Rainbow Brandy

When it comes to brandy South Africa does not get much of a look in. Yet its best are up there with the world’s greatest.  Christian Davis reports

When you consider that Richard Hennessy was an Irishman, the Hine family came from Dorset in southern England and the Dutch invented genever/jenever, the forerunner to gin, it is hardly surprising that South Africa has a long and proud tradition of making brandy.

In fact, the word ‘brandy’ comes from the Dutch ‘brandewijn’, meaning burnt wine. The history of brandy in South Africa goes back to Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company who incentivised his crew by offering a tot of brandy to the first person who saw land. The lucky sailor spotted Table Mountain.

According to the South African Brandy Foundation, the first brandy in South Africa was distilled aboard the Dutch ship Pijl, anchored in Table Bay harbour in 1672. An assistant cook succeeded in transforming two leaguers (1,164 litres) of Cape wine by double distilling into three ankers (a common-sized cask on sailing ships, containing roughly 40 litres) of brandy. The quality of locally-produced brandy remained poor, so expensive European brandewijn continued to be imported by the ruling class.

Distillation was banned briefly in the early 1700s but that just drove production underground. In 1869 Sammy Marks from Lithuania established what is regarded as the first proper distillery on a farm outside Pretoria. A young French ex-cavalry officer with a masters degree in science and some distilling experience from Cognac was recruited. René van Elbergen Santhagens brought with him an alembic Charantais copper pot still. He introduced the Cognac way of double distilling.

The Anglo Boer war intervened and Santhagens went back. When he returned he went to the Cape and was instrumental in setting up the Golden Lion distillery at Vlottenberg, which was the forerunner to the Van Ryn distillery. Santhagens was the catalyst to better quality and he set up his own distillery, Oude Molen, in Stellenbosch.

In the 1880s phylloxera struck South African vineyards, which meant grubbing up vines and replanting with phylloxera-resistant American rootstock. Then followed the South African war and World War One. 

In 1918 the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging (KWV) was formed to protect wine farmers’ interests. Under a 1924 act, KWV came to control all wine and brandy production. Prices were fixed and surplus wines were sold to the KWV for distilling. The brandy production was centralised. Love it or loathe it, KWV is credited with setting guidelines for brandy production.

Basically Chenin Blanc and Colombard are used mainly for base wine in South African brandy (see panel). The grapes come primarily from SA’s warmer wine-growing regions. After fermentation, distillation takes place in copper potstills.

One cloud in the history of South African brandy was its use particularly during the Apartheid era as a way of paying manual workers instead of money.  The practice encouraged alcohol abuse and further impoverished workers. 

Brandy and beer became the drinks of the poor and indigenous population, whereas imported spirits and wine were essentially the drinks of the white ruling classes. That has been changing.

The vast majority of South African brandy is produced by two companies – Distell and KWV, which is now a very different company to that of old.  No longer does it have legislative powers over SA’s wine and spirits industry.

Fast forwarding to today, Caroline Snyman, Distell’s director of luxury brands, says: “South Africa is the world’s seventh largest producer of grape-based brandy. Five years ago we were the fifth-largest producer globally. Ninety-two percent of South Africa’s production is consumed locally with a small, growing footprint, mainly into African markets.”

Schalk van Wyk, marketing manager with small producer Edward Snell, defines the domestic market thus: “The main source of volume is from what we call the main market/black market which, generally speaking, has a sweeter palate and mostly blend brandy with carbonated mixers – tonic, soda water or sparkling apple juice. Even at the higher price points of premium brandy, the above mixing habit persists.”

White drinkers have their brandy with cola, but Van Wyk perceives a worrying shift by them and South Africa’s emerging black middle class to whisky. More of that later.

As to emerging markets, Snyman says: “Africa in particular is the first development priority for South African brandy. Kenya and East African countries already have established brandy categories.

“Being a country with an international reputation for excellent wines plays to the advantage of the brandy industry, as a high-quality base wine is the first step to creating uniquely styled brandies.  Our soil structure and warm climate are conducive to producing fruit-driven wines that provide a natural richness of flavour to our brandies,” she says

“More than 80% of brandy drinkers are below the age of 50, with most consumers between 35 and 49, followed closely by those in the 25-34 age group. Brandy is growing in popularity among women – numbers of female brandy drinkers have risen from around 20% in the mid-90s to almost 30% at present.  (SA Brandy Guide, by the SA Brandy Foundation).

Peadar Hegarty, KWV’s head of strategy and marketing director spirits and RTD, is less positive. “If you refer to South African brandy internationally then, if anything, there is a negative impression. The reality is that we as SA brandy producers have done a lousy job of telling a great story.

