We have an opportunity to bring something to the table that pushes gin forward in a sense, brings out new and exciting flavours using plants you can’t find anywhere else in the world.”
A Mari Gin to taste…
And with that, we brought the gin to our nose. The first impression is of layers, like rock formations built over a millennium, or like a delicate web of filo pastry. Fruity citrus plays in the background, with a brutish, drying spice to one side and the eucalyptol-like fynbos plants rearing up through the middle.
It’s surprisingly smooth to taste, given its spice content and ABV of 43%. It lands on the tongue softly, with the Fynbos botanicals bringing a sweet, waxy and green leafiness while cardamom and coriander seed help provide a good depth to the taste. The all spice quickly steps in to heat up the mouth and crescendos towards the finish, but disappears quickly on the swallow, leaving the mouth flushed green – as though you’d just stuffed yourself with ivy and nettles. The ocean is never noticeable, though its help with oil extraction has resulted in a gin that is rich and lush, louching at the merest drop of tonic.
With tonic, the Fynbos botanicals travel much further, seizing onto the taste buds and dyeing them garden green. The citrus is a little louder, meeting the quinine in a busy, bubbly fusion, but it is the unfamiliar botanicals that dominate the mouth, albeit in a far less medicinal nature than we’d expect.
Admittedly, this doesn’t quite fit the criteria to fall comfortably into Gin territory. The juniper has to be sought out and remains shy once excavated, so while it’s well made, botanically intense and entirely evocative of its home, it leans more towards being a botanical vodka than it is a gin. That’s no drastic thing, though, as while all of the chemically flavoured vodkas of the past have given the “flavoured vodka” moniker a bad name, the gin spin-offs of late – rich in flora, but weak in juniper – have formed a fantastic sub-category of progressive spirits.
A Mari Gin is packaged in a short, fat 70cl bottle, with a blue paper label designed to look like a wave wrapped around the front. It’s eye catching enough, but in a world of worship-worthy bottles (especially sea inspired – if you want a bottle that depicts waves in a stunning manner, look at Isle of Harris), it’s something that the duo are looking to change. We’re excited to see this evolution – it’s a strong move to have a rebrand so soon after launch, but then it’s a gargantuan move to have a bottle on the shelf three months after deciding to make a gin.
As part of the rebrand, A Mari Ocean Gin will be changing its name to A Mari Atlantic Gin. This is to make room for its forthcoming siblings. A Mari means to ‘come from the sea,’ in Latin, and it’s a principle Jess and Niel are sticking to. They’re currently working on an Indian Ocean Gin (Cape Town is the meeting point for both oceans), which will follow a similar path to the original, with slightly altered botanicals. “We will continue with our Ocean spirits as we love the effect the water has on the product,” Jess says, “and it’s an excuse to get out on the ocean often, which we both love. We plan on having a range of Ocean/Sea spirits, exploring the shores of the other international oceans and their relevant botanicals on a global scale.”
Our hope, as wavers of the Gin flag, is that they go heavier on the juniper and lighter on the Fynbos with at least one of these editions. It’s become something of a mantra here, but progress and innovation do not have to come at the expense of the category’s heritage. It’s great to see the South African provenance of the product so celebrated in their first bottling, but given the blistering speed of development here (and with wider context in this diverse era of gin) it’s worth just taking a moment to pause and remember what it’s all about in the first place. The very soul of the category lies in a tiny little pine cone, and while you can transport it to new and unchartered waters, you need to keep it firmly on your person.
We can’t help but feel enthusiastic about this brand. A lot of people spend a lot of time talking about doing things, whereas Jess and Niel had already bought the equipment and registered the domain before the night was over. There’s no fear of failure, only excitement at the journey ahead. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.
Though only available in South Africa at the moment, they’re keen for UK and EU distribution, and as we’ve witnessed, they’ll work tirelessly – through the night if necessary – until that goal is met.
For more information about A Mari Gin, visit their website: amarigin.com
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