Craft Spirits 101

With the recent explosion of premium Gin on the spirits scene, we take a look at what exactly it is, and what else you should be trying.

Craft Spirits 101

It all starts with distillation

Despite their end differences, all craft spirits ultimately start at the same point. Some base liquid, that contains sugars, is fermented into alcohol, and then distilled – heated to the point where the alcohol leaves the solution before the water, is captured, condensed and returned to a liquid form, now at a higher alcohol strength than before. This distillation generally takes two forms, Batch (Pot) distillation or Continuous (Column) distillation.

Potstills produce the richest flavoured distillate

In a Pot Still the alcohol is distilled slowly, and in smaller batches, to a form that still retains much of the flavour and aroma of the base alcohol itself. Normally around 70% alcohol, it is the richest, most full flavoured distillate of the two.

In a Column Still, the alcohol is continuously distilled to (in most cases) a neutral alcohol, of around 95%. It has very little aroma or taste, and is in effect pure alcohol.

It’s important to understand these differences, as we explore some popular craft spirits.


While a number of formal legal definitions exist for different types of Gin, it is widely understood that Gin is produced from any neutral alcohol (In South Africa, mostly Cane Spirit from Column Still distillation) that is macerated with a number of botanicals (the most prominent of which must be Juniper Berries), and then redistilled once more. Most craft Gins are redistilled by hand in small potstills, and common botanicals added include bitter orange peel, liquorice, cinnamon, coriander and nutmeg.

Other styles of Gin also exist, and are legally recognised, whereby flavouring is just added to neutral column still alcohol to create the Gin flavour. These are not generally seen as craft in the eyes of the Gin purist.

Craft or not? How do you know if what you are drinking is really Craft?

Cape Brandy

Cape Brandy is 100% pot-distilled wine, made from premium Cape grapes, and then aged in charred oak barrels for many years. Only pot distillation is used and the wine is distilled twice for ultimate purity.

Once aged for a minimum of 3 years, the spirit is mellowed, softened, darkened and enhanced with vanilla, spices and sweet notes from the caramalised sugars in wood barrel. Cape Brandy is reduced to bottle strength using only the addition of pure water, no preservatives or flavourants are added at any stage.

Cape Brandy stands apart as the premium craft brandy offering from South Africa, designed to be sipped neat, on the rocks or with Soda / Tonic water.

Blended Brandy is the most well known brandy in South Africa, and contains only 30% potstill brandy and 70% neutral wine spirit from column distillation. It is designed for a sweet mixer such as coke or ginger ale, and while still a quality product, is not considered craft in the eyes of Brandy purists.


Bourbon is a Whiskey, produced inside the borders of the USA, predominantly in the Southern states. In order to be called a Bourbon, at least 51% of the base alcohol used must be made from corn, the balance normally being rye, wheat and malted barley.

Once distilled, Bourbon must be aged in new charred American oak barrels. There is no minimum age requirement for Bourbon, the exception being “Straight Bourbon” which must be a minumum of 2 years in barrel.

Generally, Column Still distillation is used for the first distillation of bourbon, restricted by law to a maximum of 80% alcohol, and then a second distillation is done in a Potstill in order to retain as much the source flavour as possible. Many mass produced Bourbon’s do not use a potstill at all though, and are not seen as craft in the eyes of the Bourbon purist.


Toasted oak barrels add flavour and maturity

Rum is distilled from a base of fermented Molasses, the natural by product of boiling Sugar Cane juice. Molasses retains a high percentage of sugar, and gains additional flavours from the boiling process. There are many classifications and definitions of rum around the world, but very little consistency when it comes to how they are made.

Some dark rums are crafted in potstills, in small batches, and matured in barrels in some cases for many years. Others again use continuous distillation in the column, and are more often than not the light rums.

The pot still side of the Rum is yet again seen as the premium sipping end, and hailed as the purest expression of the spirit – not to be mixed away with a sweet mixer, but rather sipped neat or with a few cubes of ice.

Time to experiment

Regardless of which tipple is your firm favourite, there has never been a better and more exciting time to explore other craft spirits. Most spirit categories have their Premium or “Craft” end, and many people are unaware of the quality and luxury that lies in the less obviously enjoyed drinks. Now is the time to experiment, go out and enjoy it.

Go out and try something new, a world of craft spirits awaits…

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