Capetonian’s are a cynical bunch and brands looking to keep up with times need to keep pushing the boundaries forward. So, it was no surprise that my favourite Islay Dry gin, The Botanist updated what has now become such a mundane thing with the launch of THE FORAGER: a series of secret events hosted around the country in which the guests are a part of the judging panel with the best mixologist winning a trip to the wild Islay for a special foraging experience.
For those Troglodyte’s amongst us, and there are still a few too many, The Botanist Gin is a super-premium artisanal product by Jim McEwan of the wild Hebridean island of Islay (read previous post here). It’s a gin of layered complexity and a progressive exploration of the botanical heritage of the island incorporating twenty-two hand foraged botanicals which delicately augment nine berries, barks, seeds and peels during an achingly slow distillation in a modified Lomond still lovingly known as ‘Ugly Betty’.
But I digress.
With an intimate crowd of only thirty industry and leading media invited to attend (who unusually arrived on time despite the wind and rain which seemed to mimic more the traditional Scottish weather than South African with howling wind and rain) to Barclay Studios in Salt River. It was at that point, understanding the concept of the evening that my heart sank as I walked in and had a look around the venue. You see three of South Africa’s leading bartenders had been selected to compete. I would have to vote for only one. Two were really good friends. I mean WTF?
During the veld, forest and sea forages in Cape Town and Highveld, Lowveld and bushveld forage experiences, each bartender has and will be taken on his own ‘master class’ in which they learn key aspects of behavioural ecology with leading experts Roushanna Gray and Margaret Roberts (SA’s doyenne of herbs, medicinal foods, and wellness) along with her daughter Sandy. These master classes are essential to their completing the crucial task at hand: craft unique foraged serves of The Botanist Gin using indigenous ingredients which they personally handpicked around the country. Seems simple, right? Well that’s where the experience and craftmen … or craftwomen’ship comes to the fore.
All this picking and plucking and sipping of the quick-silver liquid falls under the ægis of Brand Ambassador Raphaël Cristini, himself a top bartender recently returned to South Africa after living abroad in Europe for many years who ensured not only that the local expeditions and masterclasses remained true to the Hebridean tradition throughout the competition but also that the competitors keep true to the savoir vivre of Bruichladdich, the distiller that producers The Botanist Gin (and where he has had extensive training alongside the expert foraging team who handpick the botanicals) from the windswept hills, peat bogs and Atlantic shores of the Island.
It should be noted that the botanists seasonally and sustainably forage for these aromatic botanicals by hand and carefully dry them in preparation for distillation which ensures that the layered complexity of The Botanist which has become an inspiration to professional mixologists like Caitlin Hill (co-owner, Mother’s Ruin), AJ Snetler (head barman, The Orphanage) and Phil Bandarous (head barman, Kloof Street House) who have learnt to appreciate the flavour potential of ingredients foraged in their own environment and then introduce a very personal dimension to this complex spirit during the competition.
In keeping with the evening, the menu was a modern interpretation of a classic Smörgåsbord using local flora as the focus of the conversation with Marog, Paarl feta and nutmeg spanakopita spirals, slow braised Guineafowl pot pies in flaky puff pasty and Karoo lamb meatballs with wild rosemary and mint peri-peri mayo served with Dakkah crushed flat and pumpkin seed bread taking my fancy especially when gobbled with smoked wild sage butter, pine ring mushroom and ostrich liver pâté schmears.
Dom, at the start and end of the end of the evening was on hand with two delicious cocktails. The former a punch on arrival and the later something fruity with Cabaret in the name (I know, so gay to only remember something Liza related, right?) but it was so deli’shish that I had two along with the black chocolate and beetroot squares with pomegranate rubies and vetkoek éclairs filled with The Botanist Gin and lemon crème patisserie that were served as guests voted in a Weakest Link / Survivor’esque ending for the evening.
My vote on the evening was based on the premise: if I were paying good money which would I like to drink time and time again and probably not get bored with too quickly. That’s saying something since I have the attention of a Gnat and get bored within a millisecond. No, seriously. I once walked out on a first date without even taking a sip from my drink which took too long to get to my table. Also the date was boring AF.
Even though I made a dash shortly afterwards, this was certainly one of the better events that I have been to in a long while and certainly look forward to the next installment in July with the forage de mer being the focus of the cocktails and menu.
To suffer from total #FOMO, follow The Botanist on Instagram: @theforagersa and Facebook: TheForagerSA or the hashtags #TheForagerSA and #TheBotanistSA for more information.