For decades, South African brandy has been relegated to the bottom of a tall glass, drowned in coke and blamed for vicious hangovers. At a recent tasting which compared South African brandy to cognac, though, we discovered the truth – premium South African brandy can easily hold its own against global brandies. And in fact, is ranked amongst the top in the world, if not the top. So, in celebration of our brandy’s awesomeness, here are 5 things you might not have known about South African brandy.
We’ve been making it for ages
As the word brandy has Dutch origins (originating from brandewijn) it makes sense that we’ve been making brandy in South Africa for quite a while. The first brandy made in South Africa was distilled aboard the Dutch ship De Pijl, anchored in Table Bay harbour in 1672. The assistant cook succeeded in producing 126 litres of brandy from 1164 litres of Cape wine, and just like that the first South African brandy was created and, apparently, it went very quickly.
South Africa’s brandy goes through two distillations – the base wine, which is usually made from high quality Chenin Blanc and Colombar, is distilled in copper potstills into low wine. The second distillation concentrates the flavours of the low wine, and vapours are released in three stages – the first vapours, called the heads, are discarded; the second portion, the heart, is what will eventually be bottled; and the third potion of vapours from the still are called the tails, which are also discarded. The heart (which starts off as a clear liquid) is aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years, and there is complex interaction between the alcohol and the wood. What emerges from this process is called Potstill brandy, and the master distiller will blend potstill brandies from different casks into the master brandy. So, the brandies we get in South Africa are the following:
Potstill: 100% potstill brandy. The minimum alcohol content is 38% ABV.
Vintage: Potstill brandy blended with matured wine spirit. The minimum alcohol content is 38% ABV.
Blended: Potstill brandy blended with unmatured wine spirit. The minimum alcohol content is 43% ABV.
While it’s maturing, potstill brandy is kept in casks, side-by-side, and the doors on either side of that room need to be kept open because just walking through the unventilated room is likely to get you drunk. This is because of the angel’s share, the evaporation of alcohol from the casks. About 3% of alcohol is lost each year through the porous oak casks that hold the maturing brandy and it’s dubbed ‘Angel’s Share’ as it’s seen as payment for the work that the angels do in the magical process of brandy making.
We’re the champions
South African brandy is made to the most stringent standards in the world and in the last decade or so, South African brandy has been lauded in international spirit competitions, often coming out tops and beating out brandy from well-established brandy-making countries such as France. The title of Worldwide Best Brandy at the International Wine & Spirits competition has been awarded to a South African brandy for six consecutive years. However, it was only this year that South African brandy could officially take on cognac. Cognac and brandy are essentially made in the same way, but only brandy made in the Cognac region in France can call itself cognac, which meant that South African brandy, for all its awards, was never able to go completely head to head. This year, however, South Africans worked hard to satisfy all requirements to produce cognac and South Africa was named maker of the world’s best brandy and cognac.
How to taste it
- It’s perfectly acceptable to add a dash of still water to the brandy before tasting to open it up, but make sure to use pure, unchlorinated water.
- Don’t swirl your glass before taking a sniff or a sip.
- Keep the brandy at room temperature or cooler – don’t warm it up as this releases all the alcohol, which is where the flavour lies.
- Start nosing at about 5cm from the top of your glass, before moving slowly down.
- Take a small sip and swirl around your mouth. Once the intensity of the alcohol has reduced after a few seconds, you’ll be able to taste the complex flavours.