New rooibos aperitif’s journey from a geyser to spirit gravitas
bdlive.co.za - Dec 9th 2016, 16:02
Despite its experimental beginnings in a geyser, Larry Berger's Spirit of Rooibos is not cheap and cheerful plonks, writes Lesley Stones
A new, award-winning alcoholic drink, Spirit of Rooibos, was first distilled at home in a steel water geyser by its inventor, Larry Berger — a plumber by trade.
Berger was tired of domestically made geysers that spring leaks within a few years, so he imported stainless steel versions from Norway.
When the rand took a dive, it was no longer viable to import them, but a friend who is a fan of home-made moonshine asked if he could have the geysers to convert into small distilling kits.
As chairman of the South African Institute of Plumbing, Berger attended a plumbing conference in Scotland and while there, visited his favourite distillery on the island of Islay.
"I fell in love with the whole mystical thing of making whisky and I came back thinking that one day I’d love to distill."
His idea converged with that of his friend’s, and Berger gave him the spare Norwegian geysers in return for getting one back after it had been converted into a mini still.
"He sent one back with some basic instructions for me to make vodka moonshine and I made my first vodka batch and it tasted pretty good," Berger says.
"Then I woke up one morning and thought, I wonder what would happen if I threw tons of rooibos into the alcohol, so the alcohol extracts the flavour rather than hot water?"
He bought a kilogram of rooibos twigs from a farm in the Cederberg and added them to his 40% proof spirit.
He watched the liquid darken as it extracted the flavours from the bundle.
"I shoved my nose in and it smelt pretty interesting. Then I left it for a day or two and filtered it and it was a beautiful colour — it’s quite exquisite," he says.
A friend who owns an organic wine farm in Stellenbosch tried the brew and told him it was excellent, but it was missing mid-palate stimulation. That led Berger to do even more research.
"I ended up with a weird hunch and put a little bit of sugar in, and it was spot on. My wife and my mates loved it, so I took it to some sommeliers to see if I was a lunatic, and everyone said it was absolutely awesome," he says.
Berger admits he was initially daunted by the idea of launching a full-blown new venture.
"But after a month, I realised it was something unique and had the thumbs-up from everybody, so would I really turn my back on something that could be a nice, fun, passionate project?"
"The product had to be approved by the South African Liquor Board, which proved quite a challenge. Rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest players in the industry, who don’t welcome competition, wasn’t easy," he says.
He had been calling his drink rooibos vodka, but it didn’t conform to that category because vodka cannot be coloured. The only category it could fall into was a spirit aperitif if he reduced the alcohol content to 28% proof.
To generate enough volume to turn professional, Berger found a bottling factory that had spare production capacity.
Now Spirit of Rooibos is created from sugar cane by a professional distillery, which supplies it to the bottling plant, and the rooibos is added under Berger’s supervision. He says the aperitif has a rich flavour with hints of spice and wooded undertones.
Studies are proving that drinking rooibos helps to protect people from a range of diseases because it contains high levels of antioxidants that fight free radicals. Other studies have shown it can ease insomnia, headaches and irritability.
Berger says the antioxidants are stronger with an alcohol extraction than with boiling water, but it’s illegal to claim any medicinal benefits for a drink steeped in alcohol.
"I have taken it to laboratories and they say the antioxidant levels are exceptionally high, so it’s probably as healthy as alcohol could ever be, but you can’t do any advertising mentioning health benefits of alcohol," Berger says.
He chose the shape of the bottle from a French manufacturer’s catalogue and worked with a design company to create a label.
Despite its experimental beginnings in a geyser, Spirit of Rooibos is not cheap and cheerful plonk. It won this year’s Michelangelo International Wine & Spirit trophy in the most innovative wine/spirit category, which is making the industry pay attention.
"The moment I got my award, I sent out some samples," he says. "In the meantime, I’ve haphazardly gone to some stores and I’ve got an agent who’s distributing it to some game farms and a couple of bars and hotels in Cape Town."
It’s also stocked by Yuppiechef, and Berger is negotiating with national and international distributors.
The bottles are beginning to appear in some shops and liquor stores for about R339.
He believes it could become a niche player in the market, particularly among foreign visitors looking for an unusual South African souvenir.
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