There’s no doubt that gin is having a moment. Pop in at one of the many gin bars in town and you’ll get to try sophisticated, creative and sometimes downright wacky concoctions using one of the many craft gins available in South Africa (some of the best being local).
If you’re drinking craft gin, however, you have to make sure you’re doing it right. You can’t just chuck in some Schweppes and call it a G&T anymore.
In the spirit of World Gin Day taking place on 10 June, I decided to get schooled on drinking gin properly, and making the best G&T. I caught up with a few of my favourite local gin creators for some tips.
What started this whole craft gin revolution in the first place?
One of the reason so many people love gin is because each a unique character. The only real limitation is the imagination and palette of the creators. And this makes it very exciting. “It’s the one spirit that can be made to have its very own DNA,” explains Simone Musgrave from Musgrave Gin, “compared to Vodka which is not about flavour so much as clarity and purity. Gin allows for diversity and so is a modern spirit for our times.”
It is also a spirit that is open to a variety of creative interpretations when it comes to serving it. “Gin as such is a versatile and exciting drink in many ways,” says Rolf Zeitvogel from Triple Three Gin. “Gin is refreshing, fruity, spicy, elegant, it is a global drink that fits any occasion.”
But why the sudden rise in popularity?
Lucy Beard from Hope on Hopkins in Cape Town explained that it all really started when Bombay Sapphire decided to list their botanicals on their bottle. “In a world of London Dry Gins (the classic, juniper forward drink that everyone thinks of when they think of gin), Bombay Sapphire was the first to highlight the fact that gin contains other botanicals too, not just juniper. They put their botanicals on the outside of their new blue bottle. Then Hendricks took it one step further by releasing their gin which contained highly unusual botanicals (at the time): cucumber and rose water.
“These two moves, I believe, were responsible for the craft gin revolution. Others suddenly realised that gins could be made with all sorts of different botanicals, and craft distillers were able to seize on unusual ingredients close to home.
“The general public then woke up to this: starting to realise that no two gins actually taste the same, and juniper-forward gins are no longer the norm, at least in the craft gin space. People were keen to try all sorts of differently flavoured gins, and the craft gin revolution was born.”
Since then distillers have developed so many creative variations, many of them incorporating our local botanicals like fynbos and buchu. And that’s also why it’s important we don’t mess up their craft when we mix up a G&T at home.
So let’s talk about making a G&T: Any rules & regulations?
According to Lucy, there are a couple of key rules:
- You need lots of good quality ice, as in ice that doesn’t melt too quickly and overly dilute the drink
- Your ratio of gin to tonic needs to be right. “Our recommended ratio on this front is 1:4 – so a 25ml tot of gin, to 100ml of tonic,” says Lucy. “this ensures that the gin is not drowned by the tonic, and allows the flavours of the gin to shine through.
- Garnish is also important. “We recommend that you look into the key flavour profiles of the gin you’re drinking and garnish to complement or enhance the botanicals used,” explains Lucy. “Some garnishes are very strong in flavour, so it’s important to choose something to suit the gin.”
Other than that, it seems you are free to play. “Gin and tonic should be a sensory adventure,” says Simone. “Every day hundreds of people send us photos and videos of their own creations which include gin & tonics dressed up with syrups, spices, flowers and fruit.
What about garnishes?
“Garnishes can really highlight flavours in gins,” says Lucy “and anything can be used. There are a few classics: citrus peels or slices, herbs and spices – but people are starting to get a lot more adventurous, trying things like jalapenos, pepper, lemongrass etc.”
If you’re not that confident with flavour combinations, however, it might be wise to follow the “less is more” approach. “Many prefer to add botanicals to their cocktails, but should be careful,” warns Johan Monnig, Distiller at Wilderer in Paarl. “The object is to find a garnish that complements the flavour of the gin, not obstruct it. Adding juniper berries or excessive amounts of citrus zest, is almost like pouring salt over a well seasoned dish.”
How do you know which garnish goes with your gin?
