The problem with brandy

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.

Who’s this guy Ron?

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.

Great brandy. Is it really all 10 years old though?

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.

Needs more time in a cask

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.

Hmm…enough said

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/

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5 responses to “The problem with brandy

  1. Comment removed at author’s request

  2. The regulations that you have provided refer to the production of a blended brandy. It is misleading to place these beneath an image of Van Ryn’s 10 year old which is a Vintage brandy. At least 60% of the neutral spirit of a Vintage brandy must be matured on oak for a minimum of 8 years. The Potstill content must also be matured for a minimum of 8 years. In the case of the product you are displaying, the Potstill and spirit content was matured for a minimum of 10 years.

    I can understand your disdain towards the composition of a blended brandy, but I must admit that I find it easier to stomach that on ice than a blended whiskey, especially of American make (American regulations only require a 20% “straight whiskey” content, less than the local Potstill requirement)! The blended brandy surely did some damage to the ‘reputation’ of brandy as an ‘elegant’, ‘sophisticated’ drink. It was designed to be mixed. But once again, you would have to top up a double Bells with a large amount of lemonade before I would even consider drinking it.

    Defining brandy by its blended counterpart is short-sighted. Furthermore, brands such as Richelieu and Klipdrift are not limited to blended brandy products. Similarly, Van Ryn’s- a distillery which has managed an unprecedented hat-trick at the IWSC with its 12-year old Potstill winning the title of World’s Best Brandy 3 times (not to mention the 20 year old Potstill that took the title in 2011) produces a blended brandy, “Viceroy” that surely has a 70% neutral spirit content.

    Although I must agree that Potstill products should not be allowed a 10% blemish, I think that your comparison is generally limited and short-sighted.

    • Thanks for your comment. It’s good to get differing viewpoints.

      My comparison might be limited – I did acknowledge upfront that the analysis was simplistic – but that doesn’t make it any less relevant. It gets to the guts of the matter. Cask maturation is the most important element influencing the flavour (hence quality) of brown spirits. And in that respect whisky – as a defined category – is superior. You personally may not like Bell’s but you can count on the fact that not a drop of it is less than three years old. So the rough edges of the newly distilled spirit have been mellowed by a meaningful period of interaction with wood. That’s simply not the case with all brandy. It may be true that Van Ryn’s, and others, are as old (in their entirety) as is claimed by their labels, but in navigating the category, because of the specific potstill regulations, this can’t be relied upon.

      As to whether my comparison is short-sighted, I don’t agree. I think it’s constructive to put a spotlight on these issues, and to circulate diverse opinions. In a small, small way it may even contribute to change. People want to understand what they’re consuming, and they deserve to know. I think that what’s really short-sighted is the industry’s reluctance to properly educate consumers about its own products and their shortcomings. I’ve also mentioned the achievements of the premium brands in the industry. However the vast majority of the volume comes from the mass, blended variants so it’s only right that these form the focus of any comparison.

      A few other points:

      – You mention that you find blended brandy “easier to stomach…on ice than a blended whiskey, especially of American make”. What American blended whiskeys have you tried to come to this conclusion?

      – You seem to have information which, to the best of my knowledge, is not in the public domain. Are you associated with the industry? If that’s the case then it’s something that you should have declared, given that you’ve expressed a number of subjective opinions (which in such a context might be interpreted differently by readers).

      – You say that blended brandy was “designed to be mixed”. I’m not sure to what end you’re mentioning this point. It’s hardly flattering, in fact quite the opposite. It certainly doesn’t make the comparison more favourable to brandy. I think that blended brandy was designed to be as cheap to make as possible (within reasonable limits). It’s also interesting that all brandy advertisements (Klipdrift, Richelieu…whatever) feature a glass with the product neat or over ice. Never (or very seldom) with coke or any other mixer. If it’s designed to be mixed then why not be explicit about it and show it being mixed? For exactly the reason I’ve just mentioned I would suggest.

  3. That picture of Briggs vs Ibragimov is a metaphor right? For what again?

    It was a terrible fight, as I recall.

    I’m a bourbon drinker, mostly, but I’ve been trying things like armagnac lately. I wonder why there isn’t more high end brandy coming from places like California…

    • I’m not familiar with the fight or the fighters, I just liked the image. It’s not much fun spelling out a metaphor, but ok, you asked. Whisky is the big guy. Brandy is the small guy. Brandy is saddled with a significant disadvantage. Size symbolises maturation.

      Bourbon is great, as is Armagnac, as is trying new things. You’re building a cool repertoire. Wicked.

      Interesting observation about brandy in California. I don’t know anything about it so I’m not even going to try to offer any insight.

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