Why you should care
It may be sh*t-infused, but it doesn’t taste like sh*t.
One morning about six months ago, Les Ansley was woken up by an “elbow to the back” from his wife, Paula. “Do you think we can make gin from elephant dung?” she whispered urgently.
The question didn’t come entirely out of the blue. The couple had just returned from a safari where they’d learned two important things. One: Elephants have a broad and discerning diet that includes only the tastiest grasses, plants, fruit, twigs, bark and roots. And two: They only digest about 30 percent of their 350-pound daily food intake.
Which, as it turns out, does add quite a bit to a gin. Indlovu gin (indlovu means elephant in several South African languages), the product born from the Ansleys’ pre-dawn conversation, is the world’s first gin to feature “elephant-foraged botanicals.” Golden in color, and distinctly earthy on the palate, it’s smooth enough to drink neat at 11 am (as I found out on a recent Friday morning), but it also likes to mingle with tonic, Cointreau and even coffee beans.
Which is a relief given the obvious possibility of it being as unsatisfying to imbibe as its flagship ingredient. I’m not sure the gin entirely justifies its $50 price tag — some of South Africa’s finest gins hover around the $30 mark — but it’s definitely not a gimmick either.
Every bottle is marked with geographic coordinates denoting where the dung was foraged.
For the first batch, the Ansleys requested a dung sample from where they’d just stayed; it duly arrived in a courier bag marked “Plant Material.” The pair, who are scientists, washed the dung in water, put it through a cleansing process akin to the one used to make borehole water drinkable and air-dried it. The result: a fluffy, strawlike substance. They handed it to a pioneer of craft gin in South Africa, Roger Jorgensen, and — without telling him what was in the bag — asked if they could make gin from it. After giving it a good sniff and even chewing on a couple of strands of elephant-foraged substance, he nodded. Jorgensen has helped “put a lot of gins on the market” in his role as a consultant, he says. But, “every now and again you come across something that’s got a really interesting story to tell,” he adds.
For centuries, elephant dung has been used by Africans to assuage labor pains, cure sinusitis and even quench thirst (as a last resort). Indlovu is not the only alcohol to use poop as its base, but it might be the only one that gives animals the freedom to ad-lib their own recipes. We’ve all heard of kopi luwak (aka civet shit coffee) and Black Ivory Coffee, which is made from beans excreted by Thai elephants. There also is a $645 gin that relies on juniper-reared (pun intended) marmots to do its dirty work and an ancient Korean rice wine that includes human baby feces as an ingredient.
With Jorgensen’s help, the Ansleys came up with a recipe that uses a base gin infused with juniper berries, angelica root and orris root. (This stage of the process is outsourced to a top South African brandy producer.) The elephant-foraged botanicals are added during a second run that Les describes as “dangling a teabag in a steel vat.” Except this teabag is made from cotton, measures about the same size as a soccer ball and is left to brew for 24 to 48 hours.
Every bottle is marked with geographic coordinates denoting where the dung was foraged. All dung sourced thus far has come from the semi-arid Western Cape, but look out for some more exotic poop soon. What won’t change, says Les, is that he and Paula will continue to collect all the dung, under the guidance of a ranger. “It’s loads of fun and a great excuse to visit a game reserve.”
The end result is a rich, rounded drink that reminds me of whiskey — especially when Les tosses a few coffee beans in my glass — but takes on a much more summery air when mixed with tonic or orange juice. Jorgensen says that the elephant-foraged botanicals “bring a fresh hay-like note to the party” without interfering with the juniper and citrus, which, he says, “have got to lead the way.”
Get some: Elephant dung gin
- Where to find it: Indlovu gin is available at hotel bars in South Africa and Namibia, online at Yuppiechef (South Africa only so far) and in duty-free stores at Johannesburg and Cape Town airports.
- How to drink it: Sip it on the rocks or make an “Elephant in the Room” cocktail: Mix 2 ounces of Indlovu gin with a half ounce of Cointreau, a splash of fresh orange juice and 3 ounces of light tonic water. Serve on ice, with a twist of orange peel.
- Good to know: Fifteen percent of profits are donated to Africa Foundation to promote elephant conservation.