Taking a day trip to the wineries of Stellenbosch or Franschhoek is a quintessential Cape Town travel experience, but if you’re partial to craft gin, you can now tap into the city’s booming boutique scene without even leaving town, thanks to the launch of a new gin route.
“As a proud inner city hotel, we wanted to celebrate the talent of the local distillers in our area, rather than just directing guests out to the winelands,” says Efi Ella, general manager of the Pepperclub Hotel & Spa, which launched the Cape Town Gin Route website on World Gin Day in June. The route – which maps five gin distilleries within 6km – generated so much interest, says Ella, the downtown hotel went on to launch a tour in July, which includes a tasting experience at all five distilleries as well as the opportunity to craft your own gin.
If seven or so hours of gin tasting seems a bit much, four of the five distilleries are open for tastings at least one day a week – advance reservations are recommended – while the New Harbour Distillery in the hip Woodstock district, runs make your own gin classes. Tour operator Kiff Kombi also offers a Saturday afternoon “Gin Jol” tour, which takes in three distilleries before heading to the city centre’s popular “secret” Gin Bar – tucked behind a gourmet chocolate shop – for a craft gin cocktail.
“I wasn’t much of a gin drinker before moving to Cape Town from Australia several years ago,” says Drew Campbell, director of Kiff Kombi. “But after ending up at The Gin Bar with friends one night, and discovering the incredible flavours of our local gins, I was inspired to create a tour to showcase Cape Town’s amazing gin scene, which goes beyond the distillery door.”
Thought to have been introduced to South Africa by Dutch colonisers – in the form of Jenever, the crude liquor from which the drink evolved – gin didn’t take off until a few years ago, when the number of South African gins rocketed from just two to more than 140. Some distillers attribute the craze to the craft beer industry, which has helped change the mindset of what South Africans are willing to spend on.
In 2015, Hope on Hopkins – in Cape Town’s increasingly trendy Salt River district – became the city’s first premises to receive a distilling license. More than half a dozen micro distilleries have opened since, with many looking to fynbos, a shrubland found in coastal plains and mountains of the southern and southwestern Cape, to flavour small-batch offerings.
Just a few blocks from the Pepperclub, I discover the Cape Town Gin & Spirits Company’s Rooibos Red packs a wonderfully earthy punch, though I’m particularly partial to their Pink Lady, a Turkish delight flavoured concoction named for Cape Town’s salmon pink Mount Nelson Hotel, a favourite of Winston Churchill. Around the corner from Hope on Hopkins, Woodstock Gin Company’s flagship Inception gin is infused with buchu – South Africa’s “miracle herb”. If you opt for the snacks pairing – included on the Pepperclub and Kiff Kombi tours – you’ll find it goes down a treat with a good cheddar, while its beer based gin is best enjoyed with biltong.
Then there’s Andre Pienaar, the 30-year-old master distiller of Pienaar & Son, whose motto is “starting traditions, not following them”.
Pienaar eschews fynbos in favour of “cutting edge, nerdy engineering principles” to craft his smooth, flavour-packed gins. His father Schalk, an engineer with 40 years of distilling technology experience, designed the gleaming still apparatus that commands the back wall of the distillery’s airy converted warehouse. And I must admit, the label’s spicy Orient gin, which pays homage to the Eastern spice trade that has influenced Cape Town culture, is my hands down favourite local offering. With new distilleries popping up every few months however, you have to wonder if the industry is sustainable.
“A few years ago I would have said there is room for us all, but we’ll see,” says Pienaar. Though with a standard cocktail at the Gin Bar an absolute steal at 60 rand (£3) and a bottle of local craft gin retailing for around £20, it’s anyone’s guess why this bargain gin paradise remains relatively unknown outside South Africa. Not for long, I suspect.
British Airways flies to Cape Town from £573 return.
Pepperclub Hotel & Spa has doubles from £95, room only.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies