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Getting Clarity on Spirits in South Africa
Originally posted 13 March 2019 by Hendre Barnard - Training manager Distillique.
This Article is a repeat of a reply we made on Facebook regarding a post by a well-known South African "Ginfluencer", discussing the sharp increase in non-gin products posing as gins, a lack of clarity in processes and product definitions, and certain shortfalls in labeling requirements and label clarity.
We have reposted it here as we think, based on the reaction it got on Facebook, that this bears further discussion on multiple platforms.
PLEASE NOTE: We have nothing against the Beefeater or Strettons brands, pictured and discussed below. They just happened to be the examples chosen for the original discussion which lead to this post.
After several posts made this week by various people in the industry, influencers, reviewers, etc. about suspicious products, misrepresented products and just plain illegal products on our shelves, the final trigger for us came this morning at 5:00 when we saw a post by The Bearded Gin Guy exposing one of the common misconceptions of big brands putting products out that consumers perceive to be Gin, but that is in actual fact Spirit Aperitifs or Liqueurs.
There are actually MANY more sides to this, and the problem is much greater an widespread than the consumers realize. The following is an extract of our response to his post, and we are using his picture from his original post – hope he’s okay with that.
Firstly, South African Consumers are some of the more uneducated in the world when it comes to what we drink. We see it every week in every class when we go through spirit definitions and legislation with them.
- They do not realize that most imported US Whisky and Bourbon sold in South Africa are here illegally.
- They do not know that in most countries brandy is made from any fruit (and not just grapes) and that wood aging of brandy is actually not common.
- They don’t know that only 30% of a bottle of brandy actually has to be brandy (opposed to pot still brandy and estate brandy where everything has to be).
- They don’t know that just because a bottle label says tequila it is not necessarily tequila.
- They don’t know that Spiced Rum is illegal in South Africa, and that you are not allowed to add Honey to gin.
- Etc. etc. etc.
A lot of this comes from people not reading labels, and yes – to fully understand what you are reading it is recommended to have at least a basic understanding of legislation – but common sense can achieve a lot. It is legally required in South Africa (as with many countries) that if the product classification does not form part of the name, i.e. Strettons London Dry Gin, it has to be printed separately on the label, i.e. Strettons Triple Berry – Spirit Aperitif.
Established brands like Beefeater, Strettons, Absolute, Smirnoff, etc. rely on customer recognition of their brands to create the impression that the product is something that it is not. So-called “Flavored Vodka’s” are an example of this. In South Africa, as in most countries, to be a Vodka the spirit is not allowed to have any flavor or color, therefore you cannot make or sell a flavored Vodka in South Africa. So when you buy Absolute Raspberry, you as the consumer THINKS you are buying a Raspberry Flavored Vodka (because Absolute is a Vodka brand) but meantime you are buying a Spirit Aperitif, which legally has to contain at least 75g of sugar per liter of product and is allowed to be at a lower percentage ABV. Same with Jack Daniels Honey.
Elize Viljoen, a follower of the Bearded Gin Guy, commented on the fact that the Strettons product is a lot cheaper than other products playing in the same space, i.e. Craft Gins.
Because firstly, Strettons is a mass produced brand, so production and packaging cost per bottle is much lower. Secondly, as a Spirit Aperitif the ABV% is lower. Consider that at 43% ABV, the excise tax on a 750ml bottle is about R65.80. Now, we pay VAT on Excise in South Africa, so that then raises to R75.67 (just Excise and VAT on Excise). A Spirit Aperitif at 37% only pays R56.71 Excise Tax (ex Vat), so obviously it will be cheaper (though interestingly enough the product is not cheaper than normal 43% Strettons Gin, so they are actually milking the consumer).
It can be argued that labeling such as this is in contravention of Article 12 of the National Liquor Products Act Regulations, which says that labeling is not allowed to be misleading. The argument holds weight in that it may be misleading to the average South African, because the average South African is ignorant of Liquor Law. But as we all know “ignorance of the law is no excuse”, hence the products are allowed and legal.
