I was 14, visiting London for the first time, when I first realised that a Beefeater was more than my Dad’s favourite pre-dinner drink….and that the gin martini he savoured nightly which smelled like a collision of pine forest and lemon grove, was named after real humans. Guys who wore ridiculous red suits and black hats, and guarded the Royals.
Thanks to my Dad and my husband (the two big men in my life), I’ve always had a soft spot for gin, even though I’m mostly a wine drinker. But I like it a lot more now that craft gin has trickled into my life. Because just like craft beer, craft gin has made it to South Africa.
Enter Lucy Beard and Leigh Lisk, partners in spirits and love. They aren’t the first gin distillers here, but they are the first to open a distillery in Cape Town. It’s called Hope on Hopkins: because besides cash, hope is what you need when you start a new business (and Hopkins Street is where they work and live).
Leigh and Lucy met at university in Grahamstown, South Africa, where they both studied law. After travelling via Land Cruiser through Africa and on to Europe, they arrived on a friend’s doorstep in London, broke and ready to become Londoners. They converted their law degrees and stayed… for 16 years. After the recession in 2013, they took a sabbatical. One rainy camping weekend too many, and they decided they’d had enough of Europe. They came to Cape Town for a visit, and a close friend who’d just moved back after living overseas for some years, told them that coming home had been the best decision of her life. Lucy and Leigh decided it was their time to return, but not to corporate life.
While travelling through the Mediterranean, they’d fallen in love with gin and the whole craft gin scene, which was full-on trending in Spain. They researched the trend and a crazy idea began to take shape; that they could actually make a living as distillers in Cape Town. Sixteen years after they’d left South Africa, they bought a building in Salt River, a gritty industrial neighbourhood next to the CBD, and with fingers crossed (see logo), a lot of saved up British pounds, and some professional courses in brewing and distilling, Hope on Hopkins was born.
Lucy, who they agree has the finer palate, is the qualified distiller, while Leigh is chief bottle washer and maintenance guy (which is a big part of the distilling process). They live in chic minimalist modernity on a mezzanine overlooking the distillery floor, with their London-born cat Mimo. Always good to have a distillery cat to keep tiny four-legged critters away.
Why do I love their story so much? For one, it reminds me of mine. When I moved to South Africa, it was with my husband, who was returning to the country after 12 years. We came to open up a restaurant, and had many ups, in building our dream together, and some downs, in dealing with local bureaucracy and other issues. I think Leigh and Lucy’s experience has been similar.
There are many South Africans who are returning home from the UK, the US and Australia, after what seems almost like either compulsory international finishing school or a hunt for imagined greener pastures. Whether they left for work opportunities, because of worries about the country’s future or in earlier years, to get some distance from apartheid and compulsory military service – the pull back home is a strong one. It’s this place: with its wide open spaces, physically and metaphorically. It gets in your blood, even if you are not from here.
You see a lot of this in Cape Town…where the lifestyle can be damn near perfect. And it’s not just South Africans who are drawn here….there are a whole lot of creative entrepreneurial types from all over the world who now call this place home.
Back to Hope on Hopkins and a few distilling basics. The gin is made from Hope on Hopkin’s own triple distilled neutral spirit (aka single malt vodka) of South African grown barley, which is produced on site. This process takes seven to ten days. First, barley is heated for a full day, then cooled before yeast is added. The mixture sits in a fermentation tank for the next four to six days, with readings taken twice daily to monitor the decrease in sugar. When the sugar is almost gone, it’s ready for distilling.
It takes a day of stripping, two days of refinement and then a final day when the spirit is infused with botanicals to produce their hand-crafted gins. Two of the three stills are named after their grandmothers: Mildred (Leigh’s gran) is short, dumpy…”a fiery Irish lady and hard worker.” Her job is to strip the alcohol from what’s referred to as the beer, which is the fermented barley. Maude (Lucy’s gran) is more elegant: “beautiful, sophisticated and refined.” Her job is to smooth and purify. The third still is for experiments (they’re currently working on a pink gin for summer, with grapefruit peel, pink peppercorns and pomegranate, amongst other botanicals, and are even looking at doing tequila).
So far, they produce two gins with their own label: Hope on Hopkins London Dry Gin and Hope on Hopkins Salt River Gin. According to Lucy, London Dry is the style of gin that shows its maker’s finesse and skill. Juniper is a fundamental component; their juniper comes from Macedonia, because as Lucy says, local juniper berries don’t contain enough essential oils for great flavour. The other main botanicals steeped into their London Dry are lemon and orange peel, and rosemary. It’s fresh and bracing: particularly when paired with Fitch & Leedes Tonic Water, fresh rosemary and lemon zest, as they recommend. The Salt River Gin is a nod to local botanicals: juniper partners with citrus peel, and indigenous buchu and kapokbos (wild rosemary), both of which are aromatic. The distillery pairs it with tonic, soda water, grapefruit and thyme. Both gins are silvery, due to the presence of natural oils. Tonic further opens up their flavours; a perfect G&T should be 1 part gin to 3 parts tonic, says Lucy. They are also working on offering a range of craft tonics, which would take their G&T’s to an even higher level.
Besides their own line, they produce a contract gin called Musgrave from an outsourced cane-based neutral spirit, which is based on botanicals from the African Spice Route: bay leaves, African ginger, grains of paradise, cardamom, and of course, juniper.
What I’ve learned from Hope on Hopkins is that gin is very much a personal expression, and that the final product we drink is the result of many experiments (including some colossal failures), meticulous and extensive measuring and logging of temperature and alcohol level, and long hours during which there is nothing to do, while the spirit stews and vaporises. Which is why it’s very convenient, if you are a distiller, to have your stills in your home. And while there’s some chemistry involved, the basic principles are the same as they were back in the 1800s, when “The Compleat” was the go-to volume for distilling: it’s a book that is a reference for Leigh. And lastly, that you don’t have to be big to be a distiller.
Lucy and Leigh love what they do: you can see it in their faces. But the indisputable proof is in the G&T.
Whether you’re a local or a visiting gin lover, you can taste Hope on Hopkins gins by appointment in the distillery, and see Mildred, Maude and Mimo hard at work.