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Chemistry whizz who found calling distilling craft gin

 Senior Distiller Kenya Originals Ian Cheruiyot (right). [File, Standard]

About a year ago, Ian Cheruiyot was making Kombucha - fermented tea. His biggest worry then was keeping the alcohol levels below 0.5 per cent.

Now, the 26-year-old is a master gin distiller making stiff drinks with an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 40 per cent after having diluted down from even 80 per cent.

Cheruiyot is a senior distiller at Kenyan Originals, a craft beverages firm that recently entered the gin market.

"As a child, I liked mixing up and creating things. Chemistry is a science that makes all these possible," he says of his passion.

He studied industrial chemistry at the University of Nairobi where he graduated valedictorian.

His best subject at the campus was formulation chemistry where one gets to experiment and create everything imaginable.

Chemistry, the study of matter and the changes it can undergo, appears as a hard science to many. However, it's all around us with everything we see or taste involving chemistry.

"The simplicity of chemistry is the ability to create things we use in our day-to-day life," chuckles Cheruiyot.

After graduating, Cheruiyot was engaged in soap production working with essential oils, then Kombucha and also had a stint at a beer factory.

"Kombucha gave me insight into working for a start-up. I was tasked with creating flavours and I had to think outside the box. We didn't use concentrate and had to harness flavour from the fruit. I'd say that's been a stepping stone into getting into gin."

Kenyan Originals has been disrupting the alcohol market since 2018 and is now a $10 million (Sh1.18 billion) company with a beverage portfolio - alcoholic and non-alcoholic - of over 10 flavours including ciders, mixers and tonics and iced tea.

The lucrative gin business, which is experiencing a renaissance globally, has been locally dominated by Diageo's EABL which controls both the premium and bottom mass market.

Kenyan Original believes it has a unique proposition in that there's nothing in the spirits space being distilled with real ingredients.

"Most of what we get as distilled products is imported. We are among the first ones to be able to distil and sell in Kenya," says Cheruiyot.

He joined the firm about ten months ago and they are currently producing four gins. These include their entry-level which is the 58 gin (named after the Buru Buru matatu route) retailing at Sh1,300 and taking on Gilbeys.

Their top shelf one is KO at Sh2,300 which is accessible but premium and squares off with Tanqueray, another one by EABL.

Kenyan Originals operates from a go-down in Nairobi's Baba Dogo.

Here, neatly sits a large shiny copper pot where ethanol is infused with botanicals - notably juniper berries - in a distillation process that creates gin.

"Getting the balance right is something very tasking but fun because you get to experiment with a lot of things," says Cheruiyot.

"You get to swing the gin in different directions, it's interesting how many variables you can have."

The satisfying part of the job, he adds, is appeasing the consumer palate.

"At the end of the day you are making a product and it has to be superior and accepted by the market."

Some of their gins have up to 60 variants and there can be over 100 distillations to achieve the right recipe.

The firm sources real botanicals locally, dries and distils the drinks through the copper pot to achieve the various flavours. The only thing they imports are the juniper berries, the main ingredient in gin.

As a distiller, he's part of a team of three, and his job involves plenty of nosing and tasting for quality checks.

He tastes for potency and flavour to ensure the right balance and richness.

"Making gin is an art you must have the right balance of ingredients. Sometimes, it takes you even up to 60 trials to fine-tune everything, sometimes only 10. You must have the right palate to taste the different and distinct variables," he explains.

In essence, he doesn't drink to get drunk but with a mission like a true connoisseur. In his line of work, people assume that he gets constantly high from the gin tasting.

"My background has enabled me to have a good palate. I got a good nose from working with things like essential oils while making soap, working with beverages also helps calibrate your palate."

The first distillation produces potent stuff at 80 per cent ABV. He has to bring it down to unlock the flavours by diluting it to 40 per cent.

Craft beverage production has been rising in the country to serve a curios palate and people who appreciate their drink.

EABL recently commissioned the construction of a Sh1 billion microbrewery at Ruaraka, Nairobi, to serve as an innovation centre for alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. It will consist of a microbrewery, taste room, taproom and a flagship store.

Local gin makers are also discovering the opportunities of local ingredients including the African Juniper.

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