In the heart of the Karoo, tucked between the layered mountains of Graaff-Reinet, lies a field of liquid gold – the ancient agave plantations, and the humble roots of Leonista.
A zealous fan of South African local spirits, it didn’t take long for Leonista to appear on my radar a few years ago. It’s one of only a handful of brands that I fell head over heels in love with from the first meet. From the curve of their bottles, the intricate detail of the lion-esque logo, to the passionate people who make up Leonista’s pride – I loved it all. But moreover, I fell in love with the incredible story captured in each of the four expressions of their 100% Karoo Agave spirits.
To escape the confinements of the COVID-19 regulations, I headed to the Karoo as soon as I was permitted during Level 2. I have a tenderly special place reserved in my heart for the open vistas and endless spaces of Graaff-Reinet and Nieu-Bethesda, and I couldn’t wait to breathe the dusty, dry Karoo air again.
As part of my adventure, fueled by my endless curiosity, I arranged an agave farm tour and spirit tasting with Tim Murray, owner of the farm Roode Bloem, just outside of Graaff-Reinet. Wearing many different hats, he is also the agave farmer who supplies Leonista with the Agave Americana piñas (the Spanish for pineapple!) used to distill Leonista spirits.
Tim Murray’s story is steeped in history, tradition and family. He is a natural story-teller, and I was intrigued from the first moment he spoke of the family farm and growing up between the agaves. Tim has 22 years of experience farming agave and has been involved in the South African agave spirit industry since it started in 1997.
He also owns and tends 120 hectares of agave which he uses for a number of things, including fodder for cattle as well as for spirit manufacture. It is here, between these pale grey giant plants, that Tim’s story weaves together with the tale of the Leonista pride.
The agave farm tour
Our morning with Tim started bright and early outside his Roode Bloem Farm House on his working farm. From there, we headed straight into the agave fields to have a closer look at these ancient, majestically large plants.
As we slowly got to know this incredibly diverse and interesting plant, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people really appreciates and understands its wide range of uses and colourful history. Originally planted as fodder and drought relief, the Karoo agave can survive with only a third of the required rainfall here in South Africa, in comparison to its much smaller counterpart in Mexico, which needs approximately 600mm rainfall in a year.
We walked a bit further into the agave fields as the sun started to draw higher, with only an occasional bird call breaking the silence of the midday. My soul was intrinsically happy in that moment. From between the spiky fronds of the agaves appeared Joey and Jimmy, the el jimadors.
Armed with only a remarkably small spade-like instrument each, the two el jimadors quickly and neatly strip the piñas of leaves and roots, ready to load onto a truck for transport. We spent some time watching Jimmy and Joey expertly clean these massive “pineapples”, which can weigh up to 600 kg each. It was incredible to spend time with them in the fields, sometimes simply observing and admiring the process that was unfolding right before our eyes.
We thankfully entered the cool reprieve of the Roode Bloem Farm House as the Karoo sun started to beat down in our necks. Suitably thirsty, we gathered around the cool dining room table for our spirit masterclass with Tim. The same 1929-built farm house that Tim was born in, is now converted to a stunning self-catering farm getaway, and the most fitting location for the tasting.
The tasting presents itself as a chance to persuade your taste buds to forget everything you knew about tequila during your student days. Chuck the lemon and salt over your shoulder if you’re superstitious, because tequila has never tasted this elegantly grown-up.
Without giving away too much (because you really should experience this for yourself!) Tim walked us through a tasting of six different types of agave spirits, including local and imported varieties. The tasting may include mezcal, tequila and agave spirits.
With particular focus on the Leonista brand, you get to experience all the offerings from our local pride. Tim ends the tour with a tasting of his own spirit brand, Three Agaves Silver – Pure Karoo Agave Spirit.
Tim is a gracious host and keeps your curiosity piqued with his myriad of tales, stories, folklore and historical facts. His easy-going manner allows for great conversation, and he is also a knowledgeable expert in pretty much anything regarding the greater Graaff-Reinet area, past or present. His passion for the agave industry is apparent, and his enthusiasm simply infectious.
Throughout the spirit tasting (and the farm tour), Tim followed very strict COVID-19 compliance protocol, especially with regards to the handling of bottles, glasses and other utensils in the tasting room and outside. Social distancing was enforced at all times and all efforts were made to guarantee our safety from the virus.)
I have gained an immense new respect for agave spirits. I have also gained an insatiable appetite for fine agave spirits! From the plant that takes a century to flower, to the massive piñas that are hand-cut and prepared – time is the main ingredient in any good agave spirit. I would strongly recommend this experience for anyone who has a keen interest in local spirits and a palate for the finer enjoyments in life.
Thank you, Leonista and Tim, for allowing me to walk a mile between the agaves; I will from here onwards appreciate my drink all the more!
To book your agave tour and farm experience with Tim, see the link below:
Although focusing on spirit from agave, the tasting is strictly controlled. No more than 40 ml will be allowed. All local liquor laws are strictly followed. The venue is fully licenced.
Second photographer and photo credit: The Tall Hedonist, aka Timothy P. Gibson
Disclaimer: I was invited to this event in my personal capacity. 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.
The Little Hedonist endorses responsible drinking.
Don’t drink and drive. Not for persons under 18.