I have a newfound admiration for brandy. Before having completed my brandy course at Van Ryn’s Distillery in Stellenbosch last week I knew very little about it, let alone Cape Town has solidified itself on an international scale in brandy circles.
South Africa is the fifth largest brandy producer in the world. Our nation and its favourable climate (ideally suited for brandy production), is the home to a number of international award-winning brandies including the prestigious ‘Best Brandy in the World’ award. The story of brandy in South Africa goes back to the days when Cape Town was used as a stop-over point for India-bound Dutch sailors, with the first brandy being distilled on African soil by a Dutch chef in 1672. Brandewijn, as it was known back then, was the perfect maritime drink of choice owing to its long shelf-life as opposed to the wine of that time, which spoiled after a few months due to adequate storage techniques having not yet been evolved. In those ages a voyage would take roughly six months and those long, cold nights beckoned for something with a kick.
Brandy, not to be confused with the similar French product Cognac, is the only drink made from another alcoholic beverage, namely wine. It is the Chenin blanc and Columbar grape varieties that are carefully selected to make wine with and ultimately brandy production – their high natural fruit acid content makes them ideal for this process. But these are not just any standard grape varieties. If the wine product (called Base wine) is not of the utmost quality and not up to rigourous specifications, the brandy will be ruined. Your ordinary drinking wine, in this context called Table Wine, is not a contender with which to make brandy with.
Here comes the fun part – distillation and maturation. Distillation is an age-old process that has fascinated mankind over centuries, with ancient alchemists believing this process held the key to the secret formula of life (remember this the next time you sip on brandy). Brandy production requires separate distillation processes which entail separating the head, heart and tail. At Van Ryn’s Distillery we got to see the large Potstills used to distill the brandy produced there. These pieces of equipment are made from copper and contain highly specialised parts to ensure the best transportation of gases.
Van Ryn’s produces some of the best brandies in the world, fact. Their 12, 15 and 20 Year Collection Reserves have picked up gold medals at esteemed award ceremonies. The amber-to-gold beverage produced at Van Ryn’s has put Cape Town on the map and the brandy course offered at the distillery gives one an incredible insight into brandy as a whole. Remember to savour and flirt with the