20 Feb 2018
Posted by Wade

A tale of two tipples

Karate Water or Cognac’s cousin? When it comes to South African Brandy, there exists two parallel yet contrasting perceptions. On the one hand, it’s conceived as cheap and cheerful, of questionable quality and best mixed with Coke. Yet an altogether different side of the story exists… wherein South Africa’s brandy is amongst the best in the world.

So, what’s the true narrative? Both actually. Let me explain.

According to the South African Brandy Foundation, local law requires brandy to be made from the highest quality wine, which is subsequently distilled twice in copper potstills and aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. Expounding on the considerable craft involved in making potstill brandy, the SA Brandy Foundation observes that, “This may be bottled as is and sold as potstill brandy, or be used as a component in blended and vintage brandies.”

And therein lies the rub. As the quote above alludes to, there are 3 classes of brandy allowed by legislation:

Potstill Brandy: 100% copper pot distilled, aged in small oak casks of less than 340 litres for a minimum of 3 years and bottled at minimum alcohol strength of 38% ABV. These are the world-beating brandies that are in a class of their own. Locally made and yet regarded as the equivalent of French Cognac, what really sets South African potstill brandies apart is that they are governed by even stricter production regulations than their cognac cousins. Required to be aged in French oak casks for longer, the cask size is also required to be smaller – imbuing the brandy with richer, more complex and arguably smoother notes from both the wood and time afforded it. These premium brandies are best enjoyed either neat, with ice or with a little water.

Blended Brandy: This category comprises the vast majority of SA Brandy (more than 99% to be precise). Made up of 30% potstill and 70% unmatured (non-aged) grape spirit, the result is often a relatively compromised product, especially when judged against the standard that Whisky and Bourbon set as a minimum requirement. It also means that, generally speaking, the age statements appearing on 3- and 5-year-old brandies are a tad misleading, with the brandished age only coming from 30% of the content of the bottle.

Vintage Brandy: A category stuck in no man’s land, vintage brandies are a blend of potstill brandy and matured wine spirit. This allows the distillers and blenders to at least draw on the maturation of grape spirit (column-distilled) to attain more complexity and smoothness. The minimum alcohol content is also 38% ABV.

Unsurprisingly, it’s in the area of Potstill Brandy that the industry is starting to excel, both in the excellent work done by the big hitters like Distell, KWV and Oude Molen, as well as a surge of up-and-coming independents and estates like Backsberg, Blaauklippen, Tokara, Die Mas, Boschendal, Upland and others.

Potstill even has a new recognised appellation to protect its careful upwards trajectory, and only distillers and brands that meet the stringent requirements can rightly call their product Cape Brandy. 

One notable entrant to this haloed arena is the Mystic Boer Potstill, whose Adriaan Eksteen is one of a growing army of cognoscenti on a mission to bring Potstill to the public’s attention.

“It is a well-known fact all over the world that the best spirit comes from the copper potstill (think Scotch Malt or Irish De Luxe Whiskies)”, Eksteen observes. This is due to the unique ability of copper to remove impurities (mainly sulphur) from distillates, in addition to other techniques such as ‘cold stabilisation’.

Whilst still accounting for only a very small percentage of the local market, South African Potstill Brandy has started to dominate international competitions in the last number of years. Dave Hughes, well-known wine and spirits industry expert has commented that South African Potstill Brandies are notably fruity and elegant, pointing out that climate and soil play a big role, but also world-leading barrel and maturation craft.

With the world starting to seriously take note of this prized tipple, perhaps it’s time South Africans should too. Why not invest in a bottle of Potstill and raise your glass to the uncompromising artisans amongst us.

This article was written by Wade Bales and first appeared on Wanted Online