I always forget about brandy. I am not sure why, but there have been many times when I’ve been standing at a bar not wanting wine – okay not that many – or beer, and just felt like a slow, straight spirit. I end up choosing a whiskey. But after a recent tasting of brandies by Distell, I am going to have to start changing my ordering tactics.
Before I even get to the drinks we tasted I need you to know that South Africa has a solid brandy history – we’re as good at making it as we are at drinking the stuff. I am not just talking about the hundreds and thousands of litres of the stuff mixed with coke that keeps a South African braai well oiled.
You see, South Africa has some of the strictest brandy production regulations in the world.
It all started when the Dutch – who have always had a fondness for Brandewyn – started distilling Cape wine into brandy in 1672. Unfortunately for all the Boers standing around fires waiting for their freshly slaughtered meat to blacken, they had to wait another 200 years for the invention of coca-cola. Nevertheless, production increased and brandy became part of the Cape. The real “Kaapse Smaak” was brandy.
In 1924 the law was laid down, and our stringent production guidelines were put into place. One of which being that brandy can only be made from grapes, a law that the Europeans only got round to passing in the 1990’s.
South Africa kicks ass hard at brandy making. In the international Wine and Spirit Competition’s “Worldeiwe brandy Trophy” category South Africa has claimed the title 10 times since 1990. The only thing to be aware of here is that the French don’t enter in their Congacs and Armagnacs – Brandies produced from grapes grown those regions.
Before you start acting like a typical News24 commenter and suggest that this means we’re not the best, consider that perhaps the French are a little scared to enter those brandies, as they might be easily beaten by a South African drop. Although a South African brandy will have its own style, they are made in the same way Cognac is – double distilled in potstills and aged in French oak.
Basically we make excellent brandy, and we get to drink it for a remarkably low price. I’ll get into that in a bit. But let’s go now to the wonderfully named Casa Labia, where I tasted some super Brandies produced by the corporate giant, Distell.
Casa Labia is a grand old house in Muizenberg. Built in 1929 it is the former Muizenberg residence of Count and Countess Natale Labia. It’s a house where oil paintings hang comfortably; everything that is gilded is good; and the more ornate the finish the better.
The house was restored by the Labia family and opened again to the public in 2010. It was the perfect venue to raise a snifter of brandy, lean back in an elegantly carved – and gilded of course – wing-backed chair and consider the caramel and dried petal notes wafting from a variety if premium brandies.
The lunch was put on by Distell who have been making a concerted effort to get more South Africans to drink premium local brandies. They recently produced an advert for Oude Meester (I prefer Dude Meister) featuring Jamie Foxx. I joked with someone at Distell about the high cost of Mr. Foxx. Hilariously, it turns out the dogs skateboarding in the savannah ad cost more to get here. Foxx was apparently all too happy to promote an “African product”. You know, roots and all that.
The Oude Meester Demant was the first brandy we tasted. This potstil brandy was immediately delicious. It’s a really good brandy to start with if you are not already a brandy drinker. It had a really rich mouth feel, without any burn that many associate with spirits. It had been matured for three years in French oak and offered fruit – especially pineapple – on the nose with chocolate and tobacco that followed through to the palate. Really delicious, and my favourite of the tasting.
We also tasted the Kipdrift gold, a blend of brandies with the oldest being aged for 21 years. I found more oak apparent on the nose and palate, but it was rich and fulfilling. If you are a standard Klippies drinker, try this one and you will be surprised. It will be like buying McDonalds and getting a kobe beef burger on Harrod’s Roquefort and Almond sourdough. Pure class.
The Van Ryn 12 year old, consistently the world’s (without France) best brandy was proabably the best there. I say proabably because I preferred the Dude Meister, but in terms of length, complexity and sheer “WTF this only costs around R300 bucks” it won hands down.
When it comes to price, the value of our brandy is incredible. Take the Dude Meister Demant. It costs around R130 a bottle. That’s about the same price as Bells and J&B, and cheaper than Jameson and Jack Daniels. I realize that those are whiskeys, but I reckon the quality of Oude Meester – complexity, length etc. – is better than all of them. It’s a really serious spirit to sip neat. No soda required.
All I am saying – and distell is not paying me – if you are in anyway into spirits, you need to be drinking more brandy, and the quality for price is incredible. We are getting a world-class spirit, for, well, South African prices.
If you are getting into brandy for the first time, here are a few tips to get you going.
Glass – Look, you know I am all into hitting a drink straight out of the bottle. But for maximum enjoyment a brandy balloon or snifter does work best. The wide bottom and narrow top help focus the aromas.
Colour – Give the brandy to your eyeballs before your lips. The different colours will tell you the age and amount of wood maturation the brandy has had. (The darker the more wood)
Swirling – So far so much like wine. The big difference is when it comes to giving your glass a swirl. With brandy, just don’t do it. When you agitate the brandy you lose volatile flavours and aromas, you will also get the alcohol all riled up and you will smell more of that than the delicate floral and fruit aromas.
Smelling – Start off by hold your glass at about chin level and let the smells rise up to your nose. Once you have taken that it in move the glass quite close to your chin, and then finally stick your nose right in the glass. These will all reveal different aromas.
Sipping – Take a little sip and let it cover your whole mouth before swallowing. Take it slow. Savour. There is a lot of stuff going on here.
Or you could just klap the whole bottle with a 2l bottle of Coke. It is totally up to you.
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