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Distilling Dreams: A Journey into the Heart of Mhoba Rum

When thinking about rum destinations, South Africa might not be the first one on your mind. However, I’m hoping that your mind might be changed a little by the end of this article.


Eric Kaye, owner of Holmes Cay, and I chat about rum trips on a regular basis. South Africa's Mhoba rum distillery always gets a mention, but it’s far away for a short trip. Somewhere last November he messaged me to say that we should go to Mhoba soon. I agreed, thinking that soon would be in February or March. I was wrong. He wanted to go in December. My plan was to spend a good amount of time with family in the Netherlands that month, so my initial answer was “no can do”. But then I started thinking…….there is a massive benefit to going to South Africa from the Netherlands instead of Canada. No jetlag. It can be a real killer of a short trip. This epiphany instantly convinced me to go.

 

Next up, we had to figure out if they had time for us at Mhoba. I contacted Robert Greaves, owner of Mhoba, with this question. It is at this time I found out that it’s not that easy to get hold of him. He tends to not look at his phone much, he mentioned he loses it at times, and social media isn’t really his thing either. After a few attempts and the help of his wife, I received a response:”Yeah just come over”. Right! That answer wasn’t giving me enough information to start buying a ticket to South Africa yet. If I had lived one hour away from there then it would have been fine. Chatted with Eric, who agreed with me. So, I followed up with a longer message, trying to find out how much time they had for us, knowing that they are super busy. We don’t want to impose and be in the way, at the same time don’t want to travel 10 hours and spend a lot of money if we can’t spend some solid time at Mhoba. Robert called me right after and we had a great chat. He proposed to spend two days at the distillery and two days at a safari. “Would that be ok?” Ok??? That’s more than ok! After Robert confirmed it would be very unlikely for me to be eaten by a lion, I called Eric and we both booked our plane tickets right away. Quickly looked for some affordable accommodations and that was that, trip planned.

 

I left on a Monday morning, on a direct KLM flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg. Arrived there late in the evening. Went to the airport hotel that we booked and found out Eric and Mike Hooker, who's Holmes Cay's sales rep, had gone to bed already. I hung out by the pool for a bit to get rid of all the trip adrenaline and then did the same. After a decent night of sleep, I met up with them at breakfast. Hotel was excellent, especially for the price. Meanwhile, crazy Robert decided that he’d pick us up. It’s four hours one way, so eight hours for him. We mentioned we’d take another flight to a small airport in the area of the distillery, but Robert insisted this would be better, as we could enjoy the views of the countryside during the drive. I loved this, but was slightly embarrassed and feeling guilty by all the time and effort he was putting in picking us up. Super nice of him.    



Beautiful South Africa

The ride from Johannesburg to Malelane was wonderful. South Africa is a beautiful country, with lots of changes in landscape and vegetation. We stopped a couple of times for bathroom visits and snacks. I love checking out what kind of snacks, drinks and food are available in other countries. I hate spending time at the supermarket at home, but very much enjoy it when I’m away. Once we arrived to Malelane, we went to our hotel first, a large mansion turned into a hotel. It had a b&b vibe to it that was very relaxing to me. The location was fantastic. Right on Crocodile River, which is the border of Kruger park. Ever had breakfast while looking out over a river with a family of hippos in it? Me neither, but that’s what happened. Elephants crossing the river in the distance……just insane.  



Breakfast View


After settling into the hotel, Robert picked us up and took us to Mhoba distillery. It’s a beautiful location, surrounded by sugarcane fields and clear evidence of a mining operation, which is the family’s second business. First thing we did was go down to a cane field to witness cane crushing. Robert designed the crusher himself, using parts from a digger. He wasn’t happy with the commercial crusher he had before. Two members of staff were working hard to show us the process. My god that juice was delicious. Such a sweet treat! After a few rounds of crushing, I looked in the barrel and the juice had a nice layer of foam on it, as if it started to ferment already. Robert got a plastic jug and filled it up with juice for daiquiris that evening. Oh yeah!


Cane Crushing

Cane Juice


Robert Greaves


 

Next up, the fermentation tanks. I’ve been to a few distilleries where they have gorgeous stainless steel or wooden fermentation vats. Not at Mhoba. Big green plastic vats, standing outside under a canopy. Is that a bad thing? Not at all! To me this is the real deal just as much as the shiny tanks. I’m a basic kind of guy, so I can enjoy this sort of thing. Plus, who cares what kind of fermentation tank it’s in, as long as it works! And work they do! The smell around there was amazing!