“SA brandy is produced to the highest standards globally, equivalent – and, in some cases, superior – to cognac. Two examples: we can only mature in maximum-size casks of 340 litres and our minimum maturation age is three years, compared to six months in Europe.  This, of course, also amounts to a cost disadvantage when it comes to our export potential,” he states.

Emerging class

Snyman adds: “The new emerging middle class has shown an appetite for premium products. This has led to increased innovation in the brandy category and a growing number of finely crafted pot still brandies.

“In the trade, there is a solid base of general knowledge as a result of training and initiatives such as the Fine Brandy Fusion festivals held in Johannesburg and Cape Town each year. As interest in good food grows, driven by local spin-offs of TV shows such as Masterchef, so has the demand for education on pairing brand.”

Hegarty outlines the challenges for SA brandy as:

  • Facing up to the competitive challenge from whisky and vodka for a consumer with an increasingly broad repertoire
  • The image of brandy, still seen as the poor relation of the spirits market
  • Health concerns, especially for younger consumers and women, who see brandy as a ‘hard’ drink.

As to opportunities, he foresees:

  • “Tell the quality story. For KWV, for example, we can present, as one brand, a product journey from three years to five, 10, 12, 15, 20 and our new 30-year-old brandy. From 10 years up, our brands are 100% pure pot still which, in combination with the unique maturation conditions in Paarl, deliver an incredibly smooth textured product
  • “Get our marketing act together.  KWV has just launched a global trademark campaign entitled Finish Great. Focused on celebrating our personal journey of ups and downs, as well as the unique link to our brandy journey, this is a very special property;
  • “Tell the value story – what other category can offer the equivalent of a 10-year pure pot still product for US$16? Promote quality mixers and drinking over ice.”

Edward Snell has four brands: Wellington VO, a value-for-money brandy, three and five-year-old matured, blended brandy; Oude Molen pot still brandy (three variants); Joseph Barry pot stilled, crafted brandy; and Ladysmith, also pot stilled, crafted brandy, produced in the small town of Ladysmith.

Whisky rivalry

Snell’s Schalk Van Wyk tells Drinks International that part of the problem with local consumption decline of brandy has been due to whisky. 

“The local whisky marketers have done a fantastic job of educating South Africans on the intrinsic differences between whisky offerings – and, by default, creating a hunger to learn more. The success of the yearly ‘whisky festival’ held in three major cities across South Africa is testament to the education and appetite for whisky.”

He sees the local brandy industry as being governed by complicated and difficult-to-understand intrinsic regulations, so local brandy marketers have not been able to differentiate the offerings and drive brandy education.

He says: “But whisky has not just been successful due to intrinsic education – our historical background has led to a development of a previously unknown black middle class which has a hunger to express their success with premium/material goods, as most developing economies have seen.

“South Africans, generally speaking, deem imported goods better or more aspirational than locally produced – and thus the international credential of whisky has certainly helped to boost its premium queues within this market,” says Van Wyk.

Big advantage

But, according to Van Wyk, it is not all doom and gloom. “The big advantage of South African brandy has been the fantastic quality of its spirit. Many would argue that our brandy is superior to most cognac offerings and South Africa by far the best brandy-producing country in the world. This is backed up by the numerous awards the industry can claim over a long period of time. Our incredible quality of locally produced grapes, along with local brandy producers’ expert knowledge, has driven the above.

“I believe the future of South African brandy lies not in South Africa but in export markets and thus would require a rebranding of the brandy offering as whole. Similar to champagne and cognac, pot still brandy needs to insist on an appellation claim – which many local commentators feel should be Cape Brandy or Cape Pot Still Brandy. 

“The pot still variant of the local brandy category needs to be romanticised too – similar to single malt. Needless to say, it’s not an overnight endeavour and would take a gentleman’s agreement among all local brand owners and the instigation of a new naming convention from local industry authorities,” says
Van Wyk.

Notable exceptions

Distell’s Snyman is more upbeat. “The entire spirits segment has been under pressure as consumers have had less disposable income. Not all brandy products have been in decline, though. Some notable exceptions have come from the speciality, connoisseur segment of the market as more South Africans get to hear of the world-class performance of our products at international shows.  

“This country has won the title of Worldwide Best Brandy no fewer than 12 times over the past 14 years. We are confident that the market holds good prospects for the continued growth of the premium brandy category and a recovery for brandy in general.

“Getting the nod from some of the most serious international arbiters of taste has given South African brandy a new aura of prestige. People want to discover for themselves why judges who are familiar with brandies and other spirits from all over the world find local brandies so excellent. 

“This is helping to give consumers much-needed confidence in this locally produced spirit. South African brandy is a highly versatile product, made in a number of different styles which can adapt to suit the occasion. The challenge is educating consumers,” she says.