Get to know Cape Town-born and bred, Danielle Schoeman who is SA’s youngest female Master Distiller.
She established Dona Distillery in 2019 with the dream to disrupt the industry with custom-built vacuum stills (the only ones in Africa at the time) and an ambitious goal to bring new and exciting spirits to the local and international markets. By 2020 Doña had won multiple awards including the trophy for the Best Low/No-alcohol Drink, Best Ready to Drink, and numerous medals for her spirits at local and international competitions.
Dive into five minutes with Danielle Schoeman of Mahala Botanical Local Capetonian and female Master Distiller extraordinaire and her journey of becoming SA’s youngest female Master Distiller.
As it’s such a male-dominated field, what drew you to the spirits industry?
It is my absolute passion – I never think about the industry being male-dominated – sometimes I struggle with picking up barrels or heavy pipes, but that is why I drive a forklift! There is no reason not to follow your passion. I was fascinated by the spirit industry because I wanted to understand how the process works from a plant or raw material to a finished product in the bottle. The whole process captivates me.
How did you learn to distil spirits?
A lot was self-taught, research, and trial and error. I also learned from industry experts on the job and local farmers about harvesting and growing local botanicals (and how to drive a tractor). I learned from winemakers about different yeasts and fermentation; from other distillers, I learned about the distillation process; and from engineers, about building the skills and programming the equipment.
You won an award for Mahala. How did that come about?
In 2020, Mahala was awarded the prestigious Trophy for Best No/Low Alcohol Spirits at the Michelangelo International Awards. When I entered the competition, Mahalawas in a clear bottle with a handwritten label. Winning the trophy and receiving powerful endorsements validated what I believed about the taste.
When did you realize that alcohol-free was the way to go? Your Aha moment?
It was more of an observation and noticing trends towards health and wellness, realizing that there were very few premium non-alcoholic options available.
What’s been the highlight of your distilling journey?
When someone opens a bottle of Mahala or something that I have created – and they enjoy the taste and share it with friends. Mahala is about inclusivity and bringing people together. We want to offer people who don’t drink alcohol the option of a premium non-alcoholic beverage while still going out and enjoying time with their friends and family.
What are your plans for the brand?
Our current focus is on successfully launching Mahala locally and internationally and continuing to drive wider brand awareness. In the future, we will look to further expand the Mahala range – I have already started developing our second variant!
What challenges did you have along the way?
Covid was a massive setback for us with the alcohol ban in South Africa, we had to change our business model and this allowed me to focus on developing Mahala. Entering into a brand new category is also challenging, we have to do a lot of education around non-alcoholic beverages and teach the consumer on how to drink a non-alcoholic spirit. We have addressed this by focusing on the perfect serve and how to mix Mahala to create your favourite non-alcoholic cocktail. It is very much a hands-on operation – some days I solve complex problems and other days I bottle and stick labels.
What is your favourite botanical?
Citronella pelargonium! I absolutely LOVE this botanical with such a beautifully sharp citrus note with earthy undertones. You will find growing wild in the Western Cape, you might even come across it on your hike up lions head.
What is your favourite Mahala Botanicals cocktail?
I love how the botanicals open up when you add sparkling water. It is very refreshing and low in sugar. On a night out I usually drink the Mahala mule – mahala and ginger ale garnished with lime!
For more information on Mahala visit their website https://mahalabotanical.com to get your hands on their handcrafted spirits
or check out their Instagram page https://www.instagram.com/mahalabotanical/