Inside the bottle

Dipping into the definitions of drinks

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2012 edition).

An aside:  The guys at Prestige Magazine have asked me to write a second column, on spirits in general, and this is the first attempt.  This column will feature whisky on the rare occasion, but it will be more focused on other spirits so that they too get some coverage.

As it appeared,

When I was offered a column writing about distilled spirits, I thought that I’d start at the beginning.  A singing nun once convinced me that this might be a very good place to start.  Sage advice – one never knows what one might otherwise miss.   The beginning in this case is not doe (as in a female deer, get it now…?) but definition.  I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that without the ability to define our society would be in utter chaos.    The definition of the world and its phenomena are the basic blocks upon which order, understanding, and communication, veritable bastions of civilization, are built.   What, one might well ask, does this portentous declaration have to do with the somewhat less solemn subject of liquor?  The implications might not be quite so all-encompassing but nonetheless, in a local context, the definitions for spirits, as enshrined in the Liquor Products Act 60 of 1989 and subsequent amendments (henceforth “the regulations”), are a treasure trove of interest for both the aficionado and the casual observer.

Two of the major players, vodka and brandy, between them command a huge swathe of the South African market.  Let’s take a tour.

Vodka

I think vodka and potatoes come to mind.  Is Vodka actually made from potatoes, as is widely believed?  Not necessarily; in fact the regulations allow for vodka to be made from any vegetable matter.  It is easily the most indiscriminate of spirits, with its come-one-come-all rallying cry.  Ironically there isn’t a single potato vodka commonly available in South Africa, not counting the sparsely distributed Chopin and others of that ilk.

Vodka originated in Poland and Russia – the lore of the potato vodka actually came out of Poland (sad then in a sense that Belvedere and Wyborowa, its most eminent scions, are made from rye and not potatoes) – and these two countries historically dominated vodka production.  In previous generations vodka had to be Polish or Russian for it to be considered credible.  The regulations, which derive from convention in this regard, dictate that vodka should “not have any distinctive characteristic, aroma, taste or colour”.  It is essentially a simple, almost neutral product, and one which is therefore easy to produce.

As a result, vodka has in recent times undergone somewhat of a de-mystification.  The success of a brand is often dependent on marketing more than any production expertise or heritage, thus creating an arena where style tends to trump substance…although purists may well disagree.    I say this without a shred of disparagement – style has its merits and is obviously important.   It’s always useful however to be explicitly aware of what it is for which one is paying, and with vodka, more so than other spirits, the active ingredient is image.  Blockbuster brands have emerged out of Finland (Finlandia), Sweden (Absolut), France (Grey Goose, Ciroc), Holland (Ketel One), and, at the extreme end of unlikely, New Zealand (42Below).  Absolut in particular has been the poster child for this new wave, blazing an advertising-orchestrated path to the vaunted position of world’s best-selling premium vodka.

A last word.  On closer examination of the regulations I was particularly struck by one of the stipulations: that a vodka must be produced “in a rectifying or fractionating column” i.e. a column still.  How then is Smirnoff Black Label (recently rebranded Small Batch no. 55 or somesuch), flagship of the world’s largest vodka brand and a product of pot-still provenance, being so prominently sold as a vodka in South Africa?  Have they somehow snuck an oversized set of studs past the referee?  Food for thought…

Brandy

Historically the mainstay of the local spirits industry, brandy has been in crisis for the past several years.  Consumers have fled like rats from a sinking ship, finding refuge in whisky primarily, but also in rum and other products.  Naturally, the question being asked is why, and the broad consensus, somewhat unhelpful in itself, is that whisky is seen as a better class of drink, as more aspirational.

So why then is whisky perceived as superior to brandy?  It may come as no surprise that an answer can to be found at the beginning – in the regulations;  very simply: whisky is better than brandy by definition.

It’s generally acknowledged that the quality of a brown spirit improves with maturation in oak casks, usually referred to as ageing.  On a like-for-like basis, and to a certain point, the (sometimes hotly disputed) rule is: the older the better.  In this regard the regulations state that a whisky, any whisky, must be aged in its entirety for a minimum of three years before it can legally be sold as a whisky in our country.

These regulations however are played out on an uneven field.  Brandy, which is locally produced, has been handed a few massive – one might be tempted to say unfair – advantages.  Most significantly the vast majority of the liquid in popular brandies is immature new-make spirit, bottled virtually straight off the still.  Only 30% of a blended brandy is required to be aged.   This situation probably arose because at some point in time stakeholders in the brandy industry had lobbied the authorities to set the bar low and thereby hand them a preferential cost platform…or maybe it wasn’t quite so conspiratorial, may this was just how things naturally evolved.  Whichever, it now appears that the advantage has boomeranged and come back to bite the industry in the arse.

In an era when the spirits drinking public is becoming increasingly curious about their consumption, and discriminating as a result, this is a debilitating predicament.  Brandy is saddled with an image problem that’s rooted deep down in its DNA, in its very definition.  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 stacked.  Only time will tell whether brandy can rekindle its former glory.   If anyone were to ask I could suggest where it should start…

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