Ever the gin-lover, I travelled all the way from Johannesburg to Mossel Bay to become an alchemist and learn how to make my own gin at the Inverroche Gin School at Café Gannet. This article features in the December issue of Juice Magazine.
“I’m going to turn you into alchemists today,” says Vernol Constance, the Manager at the Inverroche Gin School at Café Gannet in Mossel Bay. It might only be 11:00 by the time we’re sipping a gin-based cocktail, but when you’re on holiday and in the company of others, no one is judging.
“Alchemy is 95% creativity and 5% science,” he continues. Our work stations, at our six-seater table, are laid out with five sealed glass jars, each with its own personality and containing a particular botanical base. Vernol passes around ingredients from each of the jars for us to smell, taste and chew on.
“The birth of gin comes from the juniper berry,” he says as he hands one to each of us. “I want you to squeeze it between your fingers. I want you to chew on it. You might even taste gin as you eat that berry.” Vernol explains how juniper is used for medicinal purposes too – for arthritis, gout, high blood pressure and tension headaches.
Eight ramekins are also lined in front of us. Each one contains additional botanicals that can be added to change the flavour profile of our gin. “Most of these products can be found in your kitchen cupboard or garden.” There’s Honeybush and Rooibos to add a robust flavour, cocoa powder, roasted coconut, wild rosemary, kooigoed, brown sugar, and raisins. “Some people get really excited that we have wild dagga – it’s quite peppery in taste,” he adds.
Vernol ignites our cane spirit-filled pot stills: “It’s like making tea”. Then he goes on to animatedly narrate how each of the five bases – floral, herbal, citrus, cool, and spicy – will change the taste of our base spirit. I grab hold of the menu planner and decide on the citrus base. It contains pieces of lemon and grapefruit zest, which in Vernol’s words “brings fruitiness to the party”, as well as baobab seed powder, and dried hibiscus flowers.
The Inverroche Distillery in Stilbaai – which was established by Lorna Scott and her son, Rohan, in 2011 – claims to be South Africa’s first handcrafted gin. These days, there are more than 200 local gins, she tells me. The most important ingredient in Inverroche Gin, besides the juniper berry, is Fynbos. And when I talk to Lorna later, she explains how she came to be the first to use it as an ingredient in gin. “I was fortunate to have access to an untapped and under-appreciated resource in Stilbaai – the wealth of knowledge and experience of the retired community. A number of retired botanists educated me by taking me into the veld and exploring different potential Fynbos,” she says.
Fynbos is a protected resource that requires licenses and is legislated by picking quotas. Lorna established a greenhouse nursery at the distillery in 2010 to cultivate Fynbos in a sustainable and legal manner that utilises good husbandry and best practices. It has grown into a large organic propagation and cultivation area, where various species of Fynbos – their leaves, flowers and berries – are picked by hand, when they are needed. The nursery ensures that no unnecessary pressure is placed on the natural environment, especially in light of climate change, widespread alien invasive species, the annual fires that sweep the country, and ongoing agricultural developments. Inverroche’s Fynbos is also sourced from registered farmers. “It took me three years, if not more, of experimenting on my baby pot still, called Mini Meg, to figure out how to use these ingredients to craft my three gins.”
“The amount of Fynbos we use per batch varies from gin to gin. In some recipes it’s as little as half a kilogram of a particular plant. But there can be between 10 and 15 ingredients, including the juniper berries,” she explains. The ingredients are either used in distillation or are soaked for a few days in alcohol bases to be used in post-distillation tinctures – these methods each bring out different flavour profiles.
Back in the 19th century Ochre Building – one of the oldest in Mossel Bay – where our three-hour gin class and tasting is underway, I empty my citrus jar, along with added Honeybush, Rooibos and raisins into a bouquet garni placed within a mortar. Using the pestle, I open the seeds before tying it with a piece of string to create a ‘teabag’ that is placed within my copper pot still.
While we wait for 45 minutes while our gin distils, Ronnie Mbunge, the Inverroche Gin School barman, brings out a tasting palate of four Inverroche gins. We try each of the Classic, Verdant, and Amber three times. First we taste it neat, then with dried citrus zest that is swirled around, and lastly with low-sugar tonic water.
“Each Inverroche gin pays homage to a certain region of Fynbos,” explains Ronnie. “The Classic uses Limestone Fynbos and is infused with Citrus Buchu; the Verdant uses Mountainous Fynbos and is infused with kooigoed – it’s like licking the fingers of a florist – while the Amber uses Coastal Fynbos that is infused with sour figs.” And each year, Lorna experiments with a limited-edition batch of gin. I sip on it as Ronnie explains which gins to pair with which meals, cigars and seasons – some just go better with fireplaces and others with summertime picnics.
“We get a lot of strip shows in here,” teases Ronnie, as I take off my cardigan. By the time we finish the tasting, Vernol returns to help us bottle our gin. The first 20ml are discarded. I taste the remainder with my pinkie finger. We pass around each other’s beakers to taste how various ingredients have translated into the flavour. The remainder is diluted with water to decrease the alcohol percentage to 43% and is decanted into a bottle. Thai blue pea flowers or hibiscus can be used as natural indigo and pink dyes. Before pasting the labels on our bottles, we name our gin, list the ingredients, include the date of production, and write our names under that of distiller.
I dip my finger into ochre that is mixed with water within an abalone shell and place a fingerprint on a tag that hangs around the bottle’s neck. Just like our fingerprint, so each bottle of gin is unique.
“And by the power vested in me and Ronnie, we can now declare you alchemists,” proclaims Vernol. We’re told to drink our gin within seven years – and if my calculations are correct, it will only last me long enough until I head to the new gin school opening at the Indaba Hotel in Johannesburg in January 2020.
Book the Inverroche Gin School at Café Gannet in Mossel Bay
Book the Inverroche Gin School at the Indaba Hotel in Johannesburg (Opening January 2020)
WIN a Gin Getaway worth R10 000 with Inverroche Gin School at Café Gannet in Mossel Bay
Stand a chance to win a two-night stay at the Protea Hotel by Marriott Mossel Bay for two, including breakfast, valued at R10 000. The prize includes one dinner and drinks at the Café Gannet, one cocktails and tapas voucher for the Blue Oyster Cocktail Bar, a Gin School Experience for two, including a gin and food pairing.
Here’s how to enter the competition: Send your name and contact details with the subject line ‘Inverroche’ to email@example.com by midnight (SAST) on 31 January 2020. The Juice editorial team will choose the winner, who will be announced in February 2020.
Sign up to my newsletters to be notified of future competitions. Competition terms and conditions apply: the prize is non-transferable, may not be exchanged for cash, and is valid from April to September 2020, subject to availability. Prize winners will have to get themselves to Mossel Bay.
I was hosted by the Inverroche Gin School at Café Gannet in Mossel Bay for a gin school experience. Photos are supplied by Putty Media and Samantha Clifton. All opinions are my own, but you already know that. The prize winner will be chosen by the Juice editorial team and announced in February 2020.