Tag Archives: brandy

Is brandy bouncing back?

PATRICK LECLEZIO reviews the recent exploits of South Africa’s signature spirit

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2016 Best of the Best edition).

After years of decline the popularity of local brandy has stabilised.  Ostensibly this is the product of fiscal policy, so to speak, but there’s cause for hope and optimism, and to believe in a real recovery beyond.  Shepherded by the South African Brandy Foundation, and driven by the contributions of a group of talented producers and an influx of fresh brands, the drink has taken on a new lustre and a renewed purpose.  There’s a mountain of good work that has been done, and is ongoing, in three areas in particular, and whilst only time will tell if it will be enough to revisit and exceed past glories, the fruits of this labour, deserving of a (pride of) place in any liquor cabinet, speak for themselves.

Brandy definitions

In a similar sense that you are a product of your DNA, so brandy is a product of its definitions, the rules that guide how it is to be made and matured.  I’ve been critical of these in the past, having considered them weaker than those of its peers, whisky and cognac specifically.  Since then though significant, concerted progress has been made in this area.  Brandy has three classifications: blended brandy, vintage brandy and potstill brandy.   The judicious excision of a dubious 10% allowance for spirits that were neither matured nor potstilled from the makeups of the latter two has been a major stride in the right direction.  Whether producers were exploiting it in the past or not, its removal happens to be coinciding with a bright era of excellence for potstills, and it gives us a measure of assurance that things should stay this way.  I wouldn’t be giving a balanced view though if I didn’t admit that problems remain.  The bar for blended brandy is staying comparatively low, stipulating a 30% minimum for matured (3 years or more), potstilled content, in excess of which it seems (I can’t know definitively, but my enquiries suggest as much) few or no producers are venturing.  And who can blame them in a price sensitive market – 3YO potstilled brandy being materially more expensive than the unmatured column-stilled wine spirit that makes up the balance.  It’s a situation though that’s inimical to the true greatness to which this drink aspires and which it deserves.  It means that on average, if you’ll forgive my crude analysis, the liquid in your typical blended brandy is less than a year old, and only one and half in a labelled 5YO.  Younger potstill brandies are available, such as the hearty, robust Kingna 5YO, but these are mostly of this age and its vicinity, and sold at a premium price.   My persisting conclusion is that a gap exists in the definitions, and in the market price-wise, for a fully matured, lighter style of young brandy.   Perhaps this is partly what created space for the precipitous growth of VS cognacs…

Awards

There must be acute despondency in the other brandy producing regions of the world.  Over the last three years, building on an already impressive award-winning track record, South African brandies have made a clean sweep at arguably the world’s two foremost competitions, the International Wine and Spirits Competition and the International Spirits Challenge, taking the best-in-class “Trophy” prizes in each case.   This year’s winner at the latter, the KWV 15YO, perfectly epitomises the evolution of local brandy at the upper end of the spectrum.   It is rich, oh-so-rich, full-bodied, and complex, with notes of husk fruits, oak and spice, delivering on and exceeding expectations for a fine, luxury spirit.  This is a bottle to enjoy at (m)any given moments (not quite any, close though), but pull it out in repose with friends after a fine meal, and you’ll be soon be ascending to an everything-is-right-with-the-world plane of satisfaction.

The industry is still young in marketing itself to the world, and in building and justifying stocks of mature enough liquid to go toe-to-toe with the big boys, but the momentum is gathering.  It’s just a matter of time.  In the interim we local admirers can relish our well-priced access to the world’s most outstanding brandies.

Craft

There’s one phenomenon that’s convincing me of brandy’s resurgence and of its potential to kick-on more than any other, and that’s the explosive proliferation in the “craft” sector of the industry.  There are now dozens of small producers who are putting out audacious, delicious, exceptional offerings, and who are weaving the magic of unique stories to be told, the adventure of new and flavoursome territories to be explored, and the romance of daring exploits to be tasted and experienced, into the tapestry of brandy’s landscape.  The lure of its call is being dialled up exponentially.  I’ve already mentioned Kingna, made by a diesel-mechanic who discovered a passion and skill for brandy-making and consequently turned distiller, but there are so many others.  The coco-nutty  Sumasaré 5YO and the fragrant Boplaas 8YO both made immediate, this-is-special impressions on me, and more recently I discovered the Ladysmith 8YO, a journey of garden aromas, with pods of sweet spice, and rakings of orchard fruits and velvet custard scattered on palate and finish.  The scene is replete with variety – different music each, but merging into a harmonious concerto.  Volumes are small, but that’s not the point.  This is the leading edge of the wedge, representing the wider product, and infusing it with an aura of amplified credibility, vigorous energy, and innovative thinking.  We have the sweet, exciting privilege of being able to embrace this revolution in its infancy.  Long may it last.

