Notes on a Spirited Palate

As a professional in the wine world, one is often asked whether you dare allow anything other than the magical result of fermented grapes to pass through one’s lips. As if anything non-vinous would desensitize the tasting faculties. My answer is: indeed, I do. In fact, exposing one’s senses to other alcohol products gives you a greater reference source from which to make general assumptions on flavour and taste. And yes, variety is the spice of life.

Brandy is a firm favourite of mine. Although appreciating the spectacular depths of good Cognac, one must make an effort to realise the quality of South African brandies as they are truly brilliant.

Actually, this year of 2022 sees the 350th anniversary of the country’s brandy industry. For it was in 1672 that brandy was first distilled at the Cape when a chef in service of the Dutch VOC used some rough local wine and the recognised distilling prowess of his European forebears to produce a few drams of brandy.

From that event onwards, brandy has grown and developed in tandem with the country’s famous wine industry. Access to Chenin Blanc grapes, widely planted in South Africa and a fine variety for brandy-making, forms the basis of local brandy. In addition to this are the strict regulations producers adhere to, rules aimed at ensuring that local brandy meets certain quality standards.

These standards entail that any South African spirit purporting to be brandy must start off as a low-alcohol, sulphur-free wine, usually Chenin Blanc, that has been approved for distillation. It must then have undergone a double-distillation process ensuring that the rough edges are cooked out, with only the pure, smooth elixir remaining. All brandy must have at least a 30% portion of pot-distilled brandy that has been aged for a minimum of three years on oak casks. In the case of so-called pot-stilled brandies, also known as Cape Brandy, the spirit must be exclusively distilled in copper pot-stills and all of it aged in wood, for at least three years.

It is this category of pot-stilled brandies that has me reaching for the snifter on a regular basis, especially if there is a fire going and a good cigar on hand. As in wine, we South Africans are spoilt for choice when it comes to good brandy.

Over the years the house of Oude Molen out Elgin way has proven to make superb brandies, and its Oude Molen XO is a delicious spirit blended from a variety of barrels of which the youngest component has undergone 10 years’ maturation. In the same class would be Van Ryn’s 12, one of the products out of the famous Van Ryn’s Distillery at Vlottenburg, Stellenbosch.

With a good brandy, such as these mentioned, one finds many suggestions as to how best enjoy it. Purists will advise only adding a splash of water to release the esters and flavour compounds. Others deem soda water to add a sprightly deliciousness, while the true-gritters sip it as is, and that is neat.

Personally, I will pour a double tot into a snifter and add one block of ice, allowing the ice to melt halfway. In the aforementioned brandies from Oude Molen and Van Ryn, both spirits averaging over a decade in age, the slight dilution of the ice and the coolness will bring those heady and mesmerizing flavours of a good brandy to the fore.

On the nose it is spice, ground coffee and tobacco. The first sip releases that comforting warmth, with the flavours following: dried-apricot, cardamom, fruit-cake and prunes. What stands out about these Cape brandies, however, is the overall polish and seamless structure of the spirit. There is a purity and majestic quality that is not only very impressive, but makes one realise that brandy is one of the jewels in the offerings from the South African vineyard.

Keeping to a spirited theme, and I’ll admit gin as another favourite of mine. The sharp coolness of a gin-and-tonic sharpens the wine-tasting tools. And a dry gin Martini is the most decadently fortifying drink known to man.

But here I must state that all gins are not created equal. My taste is not attuned to the floral frivolousness of these craft gins going around, being neither young or tattooed enough to appreciate such hip products. Gin, for me, is robust, dry and spirited, the characteristic taste of juniper being all that is required to give it singularity of person. Names such as Stretton’s, Gordon’s or Beefeater state true gin for me. If I am feeling stylish, Tanqueray will do with its slight citrus kick.


My gin-and-tonic is lifted with a few drops of bitters, and a slice of lemon. Believe, me I am not alone: in the warm summer months of the wine-harvest one will find tired winemakers, their shirts stained with fermenting grape juice, reaching for a cold G&T as the first drink of the evening.

One of life’s other pleasures, although a bit more formidable, is the dry Martini. Here I also use the aforementioned gins, to which two necessary additions come into play: a freezing temperature and the slightest touch of dry vermouth.

I’ll pour three tots of gin into an ice-filled shaker with, literally, a few drops of vermouth – about a quarter of a teaspoon. Shake the mixture for 45 seconds and strain into a chilled Martini glass. One green olive. Bliss.

However, once one has cut a taste for a dry Martini, it becomes notable that the ice in the shaker has a diluting effect, taking some of the oemf from the drink. A sage trick is to crack open a bottle of gin and use one tot for a G&T. Add half a tot of vermouth to the gin bottle and keep in the freezer. Whenever Martini hour arrives, simply remove the bottle, give it a few shakes and a neat Martini is on hand, ready for pouring.

Not glamorous, true, but a sign of a real spirit lover.





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One thought on “Notes on a Spirited Palate

  1. An appreciation of fine spirits lifts the, well, spirits, and broadens the palate horizons. I had the privilege a few years ago of a lunch with Van Ryns’ master distiller Marlene Bester, the courses successively paired to Van Ryns 12-, 15-, and 20-year-old brandies. (The 10-year-old served as a mere welcoming aperitif with apricot or peach juice, can’t remember which but either way, it worked.) It was a revelation of just how good SA pot-still brandies are, the food-pairing successful but hardly necessary, and the time that goes into making them – the distiller bottling their predecessor’s legacy, and leaving something for their successor to put in a bottle.
    Must confess I do also enjoy a craft gin with floral or fynbos or citrus vibes, and putting it in a large bowl-like gin goblet with some orange or lemon and fresh herbs… even though I’m a bit too elderly to be a millennial!

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