Reimagining South Africa’s Beloved Spirit 

Date:

Brandy is back – as if it ever really left! The rapidly growing interest in revving distilled wine leaves room to explore all the award-wining spirits we craft in our own backyard.  

By: Inga Sibiya

“Inga, expectation is the root of all disappointment.” My mom regularly comforted me with this mantra growing up. If I did poorly on a test or didn’t land the role I had hoped for when auditioning for theatre productions, I’d get a warm cup of honied milk, a back rub, and this reminder.  

It’s advice I’ve applied diligently; and I’m grateful for all the weird and wonderful experiences I’ve had as a result. So, when myself and nine fellow hospitality personnel pile into a Sprinter heading to Elgin (our first stop on a brandy tour), I have zero expectations besides getting to spend a few days away from the city. 

As a proud whiskey drinker, I’d never considered brandy. Sure, they both have the same inviting amber glow and pair well with the right cigar, but their flavour profiles are worlds apart. It’s thanks to organisations like the Black Cellar Club (BLACC) and SA Brandy Foundation that offer immersive trips to educate budding brandy fundis.  

“This is your opportunity to learn, challenge and interact with the brandies and their makers,” Christelle Reade-Jahn begins once we get to Oude Molen. “No question is stupid because, and I think we can all agree on this, everyone here is eager to learn,” the Director of SA Brandy Foundation assures us, as we settle around tasting tables at our first distillery. 

Heritage and legacy

Danie Pretorius, Oude Molen’s Commercial Manager, initiates the masterclass by explaining that no other country does what South Africans can do with brandy. “It is our heritage and legacy,” the brandy expert explains. Is it any wonder?

This award-winning distillery forms part of a 350-year-old industry that produces brandy which surpasses some of the most decorated cognac labels in the world. That isn’t what Danie wants to dwell on today; he wants to educate us on what sets the art of brandy making apart from other spirits.  

“Gin, you make today and sell it tomorrow. Vodka, you can make today and sell it tonight,” Danie explains. 

What proceeds his wry remark is a detailed explanation of the brandy making process, right down to the fact that Oude Molen refuses to gamble with creating complexity of flavours in the maturation process. “That’s not our style,” Danie insists. Oude Molen perfects the flavours in the foundational phase because they believe that you can’t hide the pitfalls of an inferior product behind years of aging. 
 
As we taste the Oude Molen VS, VSOP and XO respectively, it’s clear why the 112-year-old distillery continues to perform handsomely at The Spirt Masters awards year after year. 

KWV House of Fire

Before we let the libations of the morning get the better of us, we are enroute to the legendary KWV House of Fire. 

As with the previous distillery, Chenin and Colombard are the grapes used to form the base of KWV’s brandies. The brandy is also aged in barrels no larger than 360 litres for no shorter than three years. At first, I think this is a happy coincidence, but Michael Daniels explains that these criteria are standard among local brandies. Our host offers some unique insights, namely, the difference between pot still and blended brandy.

While it would be a shame to give too much away, understanding that both succumb to something called an “angel’s share”, which is the alcohol that evaporates when barrelled, considered an offering to the spirit gods, is utterly charming. 

Heading upstairs for the tasting, ornate bottles decorate a vibrantly coloured table, and I don’t know whether it’s one of the many installations in the brandy house or if I should perch atop one of the knee-high wood risers.  

While sampling the various levels of brandy, Michael teases at the possibility of tasting the KWV Centenary and Nexus 30 YO. Retailing at R110 000 and R250 000 respectively, we all agree that setting our sights on the top-shelf bottles is more of a pipe dream. 

Grande Roche Hotel

Brandy tasting done for the day, we arrive at Grande Roche Hotel, with a few hours to recalibrate before we congregate at the hotel’s swanky restaurant. To whet our beaks, Jared Van Zyl aka Dutchie, beguiles us with his mixology skills. The Cause Effect Head Bartender crafts ‘The Pearl of Paarl’ before our eyes, a cocktail specially created to celebrate Grande Roche’s 30th anniversary. The delicate drink is almost too picturesque to consume… almost. 

Following the cocktail, Christelle ushers us to the dining table where she presents a curated meal that pairs Head Chef Kevin Grobler’s culinary acumen with some of the best brandies of the region. Perfectly portioned plates complemented by bread I’ll only get to experience again in my dreams, washed down with brandy so smooth it’ll talk you into committing a whole manner of sins.

The mouth-watering meal is faultless. After a nightcap with the gang, I decide to turn it – there is still a generous amount of brandy waiting for us on the other side of a few hours’ sleep. 

The Franschhoek Cellar

If KWV has a House of Fire, I’d affectionately name The Franschhoek Cellar a House of Fun. As we arrive, our group makes a beeline for the much-anticipated Old Road Distillery. Nestled behind Backberg’s operations, the recently opened tasting room offers an enviable view of the area – namely Sir Richard Branson’s Mount Rochelle farm, which flanks the property.

Noticing the stars in our eyes, Premium Wine Accounts Executive for DGB and Chairman of BLACC, Wellington Muromba, herds us towards the table for what can only be described as a crash course in brandy tasting.

The teacher turned wine and spirits extraordinaire instantly engages us, asking what we’ve tasted and bringing our attention to flavour notes to look out for. There is a collective lightbulb moment when we come to truly appreciate brandy.  

All too soon, it is home time, but not before we make a turn at the only distillery in the country with a working cooperage onsite. This is one of the reasons Van Ryn’s is considered a museum of distilled wine. Centuries of brandy making traditions have been preserved for our enjoyment.  
Informed by what I’ve just learned at the Old Road Distillery, the tasting at Van Ryn’s is a moreish one.  

In two short days, I’ve tripped and fallen into an infatuation with distilled wine, and I am looking forward to exploring the potential of this unexpected union. On our way out, I purchase a bottle of the 15YO as a commitment to creating a brandy collection of my very own.

The essentials 

Brandy route While there is a standard Western Cape brandy route, not all distilleries are covered along the trail. Visit the best brandy distilleries by going on a guided tour, that way you can drink without worrying about having to drive – unless you’re making use of the spittoon. But where’s the fun in that? sabrandy.co.za 

Staying there If you don’t want to cram multiple tastings into one day, make a weekend of discovering the Western Cape’s brandy route. The Grande Rouche Hotel is perfectly positioned in the heart of the brandy trail and within driving distance of some of the best distilleries in the region. Book directly on granderoche.com 

Getting involved BLACC is a not-for-profit company seeking to make the brandy and spirits industry more racially inclusive. If you’d like to join the organisation, all information can be found on blackcellarclub.com 

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