The Rise of Craft Distillation

Booze in general and spirits in particular are, by and large, peddled by a handful of gigantic companies who truck their brands across continents.  To flex their lobbying and marketing muscles they can muster formidable resources.  In the US over 90% of the multibillion dollar spirits market is controlled by fewer than nine companies.  In South Africa the lion’s share of the market is controlled by even fewer companies.

This is a far cry from yesteryear when, in 1800, there were more than 14,000 distillers in America. By 1909 their numbers had dwindled to about 600.  Prohibition hit in 1920 and at its end in 1933 only a dozen licensed distilleries were left standing.

South African distillers suffered a similar fate, albeit for different reasons, when in the 1960’s the majority of private distillers were unilaterally declared illegal.  Their stills were destroyed of rendered into museum pieces.  The right to produce spirits was thereafter vested in a few well connected companies which survive in one form or another to this day.  A wealth of artisanal skills and the rich history of distilling in the Cape dimmed into the history books.

The monopolies who took control of the liquor industry created brands of over-proof spirits that have become household names. They spawned the brandy and coke mentality where the inherent quality of the base liquor is largely irrelevant and market share is achieved by buying pouring rights and running costly socially irresponsible advertising campaigns.

To this day, apart from the odd Pot Still Brandy, there is no premium spirits industry to speak of in South Africa to show for decades of strategic advantage held by the big booze factories.  The big guys peddle imported premium brands on the backs of distribution networks established for their high street brands.  They even go so far as to block reform legislation that would allow a local premium sector to flourish.

Fortunately today’s consumer is well informed, well travelled and very interested in quality and choice.  In his travels he has tasted fine Cognacs and Single Malts, Rhum Agricole, and sipping Vodka.  He can browse the net and order Absinthe and Aquavit.  He can take part in the debate of Chopin over Tchaikovsky – we are talking vodka here! – and he knows he is an individual who deserves a unique product.

In South Africa there is now a resolute and growing band of craft or artisanal distillers responding to this need for unique specialist spirits.  Eau-de-vie, pot still brandy, cask aged whisky, gin, vodka, grappa, agave spirit and absinthe can now be found, all made in small quantities to exacting standards.  Craft distillation is about quality, choice and individuality.  

Artisanal distillers are hands-on specialists who transcend the gap between art and alchemy to create unique spirits for individuals.  They are also so proud of their handiwork they will find a way to deliver directly to you, if you don’t beat a path to their door first. 

The Production Area on Our Farm Versailles in Wellington - Hand Craft Indeed.   


 The Still Man Checking the Column Still During the Third Vodka Distillation.



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