The Tongue Tip Test

Summer is almost upon the land – and the anticipation of outdoor social gatherings picks up. What would an event be without the tinkle of ice cubes in a glass? The next question is which local gin to offer guests if you’re hosting. CHEERS has a few tips.

In 2020 South African gin lovers were well-served – because there were more than 250 individual craft gins on the local market, according to Insight Survey. The market’s thirst for this botanically-infused spirit grew incredibly rapidly with the SA Wine Industry Information and Systems (Sawis), the keeper of statistics on everything liquor, noted that gin sales rose from six million litres to 15 million litres between 2014 and 2018. That’s a 151% hike!

Those figures are patently out of date and the Covid enforced alcohol sale prohibition would have accounted for some attrition on the production side but there are still a massive number of craft gins on local liquor store shelves.

After tasting a (very!) small lineup of products in order to not confuse the palates, the panel were of the opinion that local craft gin is in a very good place. However, the point was made that while enthusiasm is a good thing, it can also be a negative. “I felt that some of the gins we tasted were just too much,” said Dr Bowman. “Too much spice, too much coriander or fynbos. What’s need is an evolution not a revolution.” The products which found favour were balanced and precise with subtlety and complexity.

“So many were big and bold and in your face – too much so,” said Jean Buchan, who started the popular Gin Box years ago. Publisher Shayne Dowling added his opinion that the gins would suffer an identity crisis the minute a tonic was added to the mix. “And that’s before you factor in things like blueberries, pink peppercorns and cucumber as well as the ice!

“These distillers have put so much effort into trying to make their products stand out and be distinctive but perhaps they’re trying too hard. They should tone it down a bit and let the juniper speak loudest rather. After all, that’s what gin is supposed to be all about – an expression of juniper.”

Tasting panel: Spirits expert and judge Dr Winnie Bowman, Jean Buckham of The Gin Box, CHEERS Publisher Shayne Dowling and Editor Fiona McDonald

Deep South Cape Dry Gin

Powerful notes of spice – cardamom and coriander – with an underlying musky, earthy, almost fungal note. Very upfront and bold with a somewhat sharp spirit bite. 


“Impressive,” Jean said. “You certainly get the juniper which you’re supposed to.” Bold spice – cinnamon – with lemongrass and gentle citrus on the palate. Shayne noted a Turkish Delight or Rose Geranium nuance on the finish. “It gives the impression of sweetness without actually being sweet, if you know what I mean?” he said.

Boplaas Craft Gin

With its pale coral colour this one immediately provoked comment – but that’s because it’s spent time in a barrel previously used for Cape Ruby fortified wine. Fiona found cherry, plum and sweet raisined fruit notes on the smooth palate. Perhaps too smooth: you still expect a vibrant, lively spirit note on gin. Both Jean and Winnie said the oak or wood character was noticeable as was the lack of prominence of juniper.

Baobab Premium Gin

Overtly floral and tropical from nose to mouth. “Apple lollipops,” Jean said, also finding a green, vegetal and slightly herbal flavour mingling with a distinct sweetness. Once again, it suffered because the juniper notes were too far down in the botanical mix. “It will have its fans,” said Winnie.

L-Gin Classic

Good gin character with the resinous, piney notes of juniper quite evident on the aroma and in taste. Balanced, expressing good spirit character and nice complexity. This one will be a delight to mix with a straight tonic or as a base for a cocktail. Very well done and impressive.

Pienaar & Son Empire Gin 

Everything is as it should be in this sample, the panel agreed. Juniper forward? Check. Spicy? Check. Good spirit? Check. Balanced? Check. Complex? Check. “Hint of cardamom, big citrus, lemongrass and spice – but so beautifully harmonious and balanced,” said Winnie. “And when you’ve finished tasting the dominant flavour left in the mouth is juniper.”

Deep South Three Citrus Gin

No chance of mistaking the citrus on this one! It’s boldy lemon, grapefruit and lime. Once again that character dominates and the required juniper element is muted but the powerful citrus notes. Jean and Winnie again noted the damp, earthy nuance. 

L-Gin Lush

Lush by name and by nature! “I wrote that this is luscious,” Winnie said. Juniper is still at the forefront but there’s a delightful note of apples – apple tart, dusted with cinnamon and all-spice but done subtly and with refinement. Gentle in texture and smooth with a lovely long aftertaste. Beautifully integrated and harmonious from start to finish. This one ran Pienaar & Son close for top honours.