Haroon Haffajee mixes a gin-base cocktail at The Secret Gin Bar in Durban North
Haroon Haffajee mixes a gin-base cocktail at The Secret Gin Bar in Durban North
Image: Shirley Berko/Cuizine

Gin is in and Mark Elliot has made the juniper-based drink so much cooler by adding a pop-up element to the mix.

His gin garden opened in Durban for October at the popular Lupa restaurant in Durban North and has had the G&T quaffing public, as well as those who just want to be seen in the right place, popping in to choose from almost 40 gins, six tonics, more than a dozen garnishes and an assortment of exotic bitters.

And, in an evening that is as much about theatrics as ingredients, you get to select your glass - balloon, hiball or rocks.

There are almost 40 gins on offer at The Secret Gin Bar
There are almost 40 gins on offer at The Secret Gin Bar
Image: Shirley Berko/Cuizine

Elliot, who was a manager at the iconic Billy the Bums bar many years ago, got the idea for the pop up while in Cape Town.

"While I was there I visited a secret gin bar hidden at the back of a chocolate shop and realised there was nothing like this in Durban."

While sitting at Lupa, a busy Italian restaurant with a separate bar area, it struck him that the space would make a great gin garden - and so The Secret Gin Bar was born.

He partnered with Trilogie, a décor and design studio, for the look, and with Spade Design Centre for the plants to create a gorgeously lush space filled with botanicals.

Elliot then approached Haroon Haffajee, a mixologist with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the world of drink, to come in as front-of-house man for the life of the month-long pop-up.

Haffajee, with a couple of other experienced mixologists, gives customers an education, a performance and a good time.

"We had a couple driving down from Pietermaritzburg last weekend," says Hafajee.

"Believe me, they didn't come all this way just for a drink."

Lots of ice and keep it cold is the secret of a good gin he tells me.

After a chat with enthusiastic barman Luke, I try 031 barrel aged, a Durban distilled gin, with a Fitch and Leedes tonic, a cinnamon quill and a slice of orange.

A couple of drinks later I find my favourite - one of their signature drinks, comprising a double shot of lemon-scented Malfy gin, pink grapefruit and a basil leaf; delicious and lethal.

The world of gin has really opened up in the past few years, says Haffajee. And there is no need to stick to the classic G&T.

"Some people don't like the bitterness of tonic. I advise them to try bitter lemon or ginger ale instead.

"Some people find a gin and soda water refreshing or enjoy it with a dash of elderflower syrup."

Some people don't like the bitterness of tonic [in a G&T]. I advise them to try bitter lemon or ginger ale instead
Haroon Haffajee, mixologist

When it comes to garnishes at The Secret Gin Bar, the position is the more creative the better - from black pepper to star anise, rosemary to curry leaves, strawberry to lemon zest.

Bitters add to the world of possibility with rhubarb, peach, wormwood and fennel.

Durban is ready for this, says Elliot. It's a smart business model with all partners working and benefiting. Being a temporary set-up, the risk is low.He is not sure where the bar will pop up next. And if he knew, he wouldn't tell.

"We have been offered a number of venues and we have had requests to appear at private functions. The public will have to follow us on Facebook to find out where we will be next."

This article was originally published in The Times.

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