Renaldo Fourie, Port Owen’s poet of the wild spirits
Fusing science, craft, and romance, distillation can teach you valuable life lessons too.
Fusing science, craft, and romance, distillation can teach you valuable life lessons too
The nose, as they say, knows. Of all the senses, smell is the most acute, triggering memories and emotions, evoking moods and sensations, seducing our imaginations and tantalising our palates.
In Velddrif on the West Coast, where the Berg River threads its way through the man-made marina of Port Owen, the breeze ushers in a symphony of scents: salty, marshy, musty, summery, brackish, the smells of nature in the raw.
But if you follow your nose to a split-level building on the main road in town, overlooking the boats in their berths, it will lead you to a bouquet of sheer poetry, born from a fusion of craft, chemistry, and, yes, romance.
That is what a good gin smells like, as Renaldo Fourie knows, swirling the crystal-clear spirit in the tulip glass, nosing it gently, taking a slow, thoughtful sip, and rolling it around with his eyes shut, as if in a dream.
For the agricultural school student from Jan Kempsdorp in the Northern Cape, who distilled fermented fruit in a copper geyser in his dad’s garage, here is the proof that dreams, given sufficient time to rise and steep, can come true.
Today, with a BSc in Specialised Oenology from Stellenbosch University, Renaldo is the Head Distiller at the Poetic License Distillery in Port Owen, where he works the still – a gleaming, gigantic, 500-litre pot-and-column hybrid named Amelia – together with his assistant, Wilhelmina Fourie.
They met while studying, and the secret of their marriage, says Renaldo, is synergy and calibration, which just happens to be the secret of successful distilling too.
“It’s hard to describe that feeling when you both have a glass in your hands,” he says, “and you’re smelling the distillate as it comes out, and you just get that look in each other’s eyes, knowing that she smells exactly what you do. Those moments really make it fantastic.”
Being able to love your job is a privilege; being able to distill that love into a spirit you can smell and taste, well, that’s a gift worth savouring.
There are many ways of doing that, with a mixer of your choice and garnish on the side, but Renaldo prefers to take his tipple neat.
That way, he can best appreciate the purity of the botanicals, the aromatic ingredients sourced from nature, that give different varieties of gin their distinctive flavour and personality.
The four varieties distilled by Renaldo and Wilhelmina feature notes as diverse as coriander and clementine, lemon and eucalyptus, cinnamon, strawberry, and rose petals, on top of the base botanical of juniper berry – ‘genièvre’, in the French – that gives gin its name.
For Renaldo, who is currently studying for a Masters in Distilling, the highest-level qualification in the trade, the great appeal of distilling is the way it combines the practical with the theoretical, and the strict discipline of the scientific process with the mysteries of human sensory reaction. There is a life-lesson in there too, as he reflects.
“As you distill, you constantly need to taste and smell the distillate as it comes out,” he explains. “And there might be, at some point, a specific botanical that might not smell and taste as pleasant, even though it’s in the middle of a section that you must use for distilling.”
The skill then, for the distiller, lies in seeing that isolated botanical as part of the bigger picture, and assessing what benefit it might add to the final product.
“The life-lesson,” says Renaldo, “is that not everything that you’ll experience at every moment is positive. But you need to see its influence in the bigger picture, and accept that it happens for a reason.”
He laughs when asked whether the sea and river air on the West Coast has any effect on the distillation process – “It would be more romantic to say that it does, but we start with a completely neutral spirit and neutral water as a base” – but still, being in this part of the world does make a difference.
Because here in Port Owen, where things happen slowly, where the busiest traffic is the boats and yachts gliding on the marina, you learn to understand that you can’t hurry life along, and that your patience will be well rewarded, when you sit back at the end of the day to sip on the fruit of your labour.
For more fascinating stories about the remarkable people and places of the West Coast, watch Weskubewoners, brought to you by BrightRock, on kykNET every Thursday at 21:00.