Tag Archives: brandy

Liquid gifts

A spirit of generosity

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2012 edition).

As it appeared – page 1.

As it appeared – page 2.

I’ve walked into the umpteenth shop only to leave again, short on ideas, long on frustration.  I’d set aside an hour of my busy day, and so far it’s taken three and counting.  It might be Father’s Day, a birthday, Christmas, or any number of other gift-giving occasions.  I just can’t seem to find that appropriate gift without a struggle.  I could resort to a voucher, or just compromise and settle on any old thing, but I can’t bring myself to do it.  It seems so callous; a gift should indicate that one cares enough to invest both money and thought (even if it’s not the case) otherwise it’s all a bit pointless.  This has been an unfortunate recurring episode in my life.  Sound familiar?  Fear not, help, such as it is, is at hand.  There is a genre of gifts that is ubiquitous and generic enough to be expedient, and yet varied and personal enough to convey a fulfilling sense of consideration.  I’m talking about fine spirits of course, the doyens of which are whisky and cognac.   I did a bit of shopping recently (sadly only of the window variety) and identified a few highlights.

Chivas Regal

Royal in both name and stature, Chivas Regal is quite likely the world’s most gifted spirit.  This iconic brand, now well over a double century in existence, has carved for itself an enviable reputation as a supreme purveyor of deluxe whisky.  Millions of people can’t be too far wrong; as a gift Chivas (pronounced shivers without the r) hits all the right notes.  It is flavoursome and interesting to the connoisseur – at the heart of the blend is Strathisla, a single malt from what is said to be the oldest continuously operating distillery in Scotland.  And it is accessible to the novice – its mild, fruity flavour is easily acquired and its pricing, at least for the entry level 12 year old (a smidgen over R200), is entirely reasonable within the premium whisky bracket.

Chivas Regal is available on our shelves as either a 12, 18 and 25 year old.  The former is being offered in a package with two complimentary whisky tumblers during special gifting occasions, and the latter two are available year-round in attractive, top-end presentation boxes.

Remy Martin Louis XIII

If cognacs were stones, this one would be a diamond.  There are some that are more expensive, others that are more popular, and others still that are decked with a brighter glitter, but nothing else possesses the same cachet, shines with the same aura, or enjoys the same acclaim as Remy Martin Louis XIII.  Verbalised by the cognoscenti as “Louis Treize” (French for 13), this brand is an enduring classic.  I’ve seen advertisers gratuitously use the term “a mark of distinction” to peddle their wares.  Remy doesn’t need do this for Louis XIII (and Remy certainly doesn’t peddle).  If ever there was a product that was a mark of distinction then this is it…but it’s an unspoken fact, simply understood where that understanding is required.

Cognac is known for its excessive, some would say over-the-top, packaging.  The Louis Treize was one of the products that blazed this trail.  It has since 1937 been bottled in a Baccarat crystal decanter that itself probably costs more than most other cognacs.  Decadent as this may seem, given that some components in the blend are over a hundred years old, it’s somehow elegantly appropriate.

Pricing is steep – expect to pay in excess of R17 000.  I would perhaps suggest that this a gift to be reserved for those held in the very highest esteem…or for those needing to be convincingly impressed.  The latter might explain why the Remy Treize, along with cognac as a whole, has become so popular in the East, where there is an entrenched gift-giving (and favour currying) culture in the working environment.

Richelieu XO Cognac

Isn’t Richelieu a brandy?  Well, as of last year, the brandy in the age-old French tradition is now offering us an age-old French tradition – cognac.    I’ve had the pleasure of tasting Richelieu XO, and I can report that it is magnificent, demonstrating complex flavours of fruit and spices and a full-bodied, silky mouth-feel.  The liquid is supplied by Richelieu’s stablemate Bisquit, but unlike their VSOP, which I find too cloying, this product manages to be both bold and restrained, each in the right place.

At circa R1600 it’s worth highlighting that it represents good value for an XO cognac.  It might just be the perfect gift for a new father – to accompany the obligatory cigars.

Michel Couvreur 1983

Here’s something one doesn’t see everyday.  Michel Couvreur has launched one of world’s only truly unique whiskies:  a 1983 vintage single cask…which is individually bottled on request.  The bottle comes inscribed with the name of the purchaser, and with the date and time of bottling.  It’s also accompanied by a certificate verifying its authenticity.  The individual bottling process means that each and every bottle will spend a different period of time in wood, and, as a result, will in theory be a different and unique whisky.

Couvreur is a whisky artisan of long standing, based in Burgundy in France, and known in particular for his highly cultivated maturation process, in which he ages Scottish new-make spirit in individually selected Solera sherry casks.  He and his small team are the remnants of an almost-forgotten golden era of whisky craftsmanship.

The Couvreur range of whiskies was launched in South Africa last year and is available in strictly limited quantities.  The 1983 retails for R4999.

Glenmorangie

Glenmorangie is one of the “maisons” in the LVMH group – the world’s largest single owner of luxury brands, and home to epic labels such Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Bulgari.  One would thus expect the guys at Glenmorangie to exhibit a swaggering command when it comes to gifting.  And indeed they don’t disappoint – every year bringing out gift offers that set a benchmark for the industry.  Their latest gift-pack whilst not their best is compelling nonetheless.  It’s a beautifully designed carton containing a bottle of Glenmorangie Original, and a complimentary dinky bottle of Nectar D’Or, an expression from the brand’s pioneering extra matured range (this one specifically was finished in Sauternes casks).

Pricing is at around the R400 mark.

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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…

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/