Tag Archives: Oude Molen

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!

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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/