If you are or were a brandy drinker or had considered giving it a go this is the time to take another look.  Things are happening, and they merit your attention.  South African brandy has a new mantle, an evolved reputation that’s taken it from being referenced as “karate water” to the elegance of a dedicated drinks trolley, there by request, at the Test Kitchen.   It’s not for nothing.  This new style has a substance of iron to it.  I wouldn’t want to miss out and neither do you.

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As it appeared – p1.

prestige-december-2016-spirits-p2

As it appeared – p2.

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The beating heart of brandy

Alive and well and making a comeback. Patrick Leclezio reports on a proud South African tradition.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2015 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.
I champion the mantra drink better not more. Admittedly this is hardly a ground-breaking proposition, but it’s a wise sentiment by which to live, and it warrants advocation even at the risk of being obvious. Occasionally, I’ll cut loose and tag on or more of better, but that’s another, less responsible story. If you’re in agreement or indeed you’re already following this approach in your consumption of alcoholic beverages, then let me inform you, in case you hadn’t noticed, that you’re living in an unprecedented golden age. We are happily awash with a greater choice of premium drinks than ever before – and that’s an observation that applies equally to our home-grown fare. Rousing stuff! The quality over quantity ethos is an easy sell if the quality is in abundant and varied supply.

A significant contributor to this agreeable state of affairs is the rise of “craft” – the term used to describe independent, small batch production. This is has been particularly evident in beer, where an array of brands such as CBC, Darling, Citizen Alliance, Birkenhead, and the ebullient Jack Black, to name just a few, are offering refreshingly varied, exceptionally flavoursome, and strikingly compelling alternatives to the bland, industrial lagers that have long dominated the market. It’s all the beer I drink now, and not because I’m a hirsute hipster who feels compelled (I’m neither) – but because it’s damned good and well worth the extra cost.

Now unless you’ve been living under a rock I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. You may be less aware however that forging this new frontier shoulder-to-shoulder on the front lines with its malted brethren is South Africa’s signature spirit: brandy.

South African brandy has taken a savage beating in the last decade; it’s saddled with significant problems, yet to be overcome. Things though may be starting to change. The calibre of our potstill brandies, on which increasing emphasis is being placed, is outstanding, and in craft producers, most of whom focus on the potstill style, we have a group of people that is committed to the cause, that is passionate about brandy and about its importance to our legacy, and that has the skill and impetus to make a difference.

I should perhaps rein myself in a touch at this point. Craft doesn’t necessarily mean better. Actually when you consider the comparison in resources between a craft and an industrial producer –a yawning chasm – it’s perhaps surprising that it has anything to offer. Micro-producers however enjoy decisive advantages in that they’re small and unconstrained, which translates into an ability to make something that is special and individual. If they want to use a specific, unusual varietal, grown on a particular patch of land, under the influence of a certain type of climate – no problem. If they want their maturation in first-fill Muscadel casks from a tiny boutique winery – done deal. They just go for it. Special and individual then. These are not insignificant attributes, as any fine spirits aficionado will attest.

A case in point is the Sumaré 5 year old, crafted at Wandsbeck in the Agterkliphoogste area of Robertson. This is as singular a brandy as I’ve ever tasted, spicy and fruity as one might expect, but more strikingly layered by an appealing and unusual (in my experience) coconut flavour. It’s soft and elegant, and whilst a bit thin, perhaps another few years in wood would benefit, it’s nonetheless an outstanding example of the distinctiveness, the individuality, offered by these craft brandies, and a delightful brandy in itself.

