Gin: The most quintessentially colonial spirit.
Soweto: Delightful, jarring, unpredictable and astounding - a place that encompasses the spirit of Africa.
On the surface the two are not ideal partners but nonetheless it was on a hot summer afternoon that I found myself on my way to a bar deep in the heart of this sprawling township on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
The goal - to educate people that don’t usually drink gin about, of all things ... gin, and to convince them that they really should spend their hard earned cash on a bottle of Gin rather than that bottle of whisky they were planning on taking home.
Now, to understand the true depth of this situation, you need to know a little about South African politics, history and social conventions. In the dark days of Apartheid while Mandela languished in prison, the world refused to play our sports teams and balding, finger-waving Afrikaaners were our leaders, Soweto was a place where white people didn’t go (I’m white, by the way) unless in an armoured car and in shirts emblazoned with RIOT POLICE. Take inner city ghettos and times them by the accumulated anger and resentment of fifty years of enforced segregation and second class citizenship, and you’re getting close.
Since democracy came round in the mid-nineties things have changed a lot though. Foreign tourists bus in to visit the humble former homes of Nobel Prize winners and drink in Shebeens. (Speakeasies were nothing - try selling illegal liquor with Casspir’s full of soldiers driving past your door). Soweto is now no longer the scene of headline grabbing riots but crime is still a massive problem, and when the tourist buses pack up and go back to their Sandton hotels, the real Soweto is still a place where few outsiders feel entirely comfortable.
But back to gin and a steaming Johannesburg afternoon, the kind where a thunderstorm seems like it could crack the clear Highveld skies at any moment but somehow holds off for the day to get even hotter. As we wind our way deeper into the maze of houses, the streets turn from tar to red dust and the turning heads and stares become more frequent.
We eventually arrive at Katz Cafe a small bar of the kind common in Soweto – a semi-residential property that has been converted into a small but functional bar/lounge/restaurant complete with large street-side veranda overlooking the children’s soccer field across the road. We are warmly greeted by the owner and soon get to work with the reason we're there.
We have been hired by a global brand of fairly high-end gin to conduct on-trade promotions in bars across the country designed to educate (and in some cases introduce) patrons to gin, and in particular, gin cocktails. We're serving a simple selection of easy to make, easy to drink gin cocktails, but around these parts people drink whisky, brandy and cider. They’re not shy of splashing some money around on premium brands either (single malt scotch and Cognac are common purchases in these bars) but gin? Not so much.
We expected to have our work cut out convincing hardened whisky drinkers (often fiercely brand loyal as well) that gin can be a premium spirit too and equally worthy of their attention. We had begun settling in for a tough time, when something strange suddenly happened. Maybe it was the novelty of having two nervous-looking white guys behind their bar, or maybe there was a certain amount of pity for the bewildered looks on our faces, but as the place gradually filled up with late afternoon trade, people started to take an interest in the gin! Before long gin cocktails were flying out in every direction, with people taking their time at the bar, showing a genuine interest and enthusiasm for what we were doing and what we had to say about the spirit.
That was one of the most pleasantly surprising and enlightening moments of my bartending career because I realised something that has influenced my view on cocktails (and drinking in general) ever since. It’s not always about the best cocktail made by the best bartender using the best spirit. It’s about good drinks with good people in places you didn’t expect to find them. Some of the guys we served that day might have walked out gin converts - I don’t know. Most have probably never bought a shot of gin since. But on that afternoon, deep in Soweto, as the sun went down and we watched the kids across the street play soccer, those simple gin and tonics were the best drinks in the world.
Nothing fancy here, nothing molecular or cutting edge, no hand carved ice diamonds or obscure products. Just quality ingredients prepared well. Some might even find this drink a little overly sweet, but my goal was to create a drink to introduce G’Vine to the South African market and, for better or worse (although generally worse), South Africans have a sweet palate. They are also not used to spirit forward cocktails so, before assaulting my would-be gin converts with Negronis, Martinis and Last Words, I thought we’d introduce them to the idea of a cocktail that actually tastes like gin while still keeping it light, fresh and a little on the sweet side. I wanted a drink that could be made easily by bartenders with rudimentary training in the basics of good cocktails. You don’t need to be Philip Duff * to make this drink, and I believe that this ease of preparation will be a vital aspect of popularising this cocktail.
*master of all things cocktail and bon vivant that he is.
The Gin Blossom
35ml G’Vine Floraison
15ml Jasmine Syrup*
15ml Freshly squeezed Lime Juice
2 Barspoons (10ml) Cherry Liqueur
Combine all ingredients and shake well until very cold.
Fine strain into an ice cold cocktail glass and garnish with an edible flower (Jasmine if you can otherwise whatever looks good)
*Homemade Jasmine Syrup
Combine 2 parts white sugar with 1 part water in a saucepan over a low heat and stir until sugar is dissolved.
Remove from heat and add around 20 fresh Jasmine flowers. Leave to steep for around 20mins, stirring occasionally until the syrup reaches the desired taste.
Strain out flowers and store refrigerated in a clean bottle for up to 3 weeks.
Alternatively store-bought Jasmine Syrups are available from brands such as Monin.
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