What’s happening to South Africa’s signature spirit? PATRICK LECLEZIO looks below the surface.
First published in Prestige Magazine (September 2013 edition).
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!