Craft brandies are usually associated with a farm, hence also referred to as estate brandies. They are special in both the flavour of the liquid, but also in the flavour that they provide to the brandy environment. Fine spirits are about so much more than the product. They are about the people who make them, about history and heritage, stories and anecdotes, about background, about a place and its visceral energy, the sights, sounds and smells, and about character. We as brandy drinkers and brandy lovers want to know what it is about a product that makes it special. Sumaré distiller Danie Erasmus regales in his story of a near-miss, when a still malfunction caused a fire that almost burned down the historic stillhouse building. The burn marks are still visible on the ceiling, there to be seen and touched and spoken of, a testament to the experience (that we can all enjoy, albeit vicariously) of creating this wonderful brandy. In fact tales of distillery fires and explosions abound. Craft distillation is clearly not for the faint hearted.

I’ve meandered my way through a small corner of this expanding universe. Kingna 5yo, a brandy made by a former diesel mechanic is maybe – I’m using some poetic licence – a reflection of its creator: solid, reliable, and satisfying. It’s not the most subtle or complex brandy, but I can see myself sitting around with friends, enjoying their company over its warm, hearty, full flavoured glow. Grundheim, a 9yo brandy from Oudshoorn, is matured in re-toasted port casks, as evidenced by its mahogany colour and its intense flavour. Mons Ruber, claimant to a history of distillation stretching back to the 1850’s, is old and bold, a 2003 vintage that I found a little unbalanced, but challenging and interesting. The Green Kalahari based Bezalel uses a variety of cultivars, including, rather unusually, red grapes, in making its brandy. It in particular epitomises the concept of terroir that largely defines these estate brandies and sets them apart, with the region’s climate and soils premised to have a deep influence on the product.

There are many others, in a growing list. South Africa has become home to a bona fide and comprehensive brandy route. Any discriminating drinker, any disciple of the better not more philosophy will not be disappointed. You’ve heard of three cheers? Allow me then to propose the brandy customised six cheers – as in clink drink, clink drink, clink drink…and hip hip hoorah.

Big on brandy

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.

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.

Potstill pleasure

I mentioned in an earlier post about pairings that I had recently attended two lunches themed on this format.  The second of these – hosted at the fabulous Pot Luck Club by the SA Brandy Foundation and KWV – was a showcase for the latter’s core range of premium brandies.   I don’t think that they could have chosen a better venue.  The spectacular setting – the restaurant is perched at the “top” of Woodstock and enjoys wraparound views – was outdone only by the exquisite meal (and brandies of course), the highlight of which was a world-beating main course of pork belly with cured apple.  I’ve heard that this fare has become voguish – fully understandable if the general standard is within shouting distance of the Pot Luck Club’s tour de force.

The guys with whom I typically hobnob at most of the liquor events I attend were absent, this being brandy rather than whisky related, so I had the opportunity to make some new acquaintances, including Savile Row and Emily Post aficionado Neil Pendock, whom certain readers may remember fondly – I know I do – from this post, and the affable Alastair Coombe from the blog Brandy and Ginger.

The focus during the lunch seemed to be on the new 12YO, which is admittedly very good (a satisfyingly rich brandy, like its 15YO stable-mate), but my attention was drawn to the less fashionable 10YO – for various reasons: it’s a great, flavoursome brandy (I particularly enjoyed the tart apricot on the palate); it’s been selling at a ridiculously good price (good for us, not sure if it’s so good for KWV or for the standing of premium brandies – we’ll just have to trust that they know what they’re doing); and, most compellingly, it’s signalling a promising shift in the industry.

I’ve written in the past about how I believe that South African brandy is being hampered by the presence of unmatured wine spirits in its compositions.  Well done then to KWV for taking their 10YO and transforming it from vintage to potstill (100% pot distilled, matured brandy).  This is the direction in which the industry should be travelling.   The descriptor “vintage” however still remains on the bottles (and on the tasting notes provided to us at the lunch!) –  I’m told that “they have yet to effect a label change” – which I find puzzling (disquieting?); these types of changes don’t happen overnight and I would have thought KWV would want to shout this out.  Anyhow, stranger things have happened.  The selection – delicious throughout – was completed by the 20YO potstill, which I found to have a deep, layered nose that retreated to softer, more restrained flavours on the palate.

