Extracting the essence

Craftsman: Roger Jorgensen and his wife Dawn run their distillery 
business from their estate in Wellington. (David Harrison)

Craftsman: Roger Jorgensen and his wife Dawn run their distillery business from their estate in Wellington. (David Harrison)

Roger Jorgensen sits on his back porch, eyeing out his 10 hectares of pastoral bliss. Neat rows of olive trees and vines of chenin blanc shine pastel-green under the baking Boland sun. It is silent here, save for the calls of farmhands.

“It’s alright, isn’t it?” Jorgensen says.

He is a man of many titles: farmer, independent artisan, champion of sustainable living and ethical farming.
But Jorgensen is also one of South Africa’s most remarkable distillers, working at the forefront of premium spirit production in the country. Staunchly independent and stubbornly small-scale, he is the founder and master distiller of Jorgensen’s Distillery, a tiny, family-run producer of brandy, vodka, gin, absinthe and esoteric spirit ­infusions.

Despite self-imposed policies against spending money on advertising — Jorgensen says he has “no time, energy or budget” for marketing — his spirits are increasingly being sought out by some of Cape Town’s most exclusive venues, including the Mount Nelson and Table Bay hotels and the refined hipster scenes of Burrata and Societi Bistro.

The entire enterprise is run by Jorgensen and his wife, Dawn, out of a whitewashed Cape Dutch house within the bounds of Versailles, a centuries-old estate 40km north of Stellenbosch. It is not what one would necessarily call humble, but it is miles away — literally and figuratively — from the assembly lines and glossy offices of the local spirits industry.

Almost every patch of Versailles has been given over to Jorgensen’s enthusiasms. Where there were once flower patches under towering palms, much less pretty bushes and shrubs sprout. The nursery — a shady patch in one corner of the Jorgensens’ courtyard — is host to a carefully grown collection of African ginger, an intensely floral rhizome harvested almost to extinction for muti in KwaZulu-Natal and used here to season Jorgensen’s gin. Lemongrass, buchu and khat abound, waiting to be used in experimental infusions that might one day supplement Jorgensen’s line of Naked liqueurs, currently consisting of bay leaf, naartjie and lime “expressions”, as he calls them, as well as a classically made limoncello.

Near the nursery is a World War I-era Richmond & Chandler grain mill and a well-worn copper pot still, powered by a rooftop solar panel designed by Jorgensen himself. Further on there is a reed bed for filtering liquid waste, making it fit for irrigation. In an adjacent storeroom are boxes of shapely bottles with graphics designed by the Jorgensens’ grown-up children. Every corner of the farm hints at the obsession with sustainability and craftsmanship, the pumps and whirs of old industry living side by side with contemporary ingenuity. And all of it to make a little bit of liquor.

It is a decades-long pursuit that began after Jorgensen had a lacklustre spell of winemaking in his home county of Kent in southeast England. He moved to Wellington to establish himself in what seemed like a hospitable nook of his maternal homeland. But apartheid South Africa was not the most welcoming place for newcomers to the wine industry. Even in the late 1980s, wine production was imperiously controlled by KWV, then a co-operative parastatal vary different to the private company it is today.

“Farmers were told which grape varieties they should grow, how much they should grow and when they must harvest their grapes,” Jorgensen says. “The result was large berries with poor flavour profiles and ubiquitous, characterless and uninteresting wine. So I just went ahead and set up a sort of micro­winery. It wasn’t exactly heard of around here. My Afrikaans farming neighbours were all sucking their teeth and shaking their heads at me.”

But he continued anyway, he says, and became the first farmer to grow merlot and chardonnay in the Wellington valley, choosing to eschew the imposed standards that made most South African wines exportable en masse, often at the expense of ­personality.

That venture went “well enough”, but Jorgensen soon found out his farm used to be famous for its brandy.

“That was when the fun started,” he says. After years in kitchens and sheds making beer, elderflower wine and sloe gin, brandy seemed like the perfect side project.

While most surviving copper stills in South Africa were collecting dust in museums and sheds, Jorgensen’s was bubbling away, slowly turning his grapes into something rather more ephemeral. And as the flame under that pot was lit, so too was one in Jorgensen. He suddenly found himself wanting to enter the brandy industry, but legislation introduced in the 1960s outlawed independent pot still brandy production in South Africa, ostensibly to ensure a national standard for local brandy, but more, as Jorgensen saw it, to further entrench the financial interests of white farmers and businessmen already producing the spirit.

With the transition of government in 1994, Jorgensen and two of his winemaking colleagues approached the state in a bid to relax regulations on pot still brandy production. The state agreed that the industry should be open, and so Jorgensen’s hobby became a commercial possibility for the first time. From then on, ­Jorgensen began producing a cognac-styled brandy suited to South African conditions.

His Savingnac — a self-styled portmanteau of the names of his adopted home and the classic French spirit — is unctuous and smooth with layers of earthen aromatics, floral esters and spice. It would be blasphemy to mix this with Coke.

Good sipping brandy, however, takes a lot of time.

“Brandy needs at least 12 years to become really sexy and, unfortunately, this means that the investments I made in 1998 are only now beginning to pay back,” he says. So, to keep his business afloat while his brandy aged, Jorgensen decided to explore uses for his still.

“Although South Africa has a relatively sophisticated consumer ­society, every bottle of premium spirits sold here — apart from some brandies and ports — is imported by a ­foreign company. It’s ridiculous.”

And so the copper still began bubbling overtime and Jorgensen’s workshop was given over to herbal alchemy. Inside it, tinctures are strewn everywhere. Habanero chillies and vanilla pods slowly turn bottles of Primitiv vodka — made from primitive spelt grown high in the nearby Cederberg — lightly red and yellow; next door, bunches of wormwood hang from the roof.

On a table are three dozen labelled containers: Pimpinella anisum, Iris florentina, Afromomum melegueta. With each name, he explains what they bring to his spirits: ­liquorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) brings sweet top notes to the juniper- and Cape citrus-steeped gin; ­hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) brings ­richness to Field of Dreams, his teeth-itchingly brilliant Montpellier-style absinthe.

“And that’s the difference with us,” he says. “We use real aromatics, real botanicals and — if we can — we’ll grow it all ourselves. It’s our business ethic to be handcrafters, and the results show.”

Nick Mulgrew

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