Rooibos in alcoholic beverages

Rooibos In Alcoholic Beverages: An Overview

Historically, the popularity of rooibos as a herbal tea originated in its homeland, South Africa, and expanded over time to the rest of the world. As interest and awareness grew over the years that followed, the use of rooibos in other applications followed in its wake as its health-giving properties became known internationally. In more recent years, broader awareness of the potential of rooibos to be used in innovative new ways has continued to grow, and amongst these are the use of rooibos in alcoholic beverages.

In this article, we provide an overview of the innovations taking place in this sector, and share examples of these as a follow-up to our earlier article on Rooibos In The Beverage And Wellness Sectors, published here in 2021.

We also provide a breakdown of the variety of new alcoholic drinks containing rooibos by type, which is necessary in light of the explosion of this kind of beverage over the last two years. Whilst the picture in 2021 consisted of a few examples of craft beers, gins and liqueurs, as of early 2024 the variety and number has increased to the extent that there are now dozens more examples, as well as in new categories of rooibos in alcoholic beverages.

From rooibos wines in South Africa and on to a growing list of aperitifs, spirits and RTDs elsewhere in the world, it is evident that this is a picture that is constantly changing and diversifying. Driving the use of rooibos in alcoholic beverages is a global trend for makers and brands to seek out interesting and lesser-known types of floral and herbal ingredients. In turn, this has led to experimentation with rooibos to meet what appears to be a growing global appetite in the alcoholic drinks marketplace.

On the move: rooibos beyond herbal tea

With its naturally sweet, nutty, and slightly smoky notes, makers of alcoholic drinks – as well as bartenders and mixologists – have naturally been drawn to rooibos for its versatility and ability to complement various spirits. This versatility has driven interest in experimentation, at the level of mixologists seeking out exciting new pairings for cocktails, and further upstream in the world of brewers, distillers and increasingly, among brands creating ready-mixed  RTDs. 

This growth points to an interesting new frontier for rooibos which rides on its reputation as an ideal base ingredient in beverages, and one which brings with it certain aspects of a functional beverage that provides health benefits.

Taking this further, makers of alcoholic beverages have begun to investigate the chemistry of rooibos, and their experiments have begun to yield interesting and promising results. Among the foremost examples of innovation in this area is the use of rooibos in wine. 

Rooibos in wine: a natural pairing

With its naturally amber-to-red colouration and a flavour profile that is somewhat woody, slightly sweet and fruity, the organoleptic qualities of rooibos make for a logical point of interest for winemakers. Red wines are particularly good match for this flavour and colour profile, to the extent that in assessing red wines, sommeliers have been noted to make mention of ‘overtones of rooibos’ in red wines from a variety of regions. However it is in the potential for rooibos to act as a preservative that has spurred on investigation of its use in viticulture, as rooibos contains chemicals that make it possible for winemakers to forego the use of sulphites.

With South Africa’s wine industry having a history that extends as far back as the late 1700s, and with the rooibos region (the only area of the world that it grows) lying in the same province, it comes as no surprise that experimentation with it in wine would come about. As winemakers have explored this unusual application of rooibos in alcoholic beverages, their research has identified that Aspalathin is at the heart of the antioxidant properties that make sulphur-free wines possible.  

In 2014 the Audacia wine label was the first to market with this innovation, breaking new ground by utilising rooibos in the production of a red wine. As a result, they were able to market their Merlot as sulphite-free, a point of distinction that appeals to a growing body of wine lovers who are either allergic to sulphur, or seek out wines made as organically as possible.

In the process, the label was able to establish its product as ‘hangover-free’, as a point of interest to those who have an adverse reaction to the sulphur usually used by winemakers in order to prevent wine from spoiling in the vat. In addition, by creating the wine naturally instead of resorting to the use of sulphites as an intervention, the taste of the cultivars used is preserved.

An additional benefit of the use of rooibos in wine production is that the delicate fresh and fruity notes of red wine are enhanced, due to rooibos adding its own sweet berry flavours during the fermentation process. Interestingly, this organoleptic aspect has seen the Stellar Organics winery, whose vineyards are located in the rooibos-growing region, create a Dessert Muscat wine from grapes that are dried on rooibos straw to impart its distinctive flavours prior to pressing.

Following on the groundbreaking introduction of a rooibos-wooded wine by Audacia, the label has since added a Rooibos Wooded Premium Red to its range. Other winemakers have taken note, and as a result more rooibos wines are now coming to market. These now include one of South Africa’s largest wine companies, KWV, whose Earth’s Essence range features a rooibos Pinotage.

