When Larry Berger returned to Cape Town after a trip to Islay in Scotland, he was inspired by his travels to try a new hobby — distilling his own vodka. Although it began as a side project, the idea to infuse it with Rooibos has led to an exciting new venture.
“I began investigating how to distil my first brew and once my first fermentation batch was ready, I distilled my first eight litres in my garage,” he explains. “To my amazement, the vodka was exceptionally smooth.
A few days later, the thought of infusing rooibos with the vodka came to mind. The result was the ‘Spirit of Rooibos’ — an aperitif that is taking the beverage industry by storm both locally and abroad.
“Rooibos is a massive national and global brand, so it appeals to many people globally who already enjoy rooibos tea,” says Berger. “I had no intention of producing commercially, but after receiving the International Michelangelo Award for Most Innovative Product for 2016, the phone began to ring nonstop.
It seemed fate had given me no choice but to reconsider.”
Now, he does most of the tastings and marketing himself — “there is no better sales person than the one who is the most passionate, and that is me.
Though to be honest, the product is so delicious and has the unique and new factor, that I get 90% buy in when I present to a new client,” he says.
This isn’t surprising when you consider how the product is made and what it can be used for. “The entire Rooibos bush is infused with the vodka, thereby allowing the vodka to naturally absorb the full flavour and body from the botanical,” explains Berger.
“This has given the product a rich, silky smooth woody flavour, followed by a spicy finish. Spirit of Rooibos is probably the most versatile drink you can find. Besides enjoying it neat, it can be used for cocktails and cooking, replacing brandy when cooking and making Don Pedros. Spirit of Rooibos has been compared by some mixologists as a local Pims, Campari and Vermouth alternative,” he says.
Berger has received numerous awards and recognition from the industry, including the Trophy award in probably the biggest international wine and spirits competition — the Michelangelo. Among 54 countries, 24 judges and 2000 entries he received a Trophy, which is the highest accolade you can get. “I felt so out of place at the prize giving — truly a once in a lifetime experience for a garage brew to show its face!”
The Spirit of Rooibos also appeared on the Expresso show with South African 5-star Michelin chef Jan Hendrik using it in an apple crumble and rooibos pie, and famed South African chef Reuben Riffel is using Spirit of Rooibos in his signature drink for 2017-2018. He has also been cooking with it.
The aperitif is soon to be featured in some landmark venues, ranging from Table Mountain Cableway restaurant to Grootbos nature reserve.
It has also been exported to Taiwan, China, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Germany. ‘Spirit of Rooibos’ has been patented and trademarked, and is globally protected by the South African government.
Berger has faced some challenges — for example, “I was warned by a few key people in the industry to stay clear of this business. They said you need a bottomless pit of cash to market your product, that there is no shelf space left in liquor stores or bars, that there is just too much selection available and plenty bigger brands buying shelf space.”
Despite this, his risk paid off because Spirit of Rooibos is so unique. “It falls outside of the norm and I felt I had a fighting chance. I was right. But for those entering the market, take heed of their warning,” he says.
Meanwhile, exciting opportunities lie ahead. Berger has been added onto the South African DTI team for international trade shows, and will be taking the product to China and New York in March.
He advises others that if you are starting a new risky business, make sure that you are truly passionate about it. “One of the conditions of proceeding with commercially producing Spirit of Rooibos, was that I was going to enjoy what I was doing and follow my passion.
I had zero interest in making this a financial success and have rather focused on sharing this beautiful drink with the world.