As a lover of whisky I can’t help but take an interest in other fine spirits – I’m a big fan of rum in particular, one of my favourites being Ron Zacapa (pronounced Tha-capa) of Guatemala. Recently however my attention has turned to brandy. Traditionally the mainstay of the local spirits industry, it is currently in crisis. Over the last few years consumers have fled brandy like rats from a sinking ship, finding dry land and refuge in guess what…whisky of course.
Naturally, the first question being asked is why: alarmed stakeholders have frantically been searching for cause and cure. The broad consensus is that whisky is seen as a better class of drink; in painfully overdone marketing-speak, as more “aspirational”. Coupled with that has come a reduction in the price difference – a result of the vagaries of the global economy and macro-economic policy, about which little can be done at an industry level. Most whisky is imported and the strong rand has somewhat reduced the price advantage previously enjoyed by locally produced brandy. These are the obvious superficial insights, but as was drilled into us when I was reading for my MBA, if you want to get to the real truth ask why 5 times.
So why is whisky perceived as better than brandy? There can be no doubt that the Scotch whisky industry in particular has done a great PR job over the last 20 years. They’ve been assisted by having some great raw material with which to work. Whisky is superb drink. It has endless variety, integrity and complexity. So perhaps the solution lies in a brandy make-over. I’m not a brandy expert. I don’t have a market research budget. I’m not up to date with the latest figures. I’m sure great minds have been huddling around conference tables for a while now giving this issue a lot of thought. So I’m entirely allowing for the fact that my analysis is simplistic. Sometimes however things can really be quite simple, and my simple conclusion is that try as you might you just can’t polish a turd.
That may seem like a harsh statement. After all, on the face of it, the quality of South African brandy has a great reputation, with our products consistently winning awards at all the major spirits competitions world-wide. Van Ryn, Oude Molen, and Joseph Barry, to name but three, have flown the flag and flown it high. But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the weak link in this case happens to be the foundation upon which the entire edifice is built. It’s all very well having a champion in your army but he’s not going to win you the war. The guts of this industry are the mass brands – the Klipdrifts, Richelieus, and Wellingtons. They’re the ones responsible for taking the fight to the whisky enemy…and that’s where the problem lies, that’s where the turd is lurking.
People think whisky’s better than brandy because, deep down in its DNA, once the smoke has dispersed and the mirrors have been cleared away, it is better. Let me explain myself, starting with an excerpt from the regulations governing the definition of brandy:
13. Requirements for brandy [7 (1) (b); 27 (1) (a) and (d)] (1) Brandy shall consist of a mixture of not less than 30 per cent, calculated on the basis of absolute alcohol, pot still brandy referred to in regulation 12 to which no grape spirit, wine spirit, spirit or a mixture thereof has been added in terms of regulation 12(2), and not more than 70 per cent, calculated on the basis of absolute alcohol
– (a) wine spirit distilled from the fermented juice of the product of the vine to an alcohol content of at least 60 per cent, which was approved by the board and certified by the board as a spirit produced exclusively from the fermented juice of the product of the vine;
or (b) a spirit which – (i) has been distilled from fermented sugar exclusively obtained from the pulp that remains after the juice has been pressed from grapes, with or without addition of water; (ii) has been distilled to an alcohol content of at least 95 per cent; and (iii) has been approved by the board and been certified by the board as a spirit that has been manufactured exclusively from the product of the vine;
or (c) a mixture of wine spirit referred to in paragraph (a), and spirit referred to in paragraph (b).
Regulation 12, which defines pot still brandy, stipulates that it should be aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak casks. It seems that there is no maturation requirement for the rest. This means that only 30% of the liquor that we drink in popular brands needs to be 3 years old or more. 70% can be new make, non-matured vinous spirits*, sometimes referred to within the industry as “A” spirit almost as if it’s not worth a real name. Compare that to whisky where the youngest component, whatever fraction that might be, MUST be a minimum of 3 years old. Age might not be everything, but as I maintained in the post “Respect for Elders” (https://wordsonwhisky.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/respect-for-elders/) it matters, and it matters greatly. It is universally acknowledged as the single most important element contributing to flavour.
This situation probably arose because at some point in time stakeholders in the brandy industry had lobbied the government to set the bar low, and hand them a decisive cost advantage. Now, in my opinion, it’s coming back to bite them in the arse. There have also been short-cuts taken with the definition of pot still, although there perhaps it’s less of a factor. Regulation 12 goes on to say that a pot still brandy may contain as much as 10% vinous spirits. It’s not clear whether this 10% needs to be matured, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer was a resolute no.
In an era where consumers are becoming increasingly curious about their consumption, and discriminating as a result, these are debilitating disadvantages with which to be shackled. It’s going to take great vision and courage on the part of the industry to correct the problem, and good luck to them. No-one wants to see a home-grown industry fail. In the meantime however we’ll be awash in whisky – more brands and greater variety in larger volume. Now there’s an uplifting sentiment with which to start the week. May the dram be with you!
*Spirit is made from “product of the vine” in column stills i.e. a blending spirit without the character of brandy, often distilled close to neutrality.
For further thoughts on the subject read this: http://wordsonwhisky.com/2013/09/20/beleaguered-brandy/