This KWV ensemble is an engaging, interesting range of potstills that demonstrates the excellence of South African brandy.  One day in the not too distant future we’ll be scratching our heads and marvelling at how it could ever have been possible in late 2013 – early 2014 to buy a 10YO and 12YO potstill brandy of such quality for under R200 and R250 respectively (despite having to bear in mind that at 38% ABV versus 43% for most other spirits they should be, simplistically, about 12% cheaper like-for-like).  Brandy might have been struggling of late but if producers can invest in the intrinsics and keep offering this calibre of liquid then the tide will surely turn.

I’ve previously remarked on the good work being done by the SA Brandy Foundation, the co-hosts and organisers of the lunch – which was another feather in their cap.  I may not agree with their emphasis on brandy cocktails (the basis for one of their promotional campaigns), but there’s no arguing with the vigour and dynamism that they’ve injected into the category.  I’d left the event impressed – as I’m sure was the intention, job deservedly done – and replete with positive sentiments, so it’s with some reluctance and discomfort (a mental indigestion – ironic because the lunch sank happily into my depths) that I’m now going to raise a few concerns; unfortunately it’s necessary if I’m to be objective and true to my observations.

I don’t pretend to be comprehensively aware of all of (or even most of) the Foundation’s activities.  I’m sure that there’s a lot of great (and vital) work being done about which I don’t have the slightest inkling – so keep this context in mind. I’ve kept an eye however on its efforts in the area of consumer education, which I had felt to be commendable.  It was sad thus to take note of a few (small, but important in my opinion) recent reversals.

Two matters in particular:

Firstly I noticed this call-out on page eight of the Summer 2013 edition of the Foundation’s magazine (called Angel’s Share).

Now, this is clearly false.  When I queried it, rather than retracting or admitting a mistake, I was told by the Foundation’s spokesperson that “Potstill brandy must be aged for a minimum of three years in casks no larger than 340 litres”.  Somehow the fact that they hadn’t mentioned the word “potstill” didn’t seem to enter the equation. Misleading? Definitely.  Deliberately misleading?  I sincerely hope not.  I think the latter, if it were the case – apart from being just plain wrong – would also be short-sighted and counter-productive in the long-run:  if I was told that a 1.6L car was a 2.5L I’d probably end up being disappointed with its performance.

Secondly I also noticed that the Foundation’s explanations of the classes of South African brandy, as stated on its website and in the magazine, had gone from being brilliantly specific (and to my mind very clear and easy-to-understand) a few months ago to vague-ish, lacking transparency, and, in one case – the definition for vintage brandy – a bit confusing.  With regards to the latter the magazine suggests that these “contain a minimum of 30% potstilled brandy, blended with matured and unmatured wine spirit” whilst the current version of website defines them as “potstill brandy blended with matured wine spirit” (I’ve since been told that the latter is accurate, following an agreement by the industry, but not yet enacted in law – so much like the improvement to potstill brandy that did away with its unmatured component). Now there’s obviously detail in these definitions that could be perceived as unflattering, however the Foundation’s purported reason for how it now portrays them, i.e. the stripping out of much of this detail (you can see this taking place even in the two excerpts I’ve just provided), was simplicity – to deal with “a crisis regarding consumer confusion and apathy”.  I disagree.  Surely the best way to tackle confusion and apathy is better not lesser education.  This is easier said than done of course – I realise that I’m shouting from the stands – but if South African brandy has aspirations to be world-class, which I think it rightfully does, then I don’t think there’s any other way.

These issues though don’t really matter when you’re sitting with a glass of the good stuff in front of you.  My message then to brandy lovers for the new year:  ditch your coke and take the step up to potstill, at least partially.  On the evidence of this showing, and others, you won’t look back.

Are pairings here to stay?

The relatively nascent trend of pairing food with whisky (and now brandy) is all the rage at the moment.  I for one am delighted – a burgeoning friendship between one’s great friends, what could be better?  Moreover chocolate, sincerely one of my very dearest friends, seems to be a popular pairing partner – hooray!  But are pairings just a passing fad or do they have the legs to become a classic consumption ritual?

