Handcrafted spirits - the next big thing?

Saturday, 5 January, 2013
Cathy Marston
"The best way to make money from a wine bar - is to sell cocktails." This was the advice we received quite early on in our restaurant career and I have to say that it was probably right.
When a bottle of spirits can cost as little as R60, you can buy the cheapest possible, mask any awkward flavours with fruit juice, mixers and other stuff and still get away with charging R30+ for a single tot of alcohol. 43% abv seems to be all that customers and restaurateurs care about and tasting some of these bigger brand spirits definitely makes you realise that you're spending your money on marketing, branding and packaging at the expense of flavour, individuality and interest.

One man who's gone in the opposite direction is Roger Jorgenson. About twenty years ago, he (along with Sydney Back and Achim von Arnim) succeeded in persuading the courts that he had a constitutional right to distil spirits – something which had been run as a monopoly by a couple of big companies up until then – and he started to distil on his farm in Wellington, using his own grapes. The result was a couple of barrels of brandy which he labelled as Savingnac and then squirreled away for five years before finally releasing it. But Roger wants to keep his brandy in the cask for as long as possible and so gradually extended his ageing process to eight and finally twelve years – his current release is the 1998 vintage.

Realising that waiting twelve years for his payback was no way to build up a retirement fund, he diversified into vodka and gin two years ago, along with a range of liqueurs and – rather excitingly – an absinthe. Although launching new business in the current economic climate could be seen as risky, he believes Jorgensen’s Distillery has managed to tap into the thirst for authentic products; “Customers are claiming back their purchasing power. They want to be able to buy real things from real people, not just faceless brands.”

Looking at the current trend for anything handmade, sustainable, locally-sourced etc, he couldn’t really have chosen a better time to launch his range – everything used to flavour his spirits is home-grown or produced by small community projects around Africa and in addition, his raw materials have been carefully thought-through, tried and tested against the rigorous benchmark to all that he does - flavour. So his vodka is distilled from spelt grass sourced up in the Cederberg, his gin contains aromatic berries from a farming project in Ghana and his new plan – to make the first South African ‘Tequila’ – involves the only plantings of genuine agave in the country, located out in the Karoo.

The difference between what Roger does and the big brand name spirits comes down to passion. He describes himself as “a grower at heart and an alchemist by inclination” and admits to being fascinated by aromatics and other medicinal plants, the role they have played over the years, and the potential as yet unlocked. His spirits have vibrant, vital flavours which are as unlike the mass-produced spirits as you can get, which is one of the reasons he calls them ‘sipping spirits’ – because there’s no need to mask the flavours with any other mixers, they can (and should) be enjoyed on their own.

Wine-lovers have long valued and appreciated the flavours and complexity a well-made wine can offer. Craft beers are rapidly increasing in popularity with restaurants offering food and beer matches, beer festivals and evening tastings – surely the next logical step is hand-crafted spirits? Roger is running regular courses on how to distil your own spirits and reports that interest in them is growing weekly. His small potstill operates pretty much 24/7 in order to meet demand, although he is constantly sold out of stock. His products are replacing the big brands in hotels such as the Table Bay and the Cape Grace. They’re drunk by hippies and hipsters, celebrities and students, so if you haven’t done so yet, get hold of a glass of perfectly smooth, chilled neat Primitiv vodka and raise a toast to the next big thing!

You can get in touch with Roger and Dawn Jorgensen at www.jd7.co.za.
Image sourced from Jorgensen's Distillery website
Image sourced from Jorgensen's Distillery website

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