“It helps if you know what botanicals the gin has been distilled with,” says Lucy, “and then you can work to complement or highlight these. If you’re unsure what botanicals have gone into the gin you’re drinking, there is a great App that you can use called “Ginventory”: the guys who run this app contact distillers direct and ask how they prefer their gins to be garnished – and then lists this in the app. It currently has 3 556 different gins, including most of the South African craft gins.”
According to Simone, pairing gin with herbs is generally a safe bet, though. “Juniper berries contain another herbal, aromatic note known as beta-myrcene, which is also present in basil and thyme, so the pairing is flawless,” explains Simone.
Johan, meanwhile, recommends combining a herbacious gin with sweet notes. “We often suggest pineapple pieces.” Of course you can also go for the classic. “Most gin drinkers prefer the standard mint and lemon which is nice and refreshing,” says Johan.
Does the tonic make a difference?
“The simple answer is yes,” says James Shaw, brand manager of Fitch & Leedes. “Gin distillers spend hours upon hours crafting and producing a spirit that incorporates so many different flavours and nuances, and these should be highlighted when combined with a tonic. Some tonics on the market are very strong and overpowering and simply mask the flavours of these beautifully crafted gins. The tonic should always play the understudy and allow the gin to shine.”
A good tonic should have just the right balance of carbonation and sugar, says Johan. “Too high carbonation can be quite scratchy to the taste while a low carbonated tonic can be flat,” he explains. “The amount of sugar in a tonic water is also important. Gin was first enjoyed as a health drink, it doesn’t make sense to douse it with sugar.” Johan also recommends combining different gins with different tonic waters. “No one tonic can serves as a universal tonic water – each gin has its own specific tonic water which complements it best.”
What about flavoured tonics? “If drinking a craft gin, which is usually packed with flavour from the botanicals used, it’s important to choose a tonic that is not too highly flavoured,” says Lucy. “Fitch & Leedes, Schweppes, Barker & Quin and Fever Tree all do classic tonics, which are not too highly flavoured and allow the gin to shine through. If you’re drinking a more ‘ordinary’ gin, you might want to play around with one of the craft tonics, which are generally packed with flavour and which will turn a more ordinary G&T into an interesting craft drink!”
Can I drink gin neat?
“You can,” says Lucy. “The most common way to drink gin neat is to drink it in a martini. Martinis may or may not have vermouth added, but mostly this drink is just neat gin. The key is to serve it icy cold and to choose a well-made gin which is smooth.” At a recent media event Lucy also explained that you should stir a gin martini, rather than shake it up in a cocktail mixer. This allows for the botanical flavours to really shine.
Lately craft distillers have also been presenting their gins to us neat, in order to show off the subtle flavours. It takes getting use to but it’s actually really refreshing. “With the growing number of interesting gins out there, people are starting to do this to really appreciate the flavours,” says Lucy. She does, however, recommend adding some ice. “The ice dilutes the gin slightly, allowing the oils of the botanicals in the gin to be released.” Good to know.
A few of my favourite local gins
Hope on Hopkins Mediterranean
(R390 for 750ml, cybercellar.com) I love the savoury character of this gin. Try it with a slice of orange, a sprig of rosemary with an olive, or a leaf of basil. This is also a delicious choice for a dirty martini.
Triple Three Gin Citrus Infusion
(R349 for 750ml, blaauwklippen.com) I love the refreshing citrus hints in this gin. It is particularly delicious with the new Fitch & Leedes Pink Tonic.
(R330 for 750ml, cybercellar.com) The first gin I really fell in love with. I adore the full palette and fynbos botanical flavours. Try it with a soft tonic and a few pomegranate rubies.
Musgrave Pink Gin
(R430 for 750ml, cybercellar.com) Apart from being seriously pretty, this gin has a gorgeous rose-water character that makes it the perfect spring/summer drin. Try it garnished with pink peppercorns and a sprig of thyme.
Wilderer Fynbos Gin
(R295 for 500ml, wilderer.co.za) This award winning gin shows off all our beautiful local botanicals. Try it with the classic mint and cucumber combination.
(R350 for 500ml, citrusgin.co.za) You’ll pick up on the fresh, sweet clemengold citrus notes. Try it with a slice of orange and basil.