With these wines having won awards internationally and generating interest from lovers of organic wines, this is an application of rooibos that could be reasonably expected to show growth as further development and research take place on a commercial scale.

Gin botanicals including rooibos

Rooibos gins: naturally bold botanical experimentation

With winemakers and distillers often found under the same roof or collaborating in the creation of fortified wines and spirits, so the use of rooibos in alcoholic beverages such as spirits has followed on naturally from its use in wine.

In the same manner, with gin having its roots in the use of botanicals to provide herbal and floral notes to its flavour profile, it was perhaps inevitable that the investigation of rooibos in the making of gins would come about.

In keeping with the boom in the creation of craft gins worldwide, so the search for botanical ingredients has seen rooibos come to the fore. The result, much like the trajectory of rooibos in wine, has seen initial products being brought to market by South African distillers and increasingly by makers elsewhere in the world.

As a notable standout, the gin sector appears to be where the greatest amount of experimentation and uptake in terms of the use of rooibos in alcoholic beverages is taking place.

As of early 2024, our investigation of this category of gins shows that there are now upwards of 20 different types of rooibos-based gins on the market – and of these, South African gins unsurprisingly consist of the greatest number. That said, a growing number of gins from elsewhere in the world are now making inroads into a market which is highly competitive and has long been distinguished by its innovative use of botanical ingredients.

Whether as a primary flavour ingredient, or in combination with complementary botanicals such as honeybush, buchu (another indigenous South African botanical much sought-after by distillers) and fruity ingredients such as citrus, rooibos now looks to be taking place as a staple in the production of gins globally. And as a natural and logical choice of botanical, early adoption was first seen amongst the burgeoning number of commercial and craft gin makers in South Africa.  

Rooibos gins from south africa

Among the leading South African gins which prominently feature rooibos as a primary ingredient or in combination with other fynbos species of plants are Inverroche Gin, whose Amber variant remains one of the most highly-awarded gins in the country (and indeed elsewhere). In the same vein, early craft gin brands such as Cape Town Gin Co and Woodstock Gin were also amongst the first to turn to rooibos as a local ingredient that is perfectly suited to the creation of gins with distinctive floral and botanical notes. 

Rooibos in South African gins

Following suit and in keeping with the growth of the gin category in South Africa, are a flush of newcomers to the category. Some of these, like Blomendahl Gin and Cruxland Gin (a label within the KWV stable), have their roots in well-established and highly-awarded wineries.

Others such as East End Beverage Co, New Harbour, Copper Republic, Flivver and Still Oaky have risen to prominence as small-batch distillers who appeal to a niche market and wear their experimentation proudly on their sleeve. Whether combined with pairings such as grapefruit, honey, blood orange or buchu, these are quintessentially South African gins that highlight rooibos as an ingredient both to leverage interest in rooibos, and also simply on the basis of its suitability as a botanical.

Gins with rooibos

Further abroad, the landscape of rooibos gins has grown in step with the popularity and expansion of craft gins in general as a sector. Notable examples in this area consist of two new gins from Australia, consisting of Suffoir, and rival label Glenbosch – and whilst the USA does not have a significant history as a major gin-producing country, the Xplorer brand has recently brought its rooibos-flavoured gin to the North American market.   

In the area of the UK and Europe, a taste for both gin and experimentation has seen new gin labels embracing the use of rooibos. In the UK, notable examples include Pangolin Gin, Matopos London Dry and Brentingby, whose gin blends the taste of rooibos and baobab to create a pink gin. Across the English Channel in the Netherlands (the original home of gin), the Beek label has expanded its range with a new variant in the form of its Rooibos Gin.

Rooibos Vermouth

A growing taste for rooibos apéritifs (and liqueurs)

Being a regional speciality, it is again in South Africa that the use of rooibos has been pioneered in sherry, port, and an expanding range of liqueurs and spirit apéritifs. Notable in this area is the rooibos-infused Ruby Vermouth by the Klawer label.

However, as with the growth in popularity of rooibos generally across the globe, the development of apéritifs and liqueurs that make use of rooibos in their primary or secondary phases of creation is not limited to South Africa.

