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A Tribute to Pappa Grappa, Who Left His Marc On South Africa's Craft Distilling World

Christian Wilderer, Johan Monnig and all the staff are determined to keep South Africa's Father of Distilling, Helmut Wilderer's legacy alive.

08/03/2017 04:50 SAST | Updated 08/03/2017 15:59 SAST
Wilderer Distillery Grappa

A Tribute to Pappa Grappa

As holder of the first craft distilling license in South Africa, Helmut Wilderer created Wilderer Distillery, a legacy that is being honoured and enhanced by his son Christian and young protégé Johan Monnig. Helmut passed away on December 15, 2016 from cancer, he was 75.

It's an intriguing story of a man's will and determination to create a product and do it his way, overcoming major roadblocks and setbacks, both financial and personal, all the while winning numerous international awards along the way.

I heard his story directly from Christian, his son, who was with him "from the first drop" of grappa produced from the imported German still.

Blame golf

After a very successful career as a restaurateur in Germany, Helmut ended up in South Africa after winning a golfing trip to the country, which he had heard produced excellent wine and food. But no grappa, or at least any that was fit to drink. After spending time on the Rozendal wine farm in Stellenbosch, and after several bottles of excellent red wine with the farm owner, he struck a deal to open a distillery on the farm.

Having zero distilling experience, but with the first ever South African craft distilling license in hand, Helmut proceeded to study and learn from Master distillers around the world. And after just a year of being in business, he won his first (of many) awards for the grappa he was producing.

Christian was just 14 when he and his father settled in South Africa and from the start, was required to work in the distillery, helping with whatever needed to be done. It was a difficult time for them both, butting heads, wills and minds. As soon as he was able, Christian headed to university, then onto a more traditional path in sales, which lasted for a few years. During that time Christian said they had the best relationship they ever had.

A big move

After six years at the Rozendal location, which was strictly a production facility, Wilderer Distillery moved to the current location, with road frontage, offering the opportunity for a tasting room and for visitors to actually see production. It also provided a venue for a restaurant, which Helmut vehemently resisted, coming as he had from that industry in Germany.

But guests, and Christian, prevailed and Pappa Grappa opened, serving a very limited menu which included flammeküeche, a tradition Alsace tart, or pizza, and espresso. Christian said, "He converted the cleaning lady into a pizza chef and the bottling/labeling assistant into a waitress. When there was no one in the restaurant, everyone worked in the cellar. He created a great atmosphere."

For 14 years, Helmut did almost everything himself. "He was a one-man show." He took his little basket around to liquor stores, "to flog a few bottles," Christian recalls.

Susan Colby

The medals kept rolling in, but in South Africa's spirits world, grappa pretty much went unnoticed. There were financial setbacks, like the distribution company going belly up. And staffing problems, "chef drunk on the floor in the kitchen."

Prodigal son returns

By this time, Christian decided it was time for him to return to the family business, with the intention of getting the restaurant back on its feet and to get distribution going. After a few hiccups, "and a lot of grappa,"and with a strong admonishment from his mother's American friend to "Man Up," he did just that.

"We became a great team," he said. And all the while, the medals for grappa, liqueurs and schnapps kept rolling in.

Second location

Four years ago, Wilderer Distillery opened in a second location, in the Spice Route destination near Paarl. Initially, designed as a tasting room where visitors can engage with the whole distilling process, a small 100 litre still was installed and La GrapperiaPizzeria and Bistro opened.

Right around this time, Christian, after a visit to Germany and to a Gin Bar there, (a dark place frequented by people with mustaches, waistcoats and pocket watches) managed to persuade Helmut to produce gin. By convincing Helmut that despite his many grappa and liqueur medals and awards, he, Helmut, was unknown to the distilling world. "Who gives a crap for those international awards?" But by creating a product that has a much wider appeal, he and his legacy would be acknowledged.

Wilderer Fynbos Gin is produced through a double extraction distillation in small batches at the Spice Route location. It includes 27 botanicals, of which 18 are fynbos.

The old fox did it again

It took almost three years to launch Wilderer Fynbos Gin. Right up to the release, he made changes. "Every bottle was opened, emptied and the gin re-distilled," Johan said. The finished product is superb, with the process and recipe "laid into stone so it is very easy for us to carry on."

Susan Colby

Awards for the gin are already coming in, both local and international and Johan recognises that he has big shoes to fill as the now-head distiller.

He was fortunate to be able to work and learn from Helmut for the past two-and-a-half years. Initially working in the Cape Brewing Company at Spice Route, Helmut recruited him and it didn't take long for Johan "to realise this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I developed a passion I didn't know about," he enthused.

But his passion is unmistakable. And his knowledge and understanding of both the process and ingredients are remarkable. He is especially astute about all the botanicals and fynbos as his primary field of education has been in conservation, ecology and animal studies. He has returned to his studies, with emphasis in Oenology.

The legacy continues

Christian Wilderer, with the help of Johan Monnig and all the staff are determined to keep the momentum going and keep South Africa's Father of Distilling, Helmut Wilderer's legacy alive.