To amble though Brackenhill’s fascinating craft-distillery is to walk in the footsteps of a man who is most at home in the remote, empty parts of the South African landscape; a man whose love for conservation and supporting rural communities has brought to life a drinkable dream.
Basking on a sunny hill near Inanda Dam in Waterfall, the distillery overlooks the houses in the Valley of 1000 Hills on one side and the distant Durban beachfront on the other. Arriving visitors weave their cars carefully between herds of Nguni cattle and trucks on route to industrial parks and factories in the area. It is modern Africa … where tradition and technology come together.
No visit to this area is complete without a stop at the distillery. Here, spirits are meticulously coaxed by hand from grain to glass and just one sip of any one of their meticulously crafted creations will take you and your taste buds on a truly delicious journey of discovery.
The creation of Carl Grossmann, Brackenhill Craft Distillery was founded from a passion for conservation, coupled with a love for gin.
“I grew up on a large property in Everton, where my German dad and Scottish mom grew fruit and veggies and sold them at a greengrocer in Durban. They also tried to make wine out of every single thing they grew. I remember the pineapple wine being the best. I think even back then the idea of brewing my own had been planted.”
With a background in land surveying and a heart for conservation work, Carl spent years working in rural areas. His work for the African Conservation Trust has included establishing and maintaining anti-poaching units in game reserves, mapping and evaluating rock-art sites in the Drakensberg, establishing permaculture food-gardens, solar power projects and erecting game fences in deep rural communities.
“Over time I found a second home in Malawi and returned regularly. I fell in love with Malawi Gin after the many G&T’s I enjoyed on the shore of Lake Malawi. It was always on the list of items to bring back home!”
Carl started investigating the possibility of importing Malawi Gin into South Africa and went as far as getting an import certificate, but could not secure a sole distributorship from the manufacturer in Malawi so eventually, he scrapped that idea.
“Around that time, I discovered that Distillique in Pretoria was running internationally recognised training courses and supplying all the equipment needed to set up commercial operations. I did a few courses, bought a small pot still and, like the start of many entrepreneurial exercises, began distilling in our garage at home. Feeling strongly about pursuing this venture, I roped in two crazy friends to invest in the set up and started the arduous and grey-hair-inducing process of securing our premises in Brackenhill and getting the appropriate licences – definitely not for the faint hearted!”
Unlike many other distilleries that buy neutral alcohol from a large supplier and make their vodka and gin from that, Carl and his team create their own fermentations (distiller’s beer) from a variety of grains or molasses.
After the complicated fermentation, extraction and distilling processes, Juniper Berry is added in the flavouring process (a pre-requisite for a product to legally be called gin in South Africa) as well as a myriad of other bontanicals, depending on the recipe.
“There are two main processes to do this. One is called ‘steeping’, where the botanicals are left to soak in the base alcohol and then removed. A third distillation is carried out to produce the final gin. A ‘bathtub’ gin is the same process, but a third distillation is not carried out. The steeped botanicals are removed and the resulting flavoured alcohol is bottled as is.”
The other common process is called ‘vapour infusion’ where the selection of botanicals are placed in the vapour path (normally in a botanical basket) during the third distillation and the hot alcohol vapour extracts the flavours and carries them into the final product. This modern-day process of distilling, used at Brackenhill Craft Distillery, is part ancient alchemy and part science. Stainless steel and copper stills and shiny equipment fill the large and roomy factory space where Carl makes his careful calculations and measures precisely.
In keeping with Carl’s love for conservation and desire to support rural communities, the heirloom Zulu Rainbow maize and sorghum used in the manufacture of their gin is purchased from a small community in the heart of Zululand. The russet and yellow stalks are grown in fields which have lain fallow for many years.
“Some of the precious grain seeds, which were initially planted here, were sourced from far flung relatives of the families’ involved. The umsuzwane, an indigenous herb which is used by many African cultures for a multitude of medicinal purposes and ceremonies, is grown by a community in St. Lucia. This is their signature botanical. In addition to their gin, they also make rums.
Brackenhill Craft Distillery also offers bespoke gin-making with personalised labels (for weddings, birthdays and corporate gifting), rum and whisky-making workshops, gin experiences (crafting your own gin-flavour from their extensive botanical library) that are perfect for book clubs, team building and special celebrations with a group of your besties!
Further ‘green’ initiatives by this small distillery are the offer to recycle client’s bottles. Empty bottles can be returned to the distillery and refilled at a reduced price. The bottle itself features a copper band with an Africa pendant charm swaying from black glass beads above an image of a proud Nguni bull.
The bottle coating is made with an organic ink and Carl is currently working with a community-based NGO near the Kruger National Park that collects used glass bottles from game lodges and recycles them into beads. The intention is to replace the mass produced beads on the bottle neck with this sustainable option.
“Every distiller knows there is room to learn and improve no matter how many decades of experience they have under the belt. While I am constantly learning and improving, I now have an understudy, Brighten Hlatshwayo, who is doing his one-year in-service training for his diploma in Food Technology, and I hope he continues with us as a distiller after that achievement. Tons of hard work has brought us to where we are today, and I am sure there will be lots more (and some good fun) in the future. My wife and sons have been an incredible support and have been one hundred percent involved from the beginning – from helping with deliveries and labelling, to long evenings around our table tasting different experimental gins with friends. They even toasted our first whiskey barrel with the Scottish national anthem and Robbie Burns’ poetry. My family and friends have been with me every step of the way on this exciting adventure. All in a day’s work – to bring good craft to good people.”
Details: Brackenhhill Craft Distillery, Unit 16 Acacia Business Park, 73 Nguni Way, Waterfall, www.brackenhillcraft.co.za or follow @brackenhillcraft or @sandywoods.stories on IG
Photos by: Rory Clark