Rather, it appears that the well-established culture of drinking apéritifs in Europe and the UK has driven interest in the novel inclusion of rooibos in the formulation of these popular drinks. In this area, with rooibos’ amber to red colouration and botanical organoleptic profile being an ideal match for the colour and taste of apéritifs is an asset, and makes it a natural choice for makers experimenting with new ideas and ingredients.

In line with the use of botanical ingredients in gin, so the use of rooibos in alcoholic beverages such as those designed to aid digestion has also seen growth. With the appetite for apéritifs in the EU market particularly robust, makers in this area consist of two main sources: those produced in South Africa and exported, and those made in the EU using imported rooibos as an ingredient.

On the back of South African palates growing more adventurous, a number of makers have expanded their ranges to include apéritifs and liqueurs, with these often including rooibos. Examples of expansion in this category include Toor Whisky Apéritif, Spirit of Rooibos, Wildebraam Wild Tea Liqueur, Distillery 031’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, and Harry Hartman’s Ginette Rooibos Gin Apéritif. With direct access to rooibos producers, it could be reasonably anticipated that this market segment in the South African liquor industry may yet produce many more variations on this theme. 

Rooibos Spirit Aperitifs and Liqueurs

Beyond this emerging African cluster of rooibos apéritifs and liqueurs, markets in the EU and USA – and as with gins, Australia – are also seeing makers using rooibos in the creation of digestifs and cocktail bases. Among these are Isautier, whole Guava Rooibos liqueur is made in Reunion and shipped to France, which is also where the noble Cartron winemaking family of Burgundy have produced their Cartron T Rooibos Liqueur. Not to be outdone, in the Lyon region the L’ Aperitif De Lyons company has recently added a rooibos product to their range, with it being awarded two gold medals in 2023 as an outstanding newcomer.  

Worth mention in this category – and though in fact alcohol-free – is Australia’s Etota apéritif, which features rooibos prominently amongst its ingredients and has won numerous awards over the last two years. 

Rooibos in spirit aperitifs

In the UK, and in keeping with the burgeoning consumer interest in liqueurs, three new niche products have come to market, consisting of a rooibos Tea Leaf Liqueur from craft distiller Lover Fighter, a bottled Rooibos Cocktail liqueur from premium brand Map Lab, and a pineapple and rooibos rooibos apéritif from eminent distiller, Silver Circle, whose Paradiso Collins product became a feature of many summer events in the region.

Further afield, in Australia, the Teaka brand has kept pace with this growing trend, by introducing a Rooibos and Lemon Liqueur.    

Mixing it up: Rooibos in hard RTD beverages 

As a beverage category, RTD mixers have taken off in a huge way globally, with prominent liquor and soft drink brands leading the way by partnering in mixers such as Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola, or similar variations that combine popular mixes such as rum and cola, gin and tonic – and also cocktails such as mojitos.

Included in this category are spirit and wine coolers, hard seltzers (also known as ‘adult seltzers’), and the recent innovation of ‘hard ice tea’. Taking off initially in the USA, these ready-made mixers are increasingly popular in the UK and EU markets, with many dozens of new combinations coming to market either from well-established alcohol brands as well as newcomers. Once again, thanks to its compatibility with a wide range of pairing ingredients, this is another segment in which rooibos is finding much favour.

In North America, rooibos in alcoholic beverages as an innovation has been relatively slow to penetrate what is a fiercely competitive liquor sector. This, despite rooibos becoming better known in ice teas and enjoying an uptick as a base ingredient in ready-to-drink juices and soft drinks.

However, in recent years this picture has begun to change. Among the products that are seeing growth in the US are novel combinations of rooibos with spirits in the form of RTD mixers. These include the COIT range of rooibos mixed with gin, vodka, rum, mescal and whiskey, all available in a can, with the gin variant featuring Cape Town Gin Co’s product.

Ready to drink rooibos beverages containing alcohol

Adding to the spread of the footprint of hard rooibos drinks are the competing Red Saint and Red Pearl brands, both of which position themselves as a rooibos spirit cocktail. In Canada, Provincial Spirits is producing a rooibos chamomile gin & tonic cocktail, and in an interesting spin, the Hohly Water brand in Australia has introduced a ‘hopped rooibos’ seltzer.

Making the most of what seems to be a huge consumer appetite for drinks of this type in South Africa, a number of new hard mixer brands have emerged in the past two years. Of these, some are imports from elsewhere in the world or made under licence, but local entrepreneurs are also meeting the demand by developing their own products.

