We are all quick to reach for our favourite bottle of spirits when the weekend looms ahead, but do we know where it comes from or how its made? Do we even understand the ingredients or appreciate the hours of distilling that goes into each bottle? Serious existential questions, these. My joy was unadulterated when Distillique invited me to join them for one of their spirit masterclasses in Stellenbosch. Little did I know what a le-GIN-dary experience it would be…
Distillique was founded in 2008 as an owner-operated business by Gert M. Bosman. Their mission is to support “all things distilling” for home-, small- and craft distilleries.
At the end of 2017, Distillique has trained more than 6000 people from more than 15 countries around the world in the art and science of distilling.
They have two training facilities; one in Centurion, Johannesburg and the other in Stellenbosch, Cape Town.
As part of their public training programme, they offer an incredibly exciting range of distilling courses: Brandy and Mampoer, Whisky, Moonshine and Vodka, or Gin and Botanicals.
When I received the invitation from Hendré, Distillique’s Training and Marketing Manager, it was an easy decision and completely unanimous. Yes, we’d love to attend and yes to gin and botanicals! It was also a no-brainer that I’d ask my second shooter and fellow gin aficionado, Tim, to join me on this gin-journey from start to finish.
The set up
We set out early morning to Koelenhof Cellars, where Distillique has a training venue for their courses. It was a beautiful day and I couldn’t help but feel all shaky with anticipation at an insight into what I would now describe as the “inner workings” of craft gin production in South Africa.
We arrived to welcome tea & coffee and a small group of classmates, happily chatting in the beautiful foyer of Koelenhof Cellars. Hendré met us with a big smile and a hearty handshake. He keenly invited us up to the training venue, which, at first glance, looked like a full-blown science lab. But a pretty one. It was a beautiful sight. Small copper pot-stills proudly stood centrepiece of each distilling table, between masses of what looked like test tubes, thermometers, cups, glasses and measuring equipment. It was all shiny and glassy and begged for us to come and play. The one side of the venue was lined with tables crammed with botanicals, infusions and other wonderfully scented ingredients, all neatly packaged and labelled in jars and bottles. There were six of us, and we paired up in two’s for the practical element of the course.
I simply couldn’t wait to get my hands on the pot-still to start creating stuff. But first, we needed to know what we’re doing.
Gin and botanicals: the theory behind it
The morning passed quickly as we were taken on a historical tour of the origins of gin, exploring the different types and various processes used to distill. We also gained a broader overview of the various types of alcohol that are used as bases for infusions like gin. The first four hours of the morning were jam-packed with theory that left me with so many a-ha moments that I couldn’t take notes quick enough.
Hendré is incredibly knowledgeable and waves of information and interesting facts simply poured from his mouth like its happy hour. By the time we broke for tea, I really felt that I had a clear understanding and grasp on all things gin-related. Feeling quite impressed with my newly acquired knowledge, I couldn’t wait to continue to the last bit of theory, before we broke for lunch. Because after lunch we got to play with the super-cool science-y stuff.
Lunch was beautiful homemade roosterkoek, served with butter, jam, cheese and/or salami, enjoyed in the gardens. By this time, we were all ravenous (because learning burns energy), but we were also very aware of the fact that we need to line our stomachs, as the gin tasting and mixing awaited.
Tasting and mixing
Gin, glorious gin. We started the second part of the course with renewed vigour and loads of enthusiasm. There were three parts to the practical: tasting and identification, distilling and lastly mixing.
Hendré allowed us to taste six different local and international gin brands, which we had to plot out on a characteristics table. This helped us to decide what type of “vibe” we want to distill into our personalised gin experiments. We sipped in silence, all very engaged in the process, which was very useful and left me with a whole new way with which to easily classify different moods of gin.
Each pair was then given the opportunity to distill an infused gin using the pot-still. We chose a raspberry leaf infusion, because, after several minutes of smelling tens of jars of botanicals, it seemed like the most adventurous choice. Plus it smelled pleasantly fruity and perfume-y – great for adding a subtle hint of spring to our infusion.
Without giving too much away (because you actually need to attend the course for all the juicy details!) – the distilling process was great fun and incredibly interactive. We swapped notes and tips and poked our noses into each other’s pot-stills out of curiosity. In the end, we added our new infusions to the ever-expanding taste-library.
Hendré explained carefully how we should go about creating our personalised gins, measuring and mixing tiny samples first; doing several test runs before we mix the large bulk. I had to pull out all my rusted math knowledge to work out ratios and other formulas, but thank goodness for Hendré’s assistance! Again, we found ourselves sipping, concocting, measuring and tasting in silence, all eager to develop the perfect gin recipe.
I decided on a Mojito-inspired gin, because we all know I’m a fan of cocktails. I infused mine with lime blossom, orange, spearmint, simple syrup and a dash of juniper. Tim, being a lover of herbal teas, mixed a very aptly named “sleepy time” gin, with a base of chamomile and raspberry leaves.
We decanted our gin into bottles and before we knew it, the day was almost over and it was time to go home. We said our goodbyes and left with heavy hearts, but rejoiced in a day very well spent. We already started to come up with plans to save money for our very own home pot-still! We left feeling inspired and excited at the gin-culture that is refining our South African palates. About time.
There is so much more I can say about Distillique. For the purpose of this blog I’ve only focussed on the gin and botanicals course they offer. I’ve not even touched on the fact that they assist you in setting up your own distillery, whether home-based or commercial, from start to finish. These guys know the liquor laws like their nursery rhymes and will have you set up with quality equipment and a big smile in a matter of days. Whatever you want to know – just call them. Whatever part of distilling machinery or piece of advice you need – they’ve got you covered. This is genuinely service with a smile.
I would, without a shadow of a doubt, recommend this gin and botanicals workshop to anyone that has a keen interest in spirits and the making thereof; it’s informative, educational and incredibly interactive. It makes for a great gift, too! Hendré is a wise and patient teacher and he makes you feel comfortable, relaxed and engaged throughout. The programme was carefully thought out and perfectly balanced between theory and practical components.
Distillique is where the good times be-GIN (see what I did there?!). We completed this course a few months ago, and I can guarantee you one thing; that beautiful little copper pot-still appears in my nightly dreams. I find myself doing gin recipe development when I should be editing photos and producing content. I’m putting away every cent in my empty gin bottle until it’s full. I’m coming for you, oh beautiful copper pot-still, and then we’re going to make some gin.
Second photographer and photo credit: Timothy P. Gibson
The Little Hedonist has made every effort to ensure that the information in this post was correct at the time of publication. However, I do not assume any liability caused by errors, such as price, menu changes, opening times, and contact details.
Disclaimer: I was invited to this event in my capacity as photographer/writer as part of a media outreach. There was no expectation for platform coverage in the form of a blog, or social media posts. This is my honest and truthful opinion and review thereof. All thoughts and opinions expressed herein are solely those of The Little Hedonist, given in good faith and in no way influenced by the company or its affiliates. All images, unless otherwise stated/credited, are also my own.