I asked Robert about the fermentation and dunder process:


“We have our regular wild fermented cane juice rum. We don’t add water, nor yeast to the fermentation. We’ll leave it for seven days or a little longer. At that point you can taste it and it will be sour & tart, which means most of the sugar from the sweet cane juice has been consumed by the natural yeast. Our dunder rum is a mix of 30% dunder, which is actually vinasse, and 70% cane juice, which is then fermented. We did experiments with the fermentation time, from one week to eight weeks. I found the sweet spot to be four weeks. This is how we make our high ester rum, which surprisingly is less fruity than our regular rum.”



Cane Juice Fermentation


 

After taking in the wonderful sights and especially smells of the fermentation tanks, we went to the still room, which is tiny….and HOT! There are three pot stills in there that have been designed by Robert. I asked him about the setup and capacity of the stills and how they make their cuts.


“There are three stills. The front is the spirit still. The two in the back are the exact same stills. I call them the stripper twins. They are 500 liters each. The ferment is done in 1000 liter batches which is split between the two stills. The rum then goes straight into 25 liter demijohns. We then taste it all to see what’s worth keeping and what we’ll use it for. That’s where the most personal input in our rum making happens. Obviously the original setup, fermentation details and still design had a lot of my input. But, once that’s done it becomes a repetitive process. However, every batch has a wild component to it that’s unpredictable and slightly different. This means you have to taste each cut of each batch (4 cuts per batch). In most cases one entire batch will go to a barrel or is used as a white rum. Sometimes this is not the case. The heads and tails might be very nice, but cut two and three a bit flat. Those will go to the spirit still (pot 3) to be redistilled to make South African double distillate, pineapple rum or stave aged dark rum. It’s my version of a lighter column still rum, which still has a good sugar cane rum profile, without knocking your socks off. ABV off the still is 85% or a little higher with these rums. The heads and tails would go in a cask or be used as an exciting white rum.

 

The ABV from the stripper stills ranges from 65-70% on average. The cuts are made based on temperature. The bottles where the fresh spirit is collected have a line on the wall behind them. Once the spirit gets to the level of the line, it goes to the next bottle. When the still gets to boiling point temperature, in our case about 94 degrees (not 100 degrees, since they are located 400 meters above sea level, which lowers the boiling point), we stop collecting the spirit, since it’s basically just water.” 



Pot Stills

 


There is a room before the still room and one behind it. The one behind is where the spirit is collected, the one in front is full of demijohns with different cuts of new make spirit. Robert asked if we wanted to try some. Twist my arm! He did warn us that the abv was very high, so we had water on hand to add a few drops (or more) to bring the alcohol down. A massive flavour experience was upon us! All of them somewhat different and all of them tasty in their own way. It sure is a quick method to getting tipsy by the way. To get us fresh and ready for the afternoon tasting session, we had a quick bite to eat.


Capturing New Make Distillate & The Line On The Wall



After lunch we went to an even more exciting place, the ageing warehouse. Protected by fences, alarms and cameras, they call it Alcatraz. The smell in there was gorgeous, as expected. Shaldon Engelbrecht, Robert’s young apprentice, told us he had been cleaning up the warehouse and logging all the casks in a spreadsheet. He said casks were all over the place before we arrived. Shaldon seems to be an incredible asset to the Mhoba team. Young, enthusiastic, smart, eager to learn and willing to work very hard. I got the feeling that Robert feels lucky to have him. His practical approach seems a great match with Robert's less structured creative engineering mind.


Shaldon Carrying a Mhoba Baby

When the tasting started it seemed like a somewhat random affair. We mostly went through rum that had been sitting in ex South African whisky cask. They quickly became our favourites. One good one after the other. Tried one stave aged rum, which I didn’t like, then noticed a cask labeled “Infinity”. That obviously attracted our curiosity. It was an actual infinity cask, containing different batches of rum. Which means it’s not really clear what’s in there. We had to taste it of course. It was great!

 

I asked Robert if there is a plan for the future in regards to cask ageing, and if he’s working towards rum with a certain age, or a certain amount of casks:


“I believe the age statement is a sales pitch only. It’s about how good the juice is. The number is irrelevant to me. Our initial results seem to indicate we have very rapid ageing here, even more than in the Caribbean. My guess on angels share is 10-12% in the first year, 8-10% in the second, depending on the barrel. The South African wine casks we refurbish them and grind a lot off the inside of the cask, which results in about 6mm less wall thickness, which increases the angels share compared to a bourbon barrel for example.