Ready to drink rooibos cocktails

Among these is the Teazy range of hard ice teas that makes use of rooibos, as does the Sprix range, which is available in South Africa and also EU and US markets – and recently, the Rivva  brand has introduced a rooibos hard seltzer. Competing for shelf space and consumer attention is the Meander brand of wine coolers, which also combine rooibos with other herbal and botanical ingredients. 

With the trend for mixers, hard RTDs and ice teas showing no sign of slowing down, this is a category that holds promise as a new frontier of expansion, and bodes well in terms of having a positive effect on the global consumption of rooibos tea as a raw ingredient. 

Brewing up a red wave: Rooibos in Beers and Ciders

In keeping with the ongoing global interest in craft beers, and perfectly aligned to the inclusion of exotic ingredients that the industry is known for, rooibos has found favour in the form of a number of rooibos-infused lagers, IPAs, pilseners.

Rooibos beers and ales

With craft beers and microbreweries being at an all-time high in North America, the UK and Europe, these regions have seen a great deal of bold experimentation with botanicals that can complement the flavour profile of lagers, IPAs and ales. Pioneering the use of rooibos in beer, the Marz brewery in the US was amongst the first to bring a rooibos American Pale ale to market, in 2020.

In its wake, numerous microbrewers have added to the variety now available in the US and Canada, and these include The Gathering’s Rooibos German Lager, Echo Sessions’ Double Rooibos Ale and Bush Fire’s Rooibos-Honeybush beer.

Rooibos in beer and IPA

Over the Atlantic, brewers have similarly taken up the opportunity and the results are a varied spread of beers that often includes red ales, to which rooibos adds a deep amber hue during the brewing process.

In Italy, Birra Arcadia has brought out two Rooibos Ales, and in Portugal the Bolina Latta microbrewery has recently created a David Bowie-themed red ‘Rebel Rebel’ rooibos beer. Adding to the number of European and UK brews being coloured and flavoured by rooibos are Red Planet’s rooibos Pale Ale,  Drygate’s Secret Commonwealth Red Ale in Scotland, and ARRR! Beer Co’s Red Rooibos IPA in the The Netherlands.

Looking to Asia, which has long been a region which has historically showed great interest in rooibos tea, there are two interesting new beers containing rooibos: in Hong Kong, the Tai Wai Brewery has developed a rooibos porter, and in Japan the Tea Life brand has created its own rooibos beer.

 

Rooibos in beer and cider

Here in South Africa, brewers have not rested on their laurels, with the country seeing a number of new rooibos-based beers and ales coming to market in the last ten years.

These include the early forerunners of today’s craft beer industry such as Stellenbrau (whose Governor’s Red was marketed as ‘the world’s first rooibos beer’ in 2014) and also Impi Brewing, whose Saison makes the most of the fruity and sweet elements found in rooibos’ flavour.   

The use of rooibos in pale ales appears to be a particularly good fit, as is evident from a collaboration between Devil’s Peak brewery in Cape Town and Gipsy Hill, who have created a Rooibos Pale Ale, as has the Featherstone Brewery, with their Bell Ringer ale. Adding some variety to the picture, new arrival Folk & Goode have brought out a limited edition Rooibos Weiss Beer.

Interestingly, the cider category is one which appears to be relatively slow to adopt rooibos as a flavour ingredient – but this is a changing picture, and new products such as Tolokazi’s Rooibos Berry Cider, and also Windemere Rooibos Wooded Cider, joining a growing number of locally-made apple and pear cider products.

A thriving global thirst for rooibos

As we have shown, the global appetite for rooibos in alcoholic beverages has expanded significantly, is evidently robust, and continues to develop both in terms of innovation and market share in a variety of categories. For an ingredient competing on the global stage against a wide range of other botanicals, this is an impressive achievement, and one which shows no signs of slowing down.

As the production of new forms of alcoholic beverages that include rooibos continues to grow, this points to a growing global familiarity with rooibos in general in the marketplace. For the humble red bush from the Cederberg, this will likely have a positive knock-on effect for rooibos overall and will likely spur on investigation of rooibos in its original form as a herbal tea, and potentially in other novel applications that are yet to come to light.

A world with a thirst for rooibos? We’ll raise a toast to that.

This article is the latest in a series designed to provide tea industry buyers and brands with accessible reference material on rooibos tea. For further overviews of various aspects of the rooibos industry and rooibos as a herbal tisane, see these other articles here on our website: