“Claret is the liquor for boys,port for men;but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy” – Samuel Johnson (Poet and writer)
Brandy is a unique product as it is the only alcoholic drink made from another alcohol – wine! South African brandy producers are world leaders in terms of quality and style. I have been very fortunate to visit a brandy farm in the Cape Province some years ago.
The word “brandy” comes from the Dutch word “brandewijn” which means burnt wine. It was originally a way of preserving wine for long sea journeys. In 1672 it was first distilled in South Africa and now more than 50 million litres are consumed annually. Brandy is very popular alcoholic drink amongst men in South Africa.
Recently when my friend Monica visited, she brought Andrey a bottle of KVW Brandy (3 years old). Andrey has heard a lot about South African Brandy but has never tasted it. He thoroughly enjoyed it. Most women in South Africa prefer wine to brandy.
There are some vital differences between wine and brandy making. The most important difference is that no sulphur dioxide is added to the base wine when making brandy. There are strict controls on the amount of residual sugar and acid allowed and once it has passed all the tests, the base wine is distilled. The liquid is heated to allow the alcohol, which has a lower boiling point, to vaporise.
This is then trapped and condensed into an alcoholic liquid.Each time the process is repeated the flavour compounds are further concentrated. At this stage the alcohol levels are really high and this is lowered by adding distilled water.
In South Africa brandy must be distilled in copper pot stills using the double distillation method. In the first distillation, lasting +- 7 hours, much of the water and soluble solids are drawn off, the wine is distilled again and the “heart” (the middle fraction) is withdrawn.
This is the true soul of the liquid and contains all of the flavours that will go on to produce a very good brandy. The heart is matured in wood for a minimum of 3 years and slowly it will develop its characteristics and golden colour. The wood adds its own flavours.
In South Africa these wooden barrels are not allowed to be larger than 340 litres and they must be made from French oak. People often call the evaporation of the liquid as “Angel’s share”. The barrels are not opened during this 3 year period. It is only after this period that they are opened and evaluated as to whether it needs further maturation or if it is ready to be released into the market.
The only legal additive that is allowed to be used is caramel to ensure consistency of colour.
Traditionally brandy is drunk after a meal; one of the medicinal values is as a digestive aid but it can also be used as an aperitif or dessert accompaniment.
South Africa produces three different types of brandy.
- Pot Stilled Brandy: This is the most complex in flavour. This will have been bottled at 38% absolute alcohol and the content must contain a minimum of 90% pot stilled brandy (3 years or older).
- Blended Brandy: Bottled with 43% absolute alcohol, it must contain at least 30% pot stilled Brandy with the remainder unmatured wine spirit. It is best enjoyed with a mixer such as colddrink. In South Africa a lot of people enjoy this brandy with Coca-Cola.
- Vintage Brandy: The alcohol component of this Brandy must (bottled at 38% absolute alcohol) contain a minimum of 30% pot still brandy matured for at least 8 years. In addition the balance must be made up of a maximum of un-matured wine spirits with the remaining 60% being column still spirit matured for at least 8 years. There are also distinctive wood aromas and tastes to vintage brandy.
There are many Brandy farms in the Cape region that have organised tours and where you can see the whole process. You will easily find them in the Stellenbosch area.
The process itself is not complicated or difficult but it requires a lot of patience and time and you are never guaranteed of the final product. I really enjoy visiting factories and before I got involved in tourism I visited many different ones over the years. This was one of my favourites.
Technical info courtesy from South African Tourism guide.