It would be cool to release a 10 year old rum, but I’m not going to hold back a massive amount of rum to achieve this, apart from perhaps a single cask at some point. Not important to me. I want to rely on the liquid, not the number. We have a somewhat unique angle because of being in South Africa and using pure juice, no additives. Other distilleries who might not have that unique proposition need that number more than us, I feel. Another thing I’m worried about is that the rum will be over aged. Transferring it to a tired old cask, like a 12th fill whisky barrel, just to chase a number is not my vibe.”




 


Despite the large amounts of water we were consuming, we were getting a little tipsy at some point and I felt palate fatigue became a real thing. So, we called it a day for the tasting. That didn’t mean we couldn’t keep looking around though. At the bottling plant for example. Mhoba is a true cane to bottle operation. I think most people know their beautiful wooden labels and boxes. It was nice to see how they are produced. Everything in house, including glueing the boxes together, apparently not a favourite job at the distillery. After seeing this part of the company, Robert gave us a ride to our wonderful hotel, so we could spend a couple of hours relaxing.


Mhoba Bottle Boxes


When we got back to Mhoba at the end of the afternoon, Robert and the staff were preparing a braai, a South African barbecue. Massive, juicy pieces of meat were being cooked on a barbecue. Oh my, that looked good. We got to meet some of the staff, who were all super nice. I had some fun with them exchanging words and sentences between Dutch and Afrikaans. That was harder than I thought. I’ve done this exercise before and could understand at least half of what the person was saying in Afrikaans. Not this time! Maybe it’s because of an accent/dialect or it could have been the alcohol intake, as rum and rum cocktails were being served generously with dinner. We all loved experiencing this. Not just seeing a distillery, but also meeting some of the people and getting to know a little about the culture. I love it when that can go hand in hand. It’s a bit similar to my distillery visit in St Lucia in that sense.



South African Braai


 

I was up early the next day, as per usual. Had breakfast while staring and listening to the hippo’s in the river. It’s incredibly relaxing. Robert then picked us up again for our next tasting session. We went straight to Alcatraz and finished trying South African whisky cask and bourbon cask rums, to then switch to the French casks. What a delight again. To my own surprise, I did not prefer the French cask rums over the others. They were good, but I was looking for a bit more of an extreme flavour edge, which the other ones were providing. The words “easy going” don’t really apply to Mhoba rum, however, the French cask rum is more in that direction. A very good, flavourful, easier to drink expression. It’s fantastic. But, if you are in the mood for something that’s more extreme in flavour and has slightly more bite, you have to look at the South African whisky casks.

 

We spent a good couple of hours there, tasting as much as we could. Eric was taking notes on which barrels he might want to purchase for Holmes Cay. Robert then told us we could select two cask samples each to take home. I selected the Infinity cask and WRD5. WRD5 is a Woodford Reserve Double wood cask, which I thought was great. The other guys didn’t like it as much as I did. I was thinking I’d get two small sample bottles. But I was very wrong. Robert gave us full 700ml bottles! Insanely generous. “Oh and do you also want a new make sample?” Twist my arm again and again! Whenever I open that bottle, even my neighbours can smell it!


"Samples"

That was the end of our distillery visit unfortunately, but not the end to our trip though. We spent the next two nights in a wildlife game reserve, going on safari. I wrote something on my personal Facebook page about it and I’m pasting it here, as I can’t describe it better than that.


"I went to South Africa to see Mhoba rum distillery up close. I never planned to be driving around an animal reserve as well. It's been a magical experience. The place we are staying is gorgeous and the drives to see the animals have been out of this world. When we got here yesterday I laid down on the bed, looked in the mirror and started laughing. I realized the absurdity of the situation. Here I was in a beautiful hotel room in Africa, waiting to hop on a car to go see animals in their natural habitat. Then I said to myself:"if you'd been a vodka drinker, you wouldn't have been in Africa now".


On the drive into the bush today we had a series of outstanding animal encounters. A large group of elephants. All super relaxed and not caring at all that we were so close to them. That was so beautiful and relaxing somehow. A leopard up in a tree, eating the last scraps of the impala meal she caught last night. Wow! A very rare sight apparently. Big rhinos, buffalos, crocodiles, birds, hippos etc. Last night the highlight were the lions. We even witnessed a lioness killing a suicide rabbit that almost hopped right into her. I was slightly uncomfortable being around the lions, but I can't deny their beauty. It's a tough world in the bush. All those animals trying to survive, especially at night. Shows how good and easy we have it as humans.


