Riana Macdougall crowned Women Distiller of the Year at the 2020 SA Women’s Wine & Spirit Awards

The fifth SA Women’s Wine & Spirit Awards took place much later than originally anticipated. Michelle Grimbeek, the convenor of judges and her team welcomed the all-women panel on the morning of 19 November at the Nietvoorbij campus in Stellenbosch. A short briefing followed the necessary photo sessions, and then the judges were hard at work.

In partnering with Spiegelau, SA Women’s Wine and Spirit Awards could assure that panellists taste from truly superior stemware. The tasting was done using the Spiegelau Expert Tasting glasses, designed and made for exactly this purpose.

The aim of the annual competition is to find worthy wines, spirits and liqueurs judged by all-female panels, and to award the best products entered.

SA Women’s Wine & Spirit Awards is the only competition solely judged by women to make recommendations on what to buy and is becoming increasingly important as a marketing tool.

Women distiller of the year

Women distillers compete and perform in a male dominated environment, and therefore the SA Women’s Wine & Spirit Awards decided to crown the inaugural Woman Distiller of the Year in 2020. Riana Macdougall is the distiller and owner of The Noble Experiment in Kyalami, Gauteng and a well-deserved trophy winner.

The Noble Experiment is a small artisanal distillery in Kyalami, Gauteng that prides itself in truly craft spirits. The entire distillery was built by Riana and her husband who has stood behind her vision and dream. She currently produces several handcrafted gins, her own brand, and for other brands for whom she distills for on a contract basis. She is the first distiller in South Africa to craft and produce a rhubarb infused gin for the South African gin connoisseurs, as well as first distiller to ferment rice to produce a small batch of Vodka.  Added to the offering there is handcrafted sipping rum currently ageing in oak barrels.

“The best thing about my job is the smelling and the tasting, putting my nose in everything!  I love sharing my story and my passion. To stay on top of the game you constantly need to research international trends adding your own unique spin on them, making them more South African, to represent this beautiful place we call home.

The most challenging aspect of producing a craft gin is putting together the recipe and balancing everything. There is a skill in how you use the natural ingredients together in creating top notes, heart, and base notes.  After you created the product it is about maintaining the consistency, as a small distillery this is sometimes difficult as many of the botanicals used are seasonal.”

We asked Riana a few questions to find out more about this remarkable woman.

Q: Where did you grow up, and what made you go into distilling?

A: I grew up in Kimberley and I dabbled with distillation over the years. It was always a passion of mine. I always had a fantasy of having a distillery, so, it just kind of turned from a hobby into a career.

Q: Where did you study and where did you work before The Noble Experiment?

A: I finished school in Kimberley, started working in corporate business for many years and then started the entrepreneurial route, by venturing into property first, and then in the food industry.  I love flavours, cooking and creating.

Q: What is your role and full title at The Noble Experiment?

A: I am distiller and owner of The Noble Experiment. People’s eyes light up when I mention I am a distiller, usually imagining it to be an exciting and glamourous job. Between the sweat, the intense self-discipline, the mountains of paperwork and cleaning there are few real moments of glamour, but it is a mix to be sure and an exciting profession! 

Q: Where do you see The Noble Experiment in the next five years?

A: I would love to branch out and see my brand in different places, not only in South Africa but around the world. 

Q: What do you think is the single most important characteristic a distiller should have?

A: Patience is not a virtue; it is a necessity. A successful distiller must be a patient person and a developed palate is crucial! 

Q: What do you think is the secret to your own success?

A: The old cliché must be used – hard work and passion. I think it is important to have a vision of where one wants to go and that you have loads of fun on this journey. Combine all of that with the view that there are no limits, and anything can be achieved. 

Q: How is it different being a female in a male dominated industry?

A: The craft industry is unlike other industries; my peers accept and support me regardless of my gender and I sometimes think that the female distillers are secretly admired for our tenacity to operate a distillery.

Q: Where do you think South Africa rates compared to the rest of the world as far as spirits go?

A: Worldwide the craft spirit category is booming. It seems like each week I hear of new distilleries either here in South Africa or in Africa opening.  I think it is great, as consumers are becoming more educated about spirits. I think craft spirits will continue to grow in popularity and volume. With regard to the rest of the world, South African distillers do not have to stand back, there are a number of distilleries making inroads into European markets with great success, and this can be attributed to the South African enthusiasm and determination to produce world class spirits. 

Q: What do you think the trends are for spirit in the coming years?

A: Rum and Whisky will become the next boom in the craft spirit industry, certainly craft Whisky is going to sneak up on the marketplace with some great offerings.

Judging during the 2020 tasting

The 2020 team that made it all possible.
The judges on the wine panel were Lisa du Toit, Wanda Cronje CWM, Tanja Beutler, Erika van Zyl, Esme Groenewald and Nadia Hefer. The judges on the spirit and liqueur panel were Dr Caroline Snyman CWM, Manzi Sishi and Marené de Beer.
We want to thank our partners in making this event possible:

Details about the 2021 SA Women’s Wine & Spirit Awards will be announced in the last week of January 2021.

For enquiries, visit the website at https://www.sawwa.co.za/, or email Sanet at general@sawwa.co.za.