Wilderer Fynbos Gin
Wilderer Distillery’s early years read like the blurb on a madcap romcom from the mid-nineties. In 1994, fatigued German restaurateur Helmut Wilderer won a once in a lifetime trip to America as a golf prize, but swapped it out for a trip to South Africa. Alcohol production was under a state monopoly at the time, but nonetheless he was surprised by the lack of grappa or eaux de vie being produced locally.
Helmut’s trip came just before SA held its first election, but a flame was sparked in him and once the country became a democracy, he – on a bit of a whim – applied for a distilling license. He didn’t expect to hear back at all, so imagine his surprise when, just a few weeks later, he got the go ahead. A mere six months after that, the then 55-year-old packed his belongings, and he and his 14-year-old son took off for the sun.
Christian, explaining the magnitude of the late, great Helmut’s actions, said: “He knew nothing about distilling… there were many courses in Austria and Germany, lots of books, endless trial and error and tremendous passion. We were South Africa’s first private distillery, and today are still South Africa’s most awarded distillery.”
The idea to expand the Wilderer range into Gin came in 2013. “I came across a Gin bar in Germany in 2013,” Christian said. “I didn’t think much of it… actually, I thought it was quite silly! I wasn’t a Gin drinker at all, but I continued to see the trend strengthening – especially in the UK – and I was convinced it was the next big thing for South Africa.” Helmut was equally un-fussed. “It took me a long time to convince my dad to make a Gin, and took him even longer to come out with the final recipe.”
There seemed little point in making a South African gin that didn’t have a local twang, so the Wilderer Distillery team – including distiller Johan Monnig – got to work exploring the fynbos that lines the Western Cape of South Africa. In total, there are 27 botanicals in the gin, including several strains of fynbos, such as buchu, honeybush, wild dagga, Devil’s claw and sceletium. All of the gin’s botanicals are grown on the grounds of their estate, or supplied by a company that sustainably harvests across the Table Mountain area.
Describing the botanical makeup, Monnig said: “Instead of focusing on one or two botanicals, our gin conveys the balanced complexity of the fynbos biome with many dynamics coming together in harmony. We want our gin to represent fynbos and at the same time create an appreciation and international awareness for the wonderful floral kingdom.
It took two years in total to develop the recipe. The team began with a library of 44 distillates, creating blends that they’d nose and taste until they had a gin they were totally, completely happy with; one in which the ingredients complemented and accentuated each other.
The botanicals are weighed and prepared way ahead of distillation, then added to a porous bag and put through a double extraction technique. The first occurs when the bag is placed in a diluted wine derived spirit and left to macerate. The resulting spirit is then cut with more diluted alcohol and added to the still, with the porous bag now hung inside for vapour extraction. Each run takes around three hours, producing enough liquid for around 110 bottles.
Wilderer Fynbos Gin to taste…
Wilderer Fynbos Gin is overwhelmingly medicinal to nose, with the fynbos bringing floral undertones and anise qualities not dissimilar to off-brand cough medicine. Despite its exotic make up, there is something oddly familiar about the smell; a hint of orris, perhaps, and the vague sense of a rapeseed meadow on a warm spring day.
To taste, the aniseed aspect comes across stronger. It reminds us of those thick, chewy liquorice sweets, something akin to a Fisherman’s Friend, but the citrus notes prevent it from becoming full blown. It’s richly herbal and definitely savoury, with a hint of fresh spice that leaves behind that familiar fynbos led aftertaste (think floral and a touch of eucalyptus) .
With tonic, the spice is calmed but the gin is unleashed, blooming and booming in the mouth to bring a strong, strange but ultimately delicious taste – one that reminds us of dandelion and burdock. It’s almost impossible to decipher what is doing what and where, as the fynbos is so uniquely South African (and used in such strong quantities here), that all the elements seem to sing at once, creating a peculiar choir.
There are cooling hits of eucalyptus alongside soapy shrubbery, conspiring to create something that is – as you’d probably expect – a very un-ginny gin by British standards. There isn’t much juniper in sight, but knowing of Helmut’s trailblazing ways, this is no surprise; gin has always been open to interpretation, and modern makers have been open to expanding its horizons. With a South African audience in mind as we write this next comment, however, the soft, subdued juniper here is by comparison (we sigh a little about the state of many of those South African Gin when saying this) actually more prominent and better integrated with the flora than many “fynbos” Gins on the market.
The gin comes in a short, clear apothecary style bottle, with a simple – though bold – label across the front. It’s a neat package, and no doubt a hit in South Africa, where the Wilderer name – displayed huge here – is synonymous with craft distilling. It was, after all, the first to prise the art away from the state’s grip.
As experimental as the distillery is, it has no plans to create any variants on Wilderer Fynbos Gin. “Our gin is definitely something to brag about and I believe that we only need one,” Christian said. “With the release of the gin, we entered the trendy world of craft gins with a bang! However, our hearts are set on our roots – producing quality grappa and eaux de vie – and every year the quality becomes better and better. Our next big milestone is thus to further establish our current range as the connoisseurs’ choice.”
Outside of South Africa, Wilderer Fynbos Gin is widely available in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands. The brand is hoping to reach further afield, too, and is currently negotiating with exporters in China, Singapore, USA, Spain and the UK. We sincerely hope the gin makes it here; British drinkers are constantly on the hunt for a gin that tells a story, one packed with provenance and heart.
And packed with heart this is. When Helmut and Christian moved to South Africa they had two suitcases and a permission slip. Twenty years later, Helmut and the now grown Christian were a distilling tour de force, working their way through the infinite countryside at hand to make spirits that captured the essence of the land that surrounded them; to preserve them in alcohol and share them with everyone.
For fourteen years Helmut ran the distillery himself, while Christian first grew up, and then grew away from the family business. Growing up in the booze industry, he wanted little to do with it, but just shy of a decade ago he returned to help his father’s struggling on-site restaurant. They became a dream team.
This came to a sad end on the 15th December 2016, when Helmut – or Pappa Grappa, as he’d become known – succumbed to cancer. He was 75-years-old, and while his son and the Wilderer team were devastated, they had an incredible role model to live up to. “It is an honour and an absolute privilege to carry on such a legacy,” Christian told us. “With Helmut’s picture next to the pot still, we know he is always watching over us. The first grappa for 2017 has been distilled and with its outstandingly promising aroma and smoothness, it feels like the harvest was blessed by our former Master Distiller.”
Each bottle carries the tag “Spirit of the Cape,” and while in this case that might have resulted in creating a spirit that’s more progressive than our juniper loving souls may prefer, it certainly achieves it with panache. There an unmistakable South African anchor in each glass of Wilderer Gin that keeps the attention fixed on its individuality. In many ways, this simple trick is a perfect reflection of its makers past and present, and is a reason why many will be swayed into adopting it as a gin in their cabinets.
For more information about Wilderer Gin visit the website: wilderer.co.za
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