The most special of South African special releases was launched last year. I went to the source to take a look.
First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2013 edition).
The ability of luxury whiskies and cognacs to command top dollar is a long-established reality, but these days, and actually for quite some time now, everyone seems to be getting in on the act. I was at Hediard some time ago, the famed épicerie on the Place de la Madelaine in Paris, and I noticed bottles of armagnac and calvados with price tags well into the tens of thousands of Rands. Why should the Scots and the French be cornering all of this lavish lucre for themselves? We make a noble aged spirit right here, the finest exponents of which have repeatedly won international awards. So why have we not been partaking? Wait though. It had to come and it has come indeed – behold AU.RA, a ground-breaking South African brandy created by Van Ryn, probably the most celebrated distillery in the country.
I should start by qualifying my rallying – my feelings are less gung-ho than they appear. Who would benefit from brandy at sky-high prices? The distillery and brand owners? The economy as a whole – via its contribution to our tax coffers? The implications for the brandy drinker are not quite so conclusively positive. It’s quite likely that this type of a top tier would drag the rest of the market upwards, or parts of it at the very least, resulting in higher prices largely across the board. On the other hand, compensatingly, it may also amplify the scrutiny applied to quality and innovation – as the industry comes under added pressure to justify incremental premiums. Every cloud has a silver lining, and every silver lining also has a cloud.
Anyhow, onto AU.RA. The unusual (looking if not sounding) name is explained as follows: “an amalgamation of the symbol of gold (Au) and Ra, the ancient Egyptian sun god”. Cute. In attempting to live up to its name AU.RA does indeed radiate with a certain brilliant amber…aura. And I guess that at R14k odd a bottle so it should, maybe with a bit of singing and dancing thrown in too. Well, whilst it may not be able to strike up a tune or do a little jig, AU.RA does have a few tricks of its own. I could argue that the 20YO Van Ryn’s and its KWV counterpart sell for less than a tenth of that price, but that would be neither here nor there. In this league it’s all about rarity and exclusivity, and this fine brandy seems to hold its own: most compellingly it is the oldest South African brandy ever bottled – the youngest component in the blend is 30 years old (the spirit was all distilled between 1972 and 1982) – and the release has been limited to a scant 107 decanters.
On a visit to the Van Ryn’s distillery, where I was hosted to a tour (well worth the trip for the aromas in the maturation cellar alone) and a tasting by the charming Brandy Master Marlene Bester, I decided to look a little further into AU.RA’s supposed rarity and exclusivity. The press release calls it a “once-off editon” that “cannot be repeated”. This is true, but tenuously so. Yes, only the claimed 107 units of this specific blend have been released, but an undisclosed volume of brandy remains in the several casks that were used – to be employed quite likely to create a similar product in the future, depending on AU.RA’s success. This point is worth keeping in mind as one weighs up the purchase, but it doesn’t change the fact that AU.RA is a damned rare, first-of-a-kind, pioneering creation.
It’s almost an inevitability with luxury spirits that one needs to reserve a fair share of the attention for the packaging; in this case as in many others these elements are a bespoke work of art. I was particularly taken with the crystal decanter, hand blown by David Reade – probably because I’m partial to his Murano-style creations, a range of which I recently had the pleasure of viewing at the startlingly impressive Robertson Art Gallery. A solid oak presentation box, and a teardrop neckpiece complete the beautiful ensemble. The only liquor packaging that I’ve seen produced in this country that’s remotely as elaborate was for Malus, an apple spirit produced in Elgin that whilst interesting definitely doesn’t have the same chops as AU.RA.
It’ll be interesting to see how AU.RA performs and whether South African brandy can stake and sustain a claim in this sector of the market. On reflection the initiative can best be described as a courageous foray. The obscure spirits that I mentioned earlier have well developed niches, and the rest of this market is made up of powerful, internationally renowned brands such as Remy Martin, Macallan, Martell and the like. Van Ryn for all its heritage and all its awards is simply not in this class. AU.RA is being targetted at the local market, where the brand has the most traction, but conversely where people are less accustomed at paying these types of prices. Whatever happens it’ll be a watershed initiative.
A sad note in conclusion. During my visit I was given a little booklet which refers to AU.RA somewhat ambitiously as “the epitome of pure perfection”. I am, to my great disappointment, unable to comment on this statement with any authority whatsoever because I never got to taste it. I was informed that there was exactly enough spirit available only for the bottling. Hmm…until the next release that is.