Brandy: Built on a Spirited Foundation

Unique to the local liquor industry, the South African Brandy Foundation is an inclusive representative body founded in 1984 to promote the excellence, versatility and quality of the country’s brandy offering. It is a world-class example of an organization representing various producers and corporates who, while fierce competitors in the market-place, work together in managing a platform committed to the generic promotion of one of their most famous commercial offerings, in this case brandy.

Christelle Reade-Jahn, the current director of the SA Brandy Foundation, says the goals of the foundation are twofold.

“First and foremost, brandy is a major contributor to the South African economy,” says Reade-Jahn. “It offers thousands of employment opportunities on the wine farms where grapes for our product is grown, the producers of the distillation wine and the brandies themselves, as well as in the supply chain. Here the Foundation acts as the link between the industry and government.

“There are tariffs and levies to negotiate, laws surrounding the responsible use of alcohol to implement and oversee, and hundreds of thousands of jobs to represent when dealing with the authorities. As one could imagine, the past two-and-a-half years have been fraught with challenge due to the disruption Covid-19 caused in, among others, the liquor industries. Here the Brandy Foundation had to work closely with other liquor industry bodies in negotiating some tricky waters.”

Christelle Reade-Jahn, chairperson of the SA Brandy Foundation.

The other task of the Foundation is to generically promote the quality, the diversity, culture and intrinsics of the gorgeous creation that is South African brandy. And Reade-Jahn relishes the task of donning these two very different hats, from hard-core industry lobbyist in the circles of government administration to acting as an ambassador for the distilled offering of the vine.

“The Foundation is almost 40 years old, and I don’t thing that I nor my predecessors have had one dull day in the job,” says Reade-Jahn. “Like South African’s wine offering, our brandies are just so startling diverse with so many characteristics that one can not be anything but enthusiastic about this category of the drinks industry. From terroir-driven estate brandies, to the crafted pot-still elixirs and the exciting lifestyle range of blended brandy brandies that have been a part of all South African cultures for decades, it is just incredibly stimulating to represent this product to the trade and the consumer.”

And today more than ever, the challenge is to make brandy exciting in the eyes of the younger, fashion-conscious consumer who is exposed to the dynamic and creative marketing done in the spirits sector, much of it by huge international brandy.

“Among the younger adults, brown spirits such as brandy, Cognac and whisky are sometimes a second fiddle to white spirits like gin, vodka and white rum that are first choices in the vibey cocktail culture,” say Reade-Jahn. “Here the Brandy Foundation has to ensure we keep our ears to the floor, reading the market trends and collaborating with mixologists and lifestyle-gurus to see how we can get brandy seen as fashionable and trendy option when it comes to creating and offering cocktails in aspirational settings.”

Reade-Jahn laughs with pleasure. “Here I think I have the best job in the world, truly, and if more people knew about Brandy Foundation I would be inundated with job applications,” she says. “On the one hand I get to promote the luxury surrounding the classy pot-still brandies that is heavenly just to be around these flavours and aromas. And on the other hand, the Foundation is out there seeking-out opportunities of getting brandy noticed, used and consumed in night-clubs and cocktail-lounges – and all this among the cultural diversity that makes South Africa as exciting as the category of great brandy the country has created.”

Tasting Brandy

Nobody, just nobody, can tell anyone how, what where or when he or she should enjoy brandy or any other drink, albeit wine or Champagne or thrice-distilled vodka. When it comes to brandy, it is the complexity of aromas and flavours and the heady, seductive frame of high-alcohol distilled spirit that draws me in.

Brandy time, thus, is me time. It will involve a pot-still brandy. Oude Molen XO, an elixir blended from barrels of which the youngest component is 10 years old, is a current favourite. Next on the list would be the Van Ryn’s 12 – because it is a great brandy and the house from where it originates underscores Stellenbosch as not only the Cape’s wine capital, but a major force in brandy as well.

The measure at which to pour, is at least three tots as the true enjoyment of a good brandy requires a diverse approach. Sniffing. A few tentative lip-wetting sips. And then when the spirit has warmed the stomach, heightened the senses and elated the mind, modest draughts of brandy are taken so the pleasure may overwhelm.

In the glass – a snifter, of course, and add one block of ice to the three tots. The melting ice causes a slight dilution, allowing the brandy’s flavours to be released, fluttering lazily to the surface like just-hatched fire-flies.

Then there is the smoke. My ultimate companion to a good brandy experience is civilised practice of smoking a fine cigar. Havana. Cohiba, MonteCristo or Partagas, if a choice is available. Cut, lit and smoking, the cigar is held in one hand, sending its stream of aromatic blue smoke drifting in silk-threads into the air. In the other, the glass of brandy, now cool and golden, is sipped and swallowed.

A great pot-still brandy will be a masterly integrated sensorial experience. Smooth, delicate and soft to the edge of plushness, the rude alcohols have been mellowed and smoothened by years of aging in the cask. Yet, the heart of the brandy beats with the spirit of the distillation, the fiery blaze of alcohol combines with the plushness to unleash the darts of splendid flavours. There will be dried apricots and dense, dark prune. A touch of ground coffee, and life-affirming orange peel with some exotic notes of ground cardamom and nutmeg. The brandy will flow, true and soulful, a work of art that began with the crafting of nature in the vineyard.

Followed by a deep smoky puff from the cigar, the smoke warm and drying the palate like a fragrant dessert wine, the brandy adds a touch of something unashamedly decadent. But something you know you deserve.

Types of Brandy

Blended: A brandy with a minimum of 30% pot-still component, aged for three years in barrel. The balance is made up of unmatured wine spirit. Minimum alcohol: 43%

Vintage: 30% to 80% pot-still brandy. 70% to 20% unmatured wine spirit. Minimum aged in wood for eight years. Minimum alcohol: 38%

Pot-still: 100% pot-still aged for at least three years in wood. Minimum alcohol: 38%.

Interesting facts:

  • I takes five litres of wine to distill one liter of brandy.
  • South Africans consume some 32m litres of brandy a year.
  • This requires over 150m litres of wine the South African industry makes specifically for distillation.
  • Brandy is also known for its medicinal attributes. Of the over 250 official “boere-rate” of Afrikaans traditional medicinal advice, over 100 include brandy as part of a cure for a number of ailments, from influenza to heat ailments.
  • South African brandies are internationally recognised as the best in the world. On occasions too many to mention, it has been a Cape brandy that has been adjudged the world’s best brandy in a specific year. Our regulations of production aimed at superlative quality and the wine from the terroir of the Cape winelands that is used for distillation gives South African brandy an edge of class, distinction and magnificence.

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