Getting to Gin specifically - The Bearded Gin Guy stated that the definition of Gin is that it must be Juniper forward. Technically the South African Liquor Products Act Regulations say that “Gin must have the distinctive characteristic aroma and taste of Gin” – Juniper is not mentioned in the characteristics, only in the sentence that the grain or any other spirit must be distilled through Juniper.
Now note a couple of things.
Firstly, to be a Gin, the product must be distilled through Juniper, but there is no requirement that all the Juniper taste (“the characteristic aroma and taste”) is obtained through this process – therefore, theoretically, you could put one Juniper berry in the vapor path and add the rest in with an essence later, and you would be legally compliant. Legal, but not moral.
Secondly, this requirement was only brought into the law in March last year (2018) – hence products that receive product approval prior to March last year did not require detectable Juniper. I say those that did, because surprisingly in South Africa, product approval for local sale is not a legal requirement. You have to be compliant to the law, but there is no enforceable control measure to ensure compliance. Hence the large number of illegal and illicit products on our shelves.
Thirdly, a separate sentence in the Gin definition allows for “the admixing of distillate obtained” through the infusion process with any other class of spirit and still calling that gin. This has now unfortunately led to the sale of so-called Gin Concentrate, Gin Spirit or Gin Base by mass producers in the Western Cape specifically, to the marketplace, and certain – in my opinion – disreputable brands are buying this base and just adding one or two more flavors too it, and selling it as Craft Gin.
Now this is legal, but there is no way you can consider it Craft, and once you start advertising yourself in that Market there is a certain unspoken bond between you and your consumer that should be respected.
We always tell our students that Craft is built on three things – honesty, integrity and transparency.
If you think that buying in a Gin base and flavoring it is right, then why are you hiding that fact? You hide it because it is NOT right for the market YOU are targeting. That is a cheap and easy way to produce a product that you are selling in a space that caters to what is now defined as “Activist Consumers” – people to whom the provenance, terroir, methodology, story and people matter. People who will NOT accept shortcuts and substitutions. People who will NOT waste their hard-earned money on a product produced by a big company.
Hence this year we will be submitting a request to DAFF (one of a few) that South Africa adopt the international standard of not just one category of Gin, but subdivided into Distilled Gin (botanicals infused in a still), Infused Gin (macerated, soaked or bathtub Gin – currently not legal in SA as Juniper must be added in the still), and Compound Gin (any flavours added through essences).
More and more people are also asking for a Craft Definition, Shannon Muller, another Facebook follower of The Bearded Gin Guy enquired in the original tread, Ginned Up (another "Ginfluencer") and Craft Cartel SA (a Craft Spirit Retailer) touched on it, as did Holger Meier (a Retail Influencer) in another post.
We at Distillique knew this day would come, hence at our 2016 SACDI Conference (Southern African Craft Distilling Institute), more than a hundred Craft Distillers and Spirit Producers adopted, with overwhelming majority vote, the SACDI definitions for Craft Spirit, Craft Spirit Producer and Craft Distiller.
We are finally, after a long and arduous process, ready to roll these definitions and certifications out this year, so soon consumers will be able to identify a TRUE CRAFT bottle on the shelf by looking for the Certification Sticker on the bottle.
It will also certify the production methodology and process (flavoring or infusing purchased spirit vs producing your own spirit from fermentation), and we will have an online directory of certified products and producers who will be audited and compliance ensured prior to listing.
In the meantime, several "Ginfluencers" and even some stockists have elected to start exposing suspect products, to only endorse products that they have personally confirmed to be Craft, and to start educating consumers on labels, processes, methodology and origin.
We are very glad that The Bearded Gin Guy and his #Gintribe is taking this stand, and we're hoping other #Ginfluencers will take up this challenge as well to call out the brands that is abusing the category, and help promote the True Crafters striving to share their passion with the consumer base.