This morning, on our drive in the bush, we stopped at some point to have a warm drink. The tour guides made us some hot chocolate. I stood there reflecting and realizing I'm having a hot chocolate in the middle of the bush in Africa, looking at the mountains on the horizon and thinking.....this is completely unreal. How did this happen? I'm very thankful. My heart is full."


My Hot Chocolate In The Bush Moment




 

I skipped one of the drives into the bush to enjoy the beautiful hotel we were staying at. Spent some time at the pool and then took a bath while looking out over the bush…..and having two drinks on the edge of the bath. Life seemed rather perfect at that moment. Later that evening, Robert, Mike and I tasted a bunch of samples Mike had brought with him. Old rum from a few stellar distilleries, including Long Pond, Worthy Park and DDL. Thing is, we didn't like any of them! I'm not sure what the South African sun, food and Mhoba rum had done to our palates, but this was quite the surprise.


Warm Bath, 2 Drinks, Bush View and Me. Perfect!


I had a few good conversations with Robert while we were relaxing by the pool. I have a feeling he doesn’t have many moments to relax like that, so I didn’t want to fire questions at him for this article. Instead we had a phone interview last week, which was great. Some is included above, the rest is here:


When at the distillery, Robert showed us a beautiful outdoor area, with a massive “pit” in it. There were a couple of stills standing in it. He told us it’s part of a future vision to increase the capacity of the distillery and to make it more tourist friendly. I asked him if there will ever be a visitors centre.


“This might be a fantasy, but I’m hoping we’ll get there at some point. One of our stills failed last week and that has set us back a bit. Next to that, the biggest issue is power in South Africa. Power cuts happen every day. Nobody knows how this will develop, but it’s now fluctuating between 4 and 16 hours a day that the power is off. This is a serious problem when you are trying to run a business, let alone expanding it. We need to figure out how to survive, before we can grow. It’s silly to think about building a big shiny distillery and visitor centre while the power can be off randomly for half the day. It’s not sustainable. I’ve been looking at bio gas and some other renewable energy sources to be able to run generators. Of course I want to build it all myself, but in this case that might not be realistic. Some brilliant people with lots of money behind them haven’t been able to solve this issue. But this needs to be done before we can grow much further.”


Room For Still Expansion


Why is your rum expensive to make?


“Farming. Farming ain’t easy! People, tractors, diesel, cane knives, rubber boots, overalls, gloves, tires, pipes, sprayers, fertilizers. We have to pull weeds, we don’t use pesticides. Our fertilizers are organic, which are freaking expensive. Pulling and digging out weeds and grass is a lot of work. We can’t spray them as it would affect the soil and the bugs that are loving our sugarcane and are part of our terroir. To a large extent they make Mhoba to what it is. Fermentation is vital to making rum. If you have a boring fermentation, you’ll have a boring rum. You can’t distill flavour into boring ferments. We need healthy cane for this to happen. Our cane (2 different kinds) has an exceptional sugar/brix level (26-28). Which provides more food for the natural yeast to eat and produce alcohol. We have to make sure the bugs are happy! There’s a canal behind our cane fields and we have rights to use some of that water to irrigate our fields with, which is amazing for our cane. We have great cane, great bugs and a hot climate for ageing. This is the perfect recipe for some tasty stuff.”   


Do you spend more time on the mining business or rum? 

 

“The mining business was bought by my dad in 1985 and he expanded it substantially. It has been on a decline in the past years unfortunately. The power issue is massive here as well, even more than with the distillery. Giant machinery is being used, which can’t be run on solar power, unless there is very large capital behind it. Luckily the rum business is promising, with increasing interest from overseas. I spend about 70% of my time on rum and 30% with the mine. Unless there is some major problem in the mine that I need to solve and then I’m 100% working in the mine. The rum is where my heart is. My mind is on rum all the time…..and on solving the power issue. The only thing I’d like more than making rum is to build something that makes great rum, or if I could build an energy system that runs on sugar cane and can make rum, that would give me endless amounts of pleasure.”

 

Are you happy living at the distillery?


“I’m very happy living at the distillery. I’m in and out of the house all the time, so I see my family quite a bit. I might have a cup of tea with them in between things. If I wasn’t living here I would hardly see them. Next to that, I’m not sitting in any traffic, I can walk to work. It’s great.”



The Crew. Mike, Robert, Ivar, Eric


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Very nice article and beautiful pictures ! I had the chance to visit Mhoba last November and I was flashed as you were (even if i traveled around 30times to South Africa the last 18 years). Nice that you could enjoy a lekker braai with crew 😊

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30 times! Wow, that's a lot. The rum and the braai were amazing at Mhoba.

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