Tag Archives: South African brandy industry

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.

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As it appeared – p2.

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.

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.

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/