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Jorgensen’s Distillery

It felt like coming home. The farmstead was typically Cape Dutch as opposed to my bushveld-bourgeoisie roots, but the elements were all there: the large, gravel parking lot strewn with bakkies and tractors; drums, implements, machinery scattered across the forecourt; strong men in their work clothes eyeing the camera out sheepishly, apologising for their scruffy attire, dogs everywhere… A wave of home sickness swept through me, taking me by surprise. I missed my people.

And then I met them – farmers, kindred spirits bound by an unspoken appreciation of the land that transcends provincial boundaries – Roger and Dawn Jorgensen.

Roger Jorgensen, the Still Man

Roger’s farming roots run deep but it’s the wacky scientist in him I found intriguing. He knows how to grow things,  it’s the plants he grows and what he does with them that boggle the mind.

 

My first impression of the work shed was farmer meets sorcerer’s apprentice! Bunches of herbs hang from the rafters filtering in the sunlight. Bottles and jars of all shapes and sizes line the window ledges and cluster together on every available space. Containers of dried, crushed herbs and spices, all beautifully labelled, stand side by side. Exotic roots and tubers await their flavoursome fate whilst an array of chopped plant materials drown in their alcohol filled jars, releasing flavours and colour to the once clear liquid. This is Roger’s domain. This is where the mad scientist within comes out to play. This is where he creates the spirits that are putting Jorgensen’s on the tips of tongues everywhere.

Roger explains the basics of distillation thus: extract the alcohol, enrich it, concentrate it and bring along as much of the flavour as you choose. All Jorgensen’s spirits are at least triple distilled. But first you need the alcohol…

To this end, they use organically grown spelt from the Cedarberg mountains. Barley and spelt are combined and ground up in an ancient grain mill discovered on the farm. The ‘flour’ is then mixed with hot water and left for about an hour during which time enzymes in the barley convert the spelt starches into fermentable sugars. Yeast is added to start the fermentation process which then converts the sugars into alcohol and what you’re left with is a crude beer ready for distillation. Ready for Roger’s magic.

You get the sense that Roger is on a permanent quest for the new, the unexplored, the undiscovered. Everything is organic and inspiration is drawn from nature’s bounty. A glance at the books on his work bench confirms this: ‘Medicinal Plants of South Africa’, ‘Mind Altering Poisonous Plants of the World’ and ‘Peoples Plants’. His knowledge of local plant life and their characteristics is extensive as evidenced in his spirits.

On the wide verandah of their bright and airy home, we sat and gazed upon vines, olive trees and the beautiful Limietberg mountains. How could spirits born of these surroundings be anything but perfect?

The gentle and lovely Dawn had laid everything out beautifully and I was more than a little embarrassed at the effort they’d gone to. For a moment I’d forgotten that this is what farmers do, this is what comes naturally. The entire Jorgensen’s range was lined up and ready for tasting, accompanied by meticulously prepared snacks made from all local ingredients. I was blown away.

Dawn and Roger sparkle when speaking of their products; their spirits are as much a part of the liquid as the alcohol they distil. Of their Savingnac pot-still brandy matured in oak for 12 long years, Roger has this to say: “The brandy lies undisturbed for a decade or more. We add nothing and subtract nothing, relying on time to make the crucial changes towards maturity. Experience tells us that if the ground work – farming, wine making technique and distillation parameters – is correct the brandy will be superb.”  That’s faith in the spirit!

Jorgensen’s gin is well balanced and packed with flavour. When it comes to adding tonic Roger balks at using most commercial varieties, preferring instead to use local Fitch & Leedes Indian tonic: “True Indian Tonic Water contains real quinine and other bittering agents which stimulate the appetite and provide the perfect ‘dry’ foil for the complexities of real gin.”  While their gin may knock your socks off with its intensity, their Primitiv sipping vodka is gentle, sliding down the throat in smooth, peppery waves, releasing fragrant bursts as it goes.

Jorgensen’s range of liqueurs are subtle on the tongue and heady on the nose – a taster of their Naartjie liqueur had me craving ‘pannekoek’ Suzette! Limoncello is made with the zest of local lemons, taking every care not to incorporate an ounce of bitter pith. It tastes like lemons smell!

But the current talk of the town is Jorgensen’s absinthe, ‘Field of Dreams’ – a dark, seductive liquid reputed to bring out the green fairies… Absinthe was given a bad rap back in the day mainly by distillers using dubious ingredients and was subsequently banned. But the yearning for another golden age was strong. By 2007 even the USA had lifted their ban and an Absinthe revival was in full swing.

It didn’t take Roger long to hit the books and track down a copy of the 1871 Treatise on the Manufacture and Distillation of Alcoholic Liquors (which takes pride of place on his desk). Using this tome as reference along with his knowledge of local ingredients, he has perfected the spirit and Jorgensen’s has the distinction of being the only absinthe producer in the country.

Jorgensen’s are distillers of premium, hand crafted spirits producing small, limited quantities which are much in demand by those in the know. They live their lives at peace with their surroundings, giving back as much as they take. Everything is natural, organic, recycled – returned to the earth from whence it came. Roger and Dawn share an abiding respect for nature, the environment and each other. In their own words: “We remain truly inspired by life and love and continue to hone the skills learnt through personal endeavour, hard work and passion.” Respect!

Jorgensen’s spirits can be purchased directly from the distillery or via ebooze if you’re in the Cape Town area.

Follow them on Twitter @PrimitivVodka @DawnJorgensen @RogJorgensen

To learn more about Roger, read these spirited interviews here and here.

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