I don’t think that the emphasis on cocktails is the right way to restore faith in South African brandy. They’re easy-come easy-go, not fostering a relationship with the base spirit itself. And if the barmen serving them are clown incompetent and tortoise slow, it doesn’t help. This was the principle drawback – said and out of the way now – to an otherwise outstanding Brandy Festival 2014 (officially Fine Brandy Fusion), held at the Cape Town Convention Centre recently.
The most encouraging feature of the Festival was the increasing emphasis on pot still brandy. This stuff is the real deal – made in copper pots, as the name suggests, fully matured, and entirely credible. It is as it should be the flag-bearing style for the industry. Brandy is our signature spirit, a spirit that we can claim to be ours more than any other, and in pot still we have an expression of which we can be truly proud.
It became apparent to me as I was touring the exhibitions that there are now four strong mainstream brands each producing a significant range of excellent pot still brandies – not to mention the growing array of boutique creations, which hopefully will be better represented at the Festival in future years. In Van Ryn’s, KWV, Oude Molen and Oude Meester the style is being manifest in a manner befitting its tradition.
My introduction to Oude Meester was perhaps was the most encouraging experience of the evening. This was a brandy to which I hadn’t paid much attention in the past. Despite the Jamie Foxx-fronted reinvention it had always struck me as a bit stale and “ou doos”. Anything but! Oude Meester is the sipping brandy for a new generation. The 8YO “Demant” was perhaps the greatest revelation; bold, fresh and flavoursome, it is an easy-drinking and affordable entre to the genre – a welcoming gateway to the world of pot stills. The brand offers a graduated transition to a 12YO and then to its amazing 18YO – also bold and flavoursome, but evolving a generous measure of complexity that was missing in the more obvious Demant. I highly recommend a lingering acquaintance with these brandies, for novices and aficionados alike.
Oude Molen, since our last interaction, has doubled the size of its family – the impressive René Single Cask and Solera Grand Reserve joining the legendary VOV and the stalwart 100 Reserve – giving brandy lovers an added variety of terrain for exploration. I believe that their distillery in Elgin is well worth a visit too so that’s something to remember next time you’re in apple country and looking for an agreeable diversion.
Maturation at Oude Molen.
Whilst I’m more familiar with both Van Ryn’s and KWV, which offer similarly structured portfolios of pot stills each consisting of 10, 12, 15 and 20 YO’s, than any other brandies this was nonetheless a rare opportunity (and privilege) to taste and compare their ranges side by side. The former’s aggressive flavour profiles contrasted with the more subtle, restrained character of the latter, but both are undoubtedly excellent, and deserving of their positions at the head of the pack.
The Brandy Festival is still in its infancy, so it may well have escaped your notice – if so then make sure you schedule it in your agenda for next year. It’s a must for anyone with so much as a passing interest. Its purpose is evidently to promote education about and consequently the appreciation of brandy, and in that regard it packs a punch – I particularly liked the nosing beakers isolating some of the more typical brandy flavours – but it does so with a velvet glove: the delicious food (really impressive for this type of large public event), the atmospheric décor, and the supplementary entertainment all contribute to make it a big brandified blast of an evening.
I love whisky events – I get to drink interesting whiskies, with my whisky friends, whilst learning a little more about whisky. They tend to occur at cool venues, serving delicious food and playing great music, and usually I’ll leave at the end of these things with an enhanced ability to write meaningfully about whisky and the goings-on in whisky. What’s not to love? Some are better than others of course but on the whole – nothing. Okay okay, push me and I’ll reluctantly admit that many (the majority – tastings excepted) follow a formula of favouring style over substance, enjoyment over education if you will, form over function if I must.
It was refreshing thus, upon accepting an invitation to the launch of Johnnie Walker’s (JW) online profiler, to see that emphasis reversed. Not that this wasn’t fun – it was, but there was a real intent here to impart something more.
JW has for some years now been tilting its “king of flavour” platform. This ostensibly intrinsics-centric approach is sometimes communicated in a somewhat extrinsics-centric manner and could be considered at odds with JW’s other glitzy activities, but there can be no arguing its relevance. To you the whisky lover flavour should be the single most important feature to seek out in a whisky. Do you like it, and if so, what is it about it that you like? The online profiler attempts to answer these questions for you, albeit within the narrow confines of the JW universe.
I was treated to a somewhat upweighted experience – although the general principles are the same as the one you’d find online. It works like this: one is tasked to select two preferred aromas and two preferred tastes (online it’s three) from a wide-ish range of each. My real-life version provided small vials for nosing and small morsels for tasting, whilst online these selections need to made conceptually. An algorithm then processes the selections to determine a match to one of the JW whiskies. There’s also a choice of “vibe” in the form of a music snippet (online you’ll be asked for mood, setting and serving) but I was told that this makes little to no difference to the outcome.
So does this really work? Is the result valid? My match was JW Black Label, which I’d be hard-pressed to agree as my favourite whisky in the JW range; not necessarily a failing on the part of the profiler I guess; its output can only be as good as my inputs, and these types of preferences, for me at least, are not definitive in isolation. Do I prefer the taste of figs or cherries, or the aroma of oak or cut wood in whisky? It’s really impossible to say. I’m as likely to prefer one whisky’s manifestation of fig as I am another’s of cherry. The whole is more than the sum of the parts.
I was struck by a few other concerns. A brand promotion is and should be self-serving by definition, but this facet of it can sometimes be achieved better indirectly. I would have been more grateful to JW for a steer beyond its own products and into the wider world of whisky, but maybe this is something for the next generation profiler. It can also be frustrating (rather than aspirational) to be matched to something that’s beyond your budget – yet there’s nothing to guard against this eventuality.
Where does that leave us? In the real world I suppose – where nothing is perfect. The profiler may not be pin-point precise, and it may have some minor drawbacks, but don’t let this put you off. It is pioneering tool – a great, genuinely value-adding effort, and hopefully the first foray of many, at solving the problem of how to make a whisky purchase decision that’s right for you. Give it a spin at www.meetyourmatchsa.co.za, and may the (right) dram be with you.