They say that dynamite comes in small packages, and after spending a little time with Tanya Cruse, you may well have to concede the point. Petite and soft-spoken, she packs a wallop of enthusiasm and determination into life that is quite breathtaking and inspiring.

Mother of two gorgeous boys, Carter and Sloan, and wife to Hylton, she is also the founder and owner of Dollie Gin Company, a local brand of infused gin that is taking the Lowveld by storm. Dollie first came about because Tanya was asked to serve drinks at a cricket match, the perfect place, obviously, for G&Ts. This got her to thinking about the endless possibilities gin presents, and she started making Dollie, infused with a variety of flavours, as a treat for thirsty friends and family. Along with this, came the iconic Dollie caravan, which Tanya later sold to make way for a sleeker travelling companion – her well-stocked and expertly renovated Land Rover, a well-known (and well-supported) fixture at many a local event.

It doesn’t end there. The Landie went the way of the caravan, making way for something far more glam and Tanya’s newest adventure, Gin & Co, which recently opened its doors at Casterbridge Lifestyle Centre in White River. If ever there was a place to while away the long and lazy Lowveld afternoons, this is it. Gin & Co’s crisp and sleek lines have you thinking you are in an exclusive, high-class club, until you sink into the plush slate-grey sofa and take your first sip of an ice-cold gin, a Dollie perhaps, rooibos-infused, with a sprig of rosemary and slice of grapefruit. The world and its troubles slip away in the aftermath of fluorescent tonic bubbles, as they fizz and pop merrily, refreshing and relaxing in turns. This is the life.
At the moment, Dollie Gin is infused with flavour, not distilled, which is partly why Gin & Co came about. “While Gin & Co means the start of actually fermenting the gin, along with a few other tasty tipples, it’s not only about just Dollie anymore, that’s what the ‘& Co’ is all about,” Tanya smiles.

A few months ago, she decided to take over Rottcher Wineries after the sad and untimely passing of Frank Theron, her friend and mentor, and the prospect, while frightening, is also exhilarating. “Frank was the one who initially helped me get started,” she muses. “Initially, I worked in conjunction with him, learning the ways of the distillery. The dream was to grow it, and expand the gin side. After his death, I gave it much thought and decided to carry on alone, bring the vision to life. I spoke to Frank’s family and they agreed that I buy Rottcher Wineries and carry on as we had planned. Rottcher Wineries started off in 1959 and is a Lowveld icon, so I have big shoes to fill.

“Some of Frank’s old stock is still left and people clamour to get hold of it before it’s all gone. One of the batches of wooded citrus gin, made in conjunction with smoked French oak chips, is particularly scrumptious. It was left in a little longer than usual because Frank wanted to explain part of the process to me, but we were in the bush at the time. The few days extra that he waited made all the difference. It has a subtle, almost burnt-caramel flavour coming through.

“Sadly, there is very little left, and many of the recipes, especially for the orange wines, are lost, so it really will be a huge learning curve, starting from scratch in a way. Certainly a mammoth challenge but one I feel I am able to do. Support from friends and family has been amazing, and my team, Angela, Hlobi, Melusi, Mduduzi and Queen are a godsend, as much a part of Gin & Co as I am. And it helps that I love what I am doing.”

That is fortunate, because Gin & Co keeps Tanya on her toes constantly. “I never realised we would be as busy as we are,” she says. “We have plenty of people milling about the centre who pop in for a gin tasting or a cold, refreshing drink. Also, we do everything ourselves here, from bottling to labelling. The stock in the shop is steadily growing. We have an excellent boutique wine and champagne selection and a few of the well-known local beers are also available, and we intend on having wine and gin on tap soon. We also have a large variety of craft spirits.”

Indeed, the array of colours, beautifully designed labels and eclectic bottles, mixed with the botanicals, fruits and spices on display almost make you feel as if you have wandered into a mysterious perfume shop, an Aladdin’s cave of pretty treasures filled with jars and bottles of exotic tastes and smells. “Gin is a wonderful thing,” Tanya says. “There is just so much you can do with it, from adding flavour combinations to the gin itself, not to mention the accompaniments which you garnish it with, from bay leaves, peppercorns and rosemary, to strawberries, blueberries and the traditional cucumber. They are now experimenting with tomato and sea salt – imagine that combination!”

Yum. That sounds like something any self-respecting gin lover would quaff in a heartbeat. “I love to experiment with the different flavours, mixing the essence of this with a hint of that and testing to see which flavours marry well and which just don’t belong together. For example, the Dollie Rooibos is paired with lemongrass and loves a sprig of rosemary and slice of orange or grapefruit, blueberry with pimento is deliciously enhanced by thyme and a handful of fresh figs, and the strawberry with wild basil requires nothing more than fresh strawberries and perhaps a sliver or two of cucumber,” says Tanya. “Gin is so versatile, it can be savoury or sweet, and the mixer you choose also comes into play as yet another element. The current favourite is peach lemonade, which flies out of the shop. Everyone loves the pink tonic as well.”

For the tee-totallers there’s Tanya’s popular tonic cordial, handmade with fruit and spices, and a much-loved favourite, Dollies Gin Jam, is something you really want to get hold of. There is nothing quite like hot-buttered toast slathered in this delightfully decadent blueberry and strawberry gin-infused preserve. Or scones, with lashings of cream and a healthy dollop of jam, if that’s more your thing.

While you would have thought the craft gin fad would have moved on by now, it’s very clear it’s here to stay. It seems to grow and change, adapt and transform constantly. Just when you think it’s all been done, a new deep blue or pretty pink, beautifully bottled, high-end brand appears. Gin certainly has come a long way since its early days of being known as “mother’s ruin”, and it’s certainly stood the test of time.

So whether you like it with a sprig of seaweed and scatter of salt flakes, or straight up, shaken not stirred, here’s to gin, and to Gin & Co. Tanya and her team are simply fabulous, but fair warning – once you have walked in those doors, you’ll find you may never want to leave.

Photographers: LUMÉ REITER, LORNE BUSHBY

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