Meet the couple behind South Africa's gin revolution
Here at House and Lesiure, we're partial to a G&T. When we've made it to the 5pm mark on a Friday, we'll splash a good measure of gin in a tumbler, add a squeeze of lime and top with a good quality tonic (none of that yellow-label stuff for us).
Recently, the bottle du Friday drinks was one Salt River gin by Hope on Hopkins, a floral, flavourful spirit created in local distillery by husband-and-wife team Leigh and Lucy Beard. Ditching a corporate law career in London for the food and beverage industry and launching and making a success of a small unknown South African distillery can't be easy, but the couple make it look effortless. Lucy's passion for the spirit spills over when she speaks, and her knowledge of the country's botanical offerings (key to making a great gin) is enviable. We spoke to her about all things gin, once mother's ruin, now the spirit of choice for the beard-bearing cool set.
Why did you choose to go into the business of making your own gin?
We had been working in London as lawyers for a long time and decided to take a break and follow the sun for a while, so we spent 10 months travelling around Southern Europe and Morocco. While travelling we decided we wanted to opt out of corporate life and it was in Spain that we settled on gin: gin is huge there; there are gin bars everywhere serving incredible ranges of different gins. We’d also followed the rise of craft distilleries in the UK, so decided it was something we could put our hearts into, and that gin was certainly ripe for a revolution and evolution in South Africa.
Did you know a lot about botanicals or is that knowledge that you sought out?
We both love cooking and making gin is more like cooking than making any other spirit. We knew a bit about botanicals and played around quite a lot, and read some wonderful books on botanicals and drinks, but what we really sought out here was South African and, in particular, Western Cape botanicals. We’ve really enjoyed working with farmers, nursery owners and foragers to expand our knowledge and experiment with different local plants and berries.
Who are the botanical specialists to speak to when it comes to gin?
There is a wonderful book called The Drunken Botanist (by Amy Stewart) which we relied on heavily originally. We’ve also picked the brains of chefs, foragers and a wonderful farmer in the Winterhoek mountains, who farms indigenous plants mainly for essential oils and who also put us in touch with other a range of other people passionate about local plants.
'Gardeners are the ultimate mixologists.'
― Amy Stewart,
Why do you think South Africa is producing great gin?
Most of the gins produced here rely to a degree on the local botanicals. The fynbos biome, which is probably the most widely used by local distillers, is incredibly diverse. It forms part of the Cape Floral kingdom, which consists of over 9,000 different plant species, the majority of which are only found in the Cape and therefore is great at providing uniquely South African flavours to gin.
Make this Salty salt river dog cocktail recipe from Hope on Hopkins
What, for you, is the absolute best thing about gin? The incredible range of different botanicals used, resulting in a kaleidoscope of gins out there. Real gin fans don’t have a favourite gin, but a range of favourites depending on time, place, season, mood, etc.
What have been the challenges of opening your distillery? Red tape! The licensing procedure, both from a tax and a liquor manufacture perspective were extremely challenging and took far longer than we anticipated.
Why Salt River? We wanted to be close to the City, but needed to be in a mixed use or semi-industrial area. We looked at several properties in Woodstock, but fell for the wider streets of Salt River and loved the fact that it was a completely mixed, small inner-city suburb which is vibrant and full of life.
Do you see this as the height of gin’s popularity in the country?
No – I think South Africans are only just beginning to realise the possibilities of gin. I think that more gin bars will open and, with the launch of further distilleries making gin, South Africans will start to learn more and experiment more with different gins. We’ve found that educating people has been one of our key focuses: so many think that gin is just flavoured with juniper berries, and don’t realise that using different botanicals together with juniper can really change the style, aroma and flavour profile of the drink. We’ve tried to showcase a number of styles by doing a real classic (juniper with citrus and hints of rosemary), which is our London Dry Gin; a far more contemporary, floral gin with Western Cape botanicals, our Salt River Gin; and more recently a savoury gin using olives, rosemary, basil, thyme and cardamom, our Mediterranean Gin.
What sort of botanicals have you seen South Africans really respond to?
Our Salt River Gin, using Western Cape botanicals including buchu and kapokbos has certainly been our most popular with South Africans.
What is the first rule of making a great gin and tonic?
Using a smooth, delicately flavoured gin (such as Hope on Hopkins!). The second rule is plenty of ice and not too much tonic!
Roger Jorgenson is an amazing, passionate distiller and helped us out a lot initially when we were setting up and learning our trade. We spent time at his farm and he then introduced us to Simone Musgrave, who had developed her own gin brand and needed someone to distill gin for her. We then spent time with Roger at our distillery, tinkering with botanicals and finalising the recipe, and now distill it on a contract basis for Simone. Because it’s a completely different gin to our own gins (it’s an African spice route journey in terms of flavour), the gins work really well alongside each other and showcase how different gins can be.
What is Hope on Hopkins working on next?
We have so many ideas! We are a distillery, rather than just gin makers, so are looking to release our base spirits – we make two, one from malted barley which we mill, cook and triple distill on site, and the second from a grape base, which we also triple distill. We will release both as vodkas during 2016 and will also be playing around with a tequila (Leigh’s favourite) and experimenting with vermouth and other limited releases.
Get the recipe for a rosemary, verbena and berry gin and tonic in HL November 2016.