Triple Three brings generations of heritage to distilling in SA


YOU probably associate the Black Forest region in Germany with ham and chocolate cake, but it’s also significant for distilling spirts. In an area about the same size of the Boland here in the Western Cape, there are about 28 000 distilleries where as in the Boland itself there are 100, maybe 150, Rolf Zeitvogel from Triple Three Distillery tells us.

Rolf was born and bred in the Black Forest, in a small village called Sinzhein. “My grandfather Franz Zeitvogel started his own wine estate, and had his own vineyards. He also had a cooperage which used oak from the Black Forest which he seasoned and made barrels,” says Rolf. “Next to that he made ciders for the village, very classic. Most people who grew up in small villages had a house, a tractor shed with machines, then a little garden by the house for vegetables and one or two trees for the family consumption. Then they had land outside the village, maybe acres with corn or maize. Up the hill it was big fruit trees – apple, pear, cherries, apricots, peaches – and then we had vineyards.” 

Rolf Zeitvogel

Franz had two sons, Rolf’s father Oswald, and his uncle Bruno, both of whom followed in the family business making wine and barrels. “The distilling was part of the smallholding setup,” says Rolf. “There were the vegetables and fruit that you eat, the fruit for cider, and fruit you don’t want to eat or was too much for cider. Very often, the fruit would fall, be brought home, crushed and fermented, and the pulp kept for the winter days, when it was too cold to go outside, and distilling took place. It was a seasonal thing; every smallholding had a still.” 

It was in this spirit – and wine – culture in which Rolf grew up, and as a third generation distiller, he brings this heritage to the gins and spirits he makes now. His daughter will continue the legacy.

A purist when it comes to distilling, who works with his nose, experience with flavour, and instinct, Rolf has been in South Africa for 22 years. 

“I was lazy at school,” he admits. “I finished at the lowest level, and didn’t speak English. I attended. That’s it.” However, he continued with an apprenticeship at a winery, and found he was in his element, gaining his winemaker degree before the age of 18. After completing his military service Rolf travelled and work around Europe. He met a cork closures salesman who suggested he go to South Africa. “But I didn’t speak English!’ he laughs. “Being naïve and young and full of energy, I said ‘if you find me a job I’ll do it for a season’ and left it at that. He phoned me back and he’d arranged for me to do training at Bergkelder for three months. Then one month travelling, and two months at KWV. 

“My English was terrible. There was a moment when I was sitting in my little hoekie in Stellenbosch and I had my dictionary and said ‘I need to learn this language and I will not learn it with you in my hand. I must find another way’. So I chucked it in the corner and gave myself two weeks – either make it or I don’t belong here. And here we are.”

A decade of back and forth ensued, during which time Rolf met and married his wife Regina, and when his father fell ill, he took over his position and one of the oldest wine slopes in Germany. When he finally made the permanent move to South Africa, he worked as winemaker at a farm on the West Coast before joining Blaauwklippen in Stellenbosch, going from winemaker to estate manager to board member. One fine day, he met Urs and his wife Astrid Gmüro, from Switzerland, who were keen to become involved in a business here. Long story short, in 2012 they became partners. “We have a Swiss guy with interest in flavours, and wealthy enough to support it. Me with background of wine and distilling, to source ingredients. So let’s do a Black Forest distillery in the heart of South Africa with the Black Forest cultural background – grappa, schnapps – and sell overseas,” says Rolf.

The operation began on Blaauwklippen although it operated independently. “We realised just doing fruit spirits will not work; it’s a very small market,” says Rolf. “Then we looked at the gins.”

The original range comprised three gins (Just Juniper, Citrus, African Botanical), Rolf is a third generation distiller, and at that time he had three copper pots. And thus, Triple Three Distillery was born. It moved to Strand in 2019, and now has four pots in which a dazzling array of spirits are distilled – gins, grappa, schnapps, Calvados we’re not allowed to call Calvados (much like Champagne and Cognac) – each made with the utmost discernment, resulting in beautifully balanced flavours for our drinking pleasure. The Calvados-style spirit has just been launched under the name Golden Delicious. Which it is, and quite spectacular if you have one of those little smoke gadgets.

For me, the benchmark for great gins is being able to drink them neat or on the rocks (or in a martini which is pretty much neat gin). Triple Three meets this criteria head-on. “My understanding of gin is of elegance and cleanness in the expression of the flavours,” says Rolf, as we spent a thoroughly delightful morning tasting all of the above. I balked a bit at the grappa, but as they say, if you don’t like it, you just haven’t had the right one yet. Triple Three makes one that has been barrel matured for 10 years…and I am a tiny bit in love with the one called XO.

Rolf has also created something called Distiller’s Cut, using multiple coastal botanicals. Production was limited to 375 bottles at the time; there are 150 left (149 if you subtract the one I have now, which I earned). “Serve it ice ice cold, there’s too much going on if it gets warm,” Rolf cautions. Even so, it’s an explosion in the mouth. “Revisit the glass over time and each time it will give you something different,” he says. “We sell it to people who understand it. Maybe that sounds a bit arrogant but it’s valid.”  

I suggested there be an application or screening process: what tonic would you put with this? The correct answer is no tonic at all. Goodness, it’s entirely unnecessary if you want to truly appreciate it. In fact, when drinking exquisitely and meticulously crafted gins, not a lot of tonic is required at all, neither is it a rule to empty the can nor fill the glass – a mere splash will do it. “You can still taste the gin, the flavour, the work the distiller put in the bottle,” says Rolf. “To marry that with drinkability is the perfect serve.”

Craft gin is a hugely popular term, but often misused. “I get the feeling that to talk about craft is the word people understand but it doesn’t mean anything any more,” says Rolf. “Going back to the history I so often talk about the hands-on approach of technique, the sensitivity of every step we take in our process, and to sum that up in a German word it would be handwerk. 

What I try to get across is that distilling is more than just putting the word craft in front of it. We are very proud of what we have achieved here.”

For more information, click here. Follow on Instagram @triplethreedistillery and check out Rolf’s reels.

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