The 350 year-old Spirit that is Cape Brandy

Napoleon’s army may have marched on its stomach, but we South African males conscripted into the military know otherwise: for our army marched on Klipdrift and Coke.

A cold Castle or Lion lager may have successfully washed the gritty Namibian-Angolan dust from your mouth after a few days of diplomatic negotiating with your enemy in the bush. But it was only when the spirited sweetness of a tumbler filled with ice-cold Klippies and Coke hit the pit of your stomach that you were revived into a semblance of fortified normality. The combination of alcohol, sugar and the Coke’s subdued fizz warmed the soul and lightened the mood, feelings necessary for the hearted camaraderie to follow. Plus, the kick of a triple brandy ripping through the dark mass of cola tasted brilliant. Still does – as long as it is real Coke with the brandy, the Light and Sugar-free versions being unable to form the harmonious taste profile that has made Klippies and Coke a true South African drink bearing provenance, legacy and culture.

In fact the late General Jannie Geldenhuys, former head of the SA Defence Force, was made an honorary member of the South African Brandy Guild for the role he played in ensuring that the canteens and messes of the Force housed a constant supply of Klipdrift.

Of course, as one gets older and learns new things, it must be said that there is far more, much more, to South African brandy than Klipdrift. Not just a plethora of brands and styles, but also a rich history, one going back to 1672 when the first brandy was made in South Arica. Not on land, by the way – the maiden brandy was distilled by an intrepid and unfortunately nameless cook on board a ship named De Pijl which lay on anchor off Table Bay. With the maiden Cape wine vintage hitting the throats in 1659, courtesy of Jan van Riebeeck, the first commander of the VOC’s new outpost on the tip of Africa, it could only have been a matter of time before some spirited inhabitant or visitor tried his or her hand at distillation. That is cooking the wine and capturing the hot, heady and alcoholic condensation that is brandy.

This was 350 years ago, a milestone that led to my current reflection on South African brandy and its importance to the local wine industry.

First up is the economic input. With five litres of wine needed to distil one litre of brandy, the spirit plays a formidable role in its offering of a profitable off-set point for a large portion of the Cape grape-farming community. Some 32m litres of brandy are consumed in South Africa each year, so a simple calculation offers a glimpse into the spirit’s importance to the wine-grower sector and the extended value chain.

As a consumer, it is the quality proposition presented by South African brandy that is the category’s strongest feature. It has become a regular occurrence for the spirit from the south to feature on the awards-list for World’s Best Brandy at the various international competitions, Cape brandy annually landing an enviable tally of gold awards and trophies at these events with a regularity bordering on the predictable. And here, too, history has a role to play.

René Santhagens

Up until the beginning of the 20th century, local brandy was a case of anything goes. It had to be cooked from wine made from grapes, but that was about it. An elixir deserved of the Cape wine culture it was most certainly not. René Santhagens, a Belgian who had become intimately involved with the majestic Cognac production processes in France before heading for South Africa, changed all that.

Santhagens set-up shop on the Oude Molen farm in Stellenbosch, in the area today known as Bosman’s Crossing, and by 1910 he was making brandy abiding by the principles he had studied and practised in Cognac. This entailed double distillation of the base wine in copper stills. Followed by maturation of the clear distillate in oak barrels no large than 340 litres. Santhagens influence was such that after the formation of the KWV in 1918 to provide wine farmers with a regulatory framework for grape growing and wine making, the new wine behemoth turned its eyes to the quality of Cape brandy.

Santhagens was involved in laying down the guidelines for brandy production and together with the KWV the legislation was framed that became the Wine and Sprits Act of 1924. This promulgated specific criteria for brandy distillation and maturation regimes, including permissible additives and fermentation processes, as well as Santhagens’ double-distillation and three years in oak gospel. Regulations the industry follows to this day.

Blended brandies, such as aforementioned Klipdrift and its motley array of entry-level cousins, are regulated in that they must contain a minimum component of 30% pot-still, three-year oak matured brandy with the balance comprising neutral grape spirits. The pot-still liquids at the top of the brandy chain are, of course, 100% pot-still and can spend decades in the barrel depending on the taste profile required of each brand.

As an honour to 350 years of South African brandy and an ode to Santhagens, my current liquor of choice is the Oude Molen XO produced at the Oude Molen Distillery in Elgin, which as a venue and in its product offering, is an ode to the late Santhagens. A drink of pot-still brandy, in the late autumn afternoon as the low sun streams through trees, windows and buildings in broad light-sabres of burnt gold is truly one of life’s eternal pleasures.

My preferred manner of imbibing is in a traditional snifter, two fingers of the brandy and one generous ice-cube which is left to begin melting, cooling the spirit as well as presenting an ever-so slight touch of dilution to broaden, lift the flavour. At this stage, my hands begin to itch for a cigar, so a MonteCristo might just be summoned and set ablaze, sending fragrant plumes of smoke into the air.

Oude Molen is a gracefully balanced drink. Some may prefer the leather-couch softness of older brandy or Cognac, but the 10-year base for the XO is just right for me, offering concentration and depth, yet still thumpingly assertive in its showing purity of spirit.

The nose, so intoxicating in a good brandy, offers dried fruit blossom and cedar with a note of clove, paprika and freshly ground white pepper. I sniff deep.

Starting with a polite small sip, the spirit here is brave and formidable in the attack on the palate, immediately introducing itself as a distilled wine, the product of vine, fire and wood. And then the flavours take over, a seductive display of heart-felt purity where one tastes the very soul of the grape. Dried fruits of apricot and prune are immediately evident, slowly subsiding to reveal layers of dark chocolate, burnt coffee bean and a whisp wet earth and tar. All encased in the power and the warm glory of a fine spirit.

As Papa Hemingway said, “good wine is the most civilised thing on earth”. But once distilled and left to the devices of time, wine becomes brandy, the pleasure knowing no earthly boundaries and taking civilisation into the very next universe.

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