My two BFF's.

My two BFF’s.

The basic idea with a pairing is synergy.  The flavours of the whisky or brandy (or whatever – other spirits will surely follow if they’re not doing so already) and the food should complement and enhance each other, thus creating a whole that’s more than the sum of the parts.  Interesting, but hardly so revolutionary that I spilled my drink as I jumped up in excitement. Wine has obviously been doing the same thing for millennia.

Pairings fall into two distinct groups – at least in my view of things:  the drink is paired with a meal, and more elaborately, a separate drink is paired with each course of the meal, or food is paired with a drink.  The distinction is a reversal of the primary and subsidiary roles.

My forecast for the former is pessimistic.  Wine, as a meal-accompanying beverage, also plays a lubricating role, which spirits, with their higher alcoholic strength, can’t really hope to fulfil, at least not without a level of dilution that compromises flavour.  I suppose that one could supplement with water, but that’s unwieldy.  People gravitate towards the simple and the natural, and personally I can’t see this becoming habitual – although at the very least it offers an alternative in good company: my uncle’s tut-tutting when I’ve drunk beer instead of wine comes to mind…water off a duck’s back.   Nonetheless, these musings certainly don’t suggest that one couldn’t and shouldn’t enjoy an occasional meal pairing experience.  I recently attended two lunch functions – Checkers LiquorShop at the Bascule and KWV-Brandy Foundation at the Pot Luck Club (more on these shortly) – where the hosts used this platform, quite superbly, to exhibit their offerings.

More promising to me though, as a sustainable, long-term “ritual”, is the latter style of pairing, where the food accompanies the whisky or brandy, not the other way around.  This is effectively a jumped-up, better-thought-out version of snacks-with-drinks. It just works – no further thought required.   I’m still a pairing novice but I can recommend the following:

          cheese and crackers (with almost any whisky depending on the cheese – other than the heavily-peated variety)

          chocolate (also works with a broad base of whiskies)

          oysters (roll out the island whiskies, Islays and Talisker in particular, and hold off on the Tabasco)

          salmon sushi (light, fruity whiskies with a bit of spice – Edradour 10YO would work, as would, funnily enough, Yamazaki 12YO)

          cake (sherry cask whiskies such as Macallan, Glendronach and Aberlour)

I would continue but I’m drooling all over my keyboard.  May the dram be with you!

Beleaguered brandy

What’s happening to South Africa’s signature spirit? PATRICK LECLEZIO looks below the surface.

First published in Prestige Magazine (September 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

There’s a philosophy which suggests that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. I generally subscribe to this type of thinking, be it for political or any other pursuits (in this case spirituous), because I believe it to be true – absolutely – but also, I have to admit, because I’m just a bit of a truculent character. I have in the past been a critic of South African brandy – not because I don’t like it (I do) and not because I have any kind of hidden agenda (I don’t). Simply, I believe that discussion, discourse and dissemination can only do good to the lots of both the brandy industry, and more importantly, the brandy layman; brandy drinkers – former, current and potential – need to be informed and empowered because it’s only through pressure to serve their interests that anything meaningful will get done. Let’s stoke the necessity – it is, as they say, the mother of invention.

The backdrop here, for those you don’t know it, is that local brandy has taken a battering in recent years. It is mired in a downward spiral – with no immediate recovery in sight, despite some encouraging developments (of which details later); its once-majority share of the country’s spirits market has plummeted by approximately 20% (give or take, depending on the source) over the last seven years. I think it’s fair to say that this is a business in crisis.

In a sense, this situation seems rather surprising. Our brandy compares favourably to most others, exceedingly so – consistently winning awards at the world’s most credible spirits competitions; Van Ryn, KWV, and Oude Molen in particular, but by no means exclusively, have flown the flag and flown it high, bagging the prestigious IWSC trophy for worldwide best brandy on no fewer than 11 occasions during the past three decades, quite aside from a plethora of more minor accolades. So what’s the deal? Why is performance on the swigging field not living up to potential on the calligraphed certificates?

I would suggest, perhaps contentiously, that South African brandy’s status relative to foreign brandies is largely irrelevant. The overwhelming bulk of sales are derived from the local market, in which, for all intents and purposes, there isn’t a single one of the theoretically vanquished present for actual vanquishing. These competitors compete for little more than pride and bragging rights.

Rather, the real threat is cross category; and it’s in this context – the measuring up against a drink like whisky, a go-to brown spirits alternative – that the problem becomes evident. As brandy’s fortunes have waned so whisky’s have risen. Broadly this can be – and often is –ascribed to macroeconomic circumstances (the exchange rate in particular making appealing imports such as whisky more affordable), and cyclical fluctuations in consumer choice (the inevitable ebb and flow of trends); and there’s no doubt that these are impacting factors. However there’s an additional Occam’s Razoresque explanation – a reality from which the industry seems to shy – that surely must have occurred to anyone who’s given it any thought: that it may be the case, just maybe, that people are switching because whisky is inherently simply a better drink than brandy.

My logic on this point hinges on one single but vitally important component of the brandy and whisky-making processes: the wood. Let’s start with whisky – and I’m focusing on the Scottish variety because that’s the overwhelming majority of what’s being consumed locally: every drop of any Scotch, be it a grain whisky, a single malt, a blended malt or a blend, can be fully, absolutely, completely relied upon to have been matured (aged) in oak casks for no less than three years. Age matters, and it matters greatly – it is universally acknowledged as the single most important contributing element to the flavour (read ‘quality’) of brown spirits. Conversely, of the three defined types of South African brandy – potstill, vintage and blended – there isn’t one that is legislatively required (yet) to be completely matured; each allows, in what are clearly short-sighted cost concessions, for a proportion of new-make (ie ‘unaged’) spirit. Whisky thus, subjectivities aside, is by definition a superior spirit, and this is something which, by osmosis if not explicitly, has become apparent to an increasingly discriminating and knowledgeable public.

Encouragingly, some attempt has been made to address this problem: two years ago the industry regulated of its own accord to strip this unaged… I’ll call it ‘impediment’… from the constitution of potstill brandies; so all bottlings since that decision have been fully matured. Hooray! But why did it take this crisis, one might reasonably ask, to prompt the initiative? Regardless, it’s certainly a move in the right direction; much is the pity, however, that courage could not be found for more widespread changes. Potstill is a small – but, also encouragingly, growing! – and premium segment of the wider market, so this would have been a relatively easy and painless motion to carry. Vintage brandy is even smaller – as far as I can tell there are only three currently being produced – yet its regulatory makeup remains unchanged. Why?

The guts of the problem, though, reside in the mass-volume Blended sector – where up to 70% of the bottle can be filled virtually straight off the still. The scale of the problem is appreciable. How can this type of product, in this day and age, be expected to compete with blended whisky? It can’t. In my estimation it’s obvious that there’s a tier missing in the brandy hierarchy – ie that of a fully-aged blended brandy – but correcting this might be a step too far for a conservative industry; it would put a spotlight on this ‘weakness’ in their titan brands. A large part of the challenge here is that brandy’s innards have always been kept somewhat defensively shrouded – like a family secret, made shameful more by its guarding than anything else. The typical response I’ve been given when I’ve engaged with stakeholders on the subject of blended brandy is that it’s “designed to be mixed”. This is a nonsensical position, not only because it’s untrue: it’s designed to be cost-effective to produce, the mixing is incidental (ie to make it palatable); but also because it’s hardly flattering – I wouldn’t publicise that I’d designed a drink to have its flavour camouflaged. It’s also a justification that is at odds with almost every product-use image generated by the industry, which shows brandy poured neat or “met ys ja…met ys”. Why not just be forthright? Perhaps the product doesn’t justify the pricing… but that’s just conjecture; I really don’t know.

This attitude is changing to some extent. I’ve been impressed with the education and promotional programmes initiated by the SA Brandy Foundation – although the cocktail malarkey is dubious. Brandy is our signature spirit. It’s part of the fabric of our country. No-one wants to see it fail. Here’s hoping it reclaims lost ground and rises to new heights. Gesondheid!

Brave new world

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).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

Amusing signage at the Van Ryn's distillery.

Amusing signage at the Van Ryn’s distillery.

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.