Author: Lucy Corne

“Isn’t this supposed to be a beer festival?” The stands were set up and with half an hour to go before the gates opened, the brewers were doing their usual walkabout to check out what their competitors were serving – often their only opportunity to taste what’s on show. On this particular occasion one of the brewers couldn’t help but notice – with a marked air of disdain – that there was a large amount of another beverage on offer: gin. Specifically, it was pre-mixed gin and tonic, kegged, carbonated and pouring on tap next to the blonde ales and stouts and experimental festival IPAs. 

If you were given to exaggeration, you might say that G&T is the new IPA in South Africa. Everyone seems to be asking for it and every brewery seems to be pouring it. One of the first breweries in South Africa to add the pre-mixed cocktail to their line-up was Drifter Brewing Company in Cape Town back in 2016. Following the lead of the local craft gin industry, they opted to give their gin a particularly South African feel.

“Instead of using common botanicals or spices to infuse our gin, we wanted to incorporate some of South Africa’s indigenous fynbos botanicals, which is why we chose buchu [an indigenous plant with flavours of blackberry and eucalyptus],” says Zan Zurawski, Drifter’s national sales director.

In fact, the boom in the local gin scene was one of the things that pushed South African microbrewers to serve it alongside their beers. “We added it less than a year after start up,” says Ruan Fouchee of Legends Brewery in Johannesburg, who produces a gin ice tea to compliment his beer range. “It was partly driven by the sharp rise in popularity of gin in South Africa.” But of course that wasn’t the main reason. Most of the brewers who produce draught G&T agree that it was driven by customer demand. 

Ready in minutes

“We sell much of our beer at a weekend market and we spotted a gap,” says Marius Botha of Hazeldean Brewing Co. in Pretoria. “People seem to want to get all their craft drinks in one place rather than at three different stalls.” Brewers had noticed the same thing at festivals, where they are often asked “what do you have that isn’t beer?” So instead of waving their would-be customers to stands selling wine or spirits, many have added a draught G&T to their regular festival line-up.

The brewers are quick to add that it’s not the female audience they’re trying to capture – just anyone that is looking to sip on something other than a cold beer. “It appeals to all non-beer fans,” says Ruan. “The brandy drinkers in Pretoria especially enjoy it thanks to the familiar sweetness. Our sales are 60/40 female/male.”

Another factor that makes the pre-mixed G&T so appealing to a brewer is its quick turnaround time and higher profit margin. Rather than taking a full day to brew and then sitting in tanks for several weeks before it can be packaged and sold, a batch of pre-mixed gin and tonic can be ready in a matter of minutes. Although some brewers also dabble in distilling, none of those producing pre-mixed gin and tonic produce their own gin on site for the product.

“When we first started the plan was to distil it all ourselves from waste at the brewpub like we did with our Beer Shine,” says Wendy Pienaar of At Hops End in Johannesburg. “But we could not produce enough gin fast enough and we had to turn to a larger producer who could produce the base in larger quantities for us. The spices, juniper and fruit are still blended by us and we do the final blend with locally made tonic for the premix.”

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Survival tactic

Most brewers choose to support small producers both for the base spirit and the tonic, although some use a tonic syrup that is mixed with carbonated water. Some breweries buy in neutral spirit and macerate the juniper and other herbs in-house, others work with local distilleries to develop a selection of botanicals that are unique to their own G&T.

Others still simply buy bulk gin from a local producer and seek out a quality tonic, blend it in a tank and transfer to keg, can or bottle ready to serve to a thirsty public looking for anything but a beer. The end product ranges from 4-7% ABV, although Drifter even released a non-alcoholic version earlier this year.

It’s undoubtedly a shrewd business move, but the pre-mixed G&T is not without its detractors. Some craft distilleries opt not to work with companies planning to pre-blend their own gin and tonic, and gin snobs will probably agree that the “one size fits all” method of pouring a G&T isn’t ideal. “It definitely has a time and a place, but if you’re a gin lover, you’ll want to be able to try the gin you order neat first and decide how much tonic you want to use,” says Lucy Beard, co-founder of Cape Town’s well-respected Hope Distillery.

As a gin lover myself, I tend to agree, but as an even bigger beer lover, I am definitely not the target market for this product. And there is no denying that draught gin and tonic has done a lot to help South Africa’s fledgling craft beer scene. “The response to our gin ice tea has been overwhelming,” says Legends Brewery’s Ruan. “Depending on the event, our gin sales account for anything from 30-60% of the total volume poured, and 50-70% of the profit for the day due to higher margins. Without it we would not survive.”

And what of that brewer who was so dismayed to find every fifth stand serving gin concoctions at what was “supposed to be a beer festival”? Well, his pre-mixed gin and tonic now pours on tap at his brewery and will be making its way into cans later this year.

Pictures: Lucy Corne