Brandy has been made in our country for more than three and a half centuries, and today South Africa is the fifth largest producer of brandy in the world.
According to the history books, the first brandy distillation took place in the Cape in 1672 when an assistant cook on board a Dutch ship, De Pijl, at anchor in Table Bay, distilled about 1000 litres of Cape wine into 130 litres of brandy. It seems that the cook did a roaring trade selling his brandy to bars whose owners apparently accepted even items of clothing as payment from patrons desperate for a tot.
From these humble beginnings, South African brandy producers went from strength to strength. Today the majority of brandy is consumed locally, but as more and more foreign visitors are exposed to our brandies, the demand for export has grown.
“We have been taught from childhood to regard a good brandy as the best and most perfect product of the vine, and therefore as the crowning achievement of the wine farmer.” – C Louis Leipoldt, South African poet, medical doctor, botanist and amateur chef, 1880 – 1947
The extremely exacting production regulations and quality standards of the South African industry make the South African brandies very attractive to connoisseurs worldwide and the rising number of international awards for excellence shows just how well they are rated. In the last 16 years of the International Wine and Spirit Competition, South African brandies have won the Trophy for Worldwide Brandy no fewer than 14 times.
Made entirely from South African grapes, these brandies are crafted in a range of styles to suit a variety of palates. From herbs and hay which are distinctive in younger brandies, to traces of dried peaches, figs, apples, citrus, Christmas cake, oak and cigar box in those matured up to 20 years.
“Claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero, must drink brandy.” – Samuel Johnson, English poet, critic and writer, 1709 – 1784
The word “brandy” comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, literally meaning “burnt” or “distilled” wine. Brandy is the only alcoholic drink made from another alcoholic drink, namely wine. Brandy is the distillate of the fermented juice of grapes. It contains no other spirit product.
There are two ways of distilling, namely potstill or column still. Potstill is a batch process and column still is a continuous distillation. In South Africa the spirit must, by law, be aged in French oak for a minimum of three years. Lastly, it is blended according to the brandy master’s special recipe and bottled for resale.
There are three styles of brandy:
Blended standard brandy: This style is not as flavoured as a potstill brandy and can be served cold with mixers – which makes it very popular in South Africa. A blended brandy is a blend made of 30% potstilled brandy, aged for a minimum of three years, and 70% unmatured wine spirit produced in a column still. It is bottled at 43% ABV (alcohol by volume) for the South African market and 40% ABV for export.
Vintage brandy: This brandy has a distinctive wood maturation character when compared with potstill and blended brandy. It contains a minimum of 30% potstilled brandy, matured for at least eight years, a maximum of 60% column still spirit, matured for at least eight years, and a maximum of 10% unmatured wine spirits. It is generally served neat, over ice or with a dash of water. It is bottled at 38% ABV. The age listed on the label of the bottle will refer to the vintage of the youngest component in the vintage blend, which is generally the largest portion.
Potstill brandy: This Is the richest and most layered brandy of the three types. Its complexity comes from the rich, fruity aromas concentrated during the potstill distillation and the spicy, vanilla and woody bouquet obtained during wood maturation. Potstill brandy is generally enjoyed neat, with a dash of mineral water or with a block of ice. It must contain a minimum of 90% potstilled brandy, matured for at least three years, and no more than 10% unmatured wine spirits and is bottled at 38% ABV.
Brandy is not a cognac, as the term cognac is reserved exclusively for brandies produced in the Cognac region of south-west France. As with South African potstill brandies, cognacs are produced using a double distillation in copper pot stills and are aged for at least 30 months, although more often between five and 20 years at the time of bottling.
In The Devil’s Dictionary Ambrose Pierce describes brandy as follows:
A cordial composed of:
one part thunder-and-lightning,
one part remorse,
two parts bloody murder,
one part death-hell-and-the-grave, and
four parts … clarified … Satan.
If that is so, then a large portion of South Africans must be sinners!
Fire Water – by South African Brandy Foundation; ISBN 978-0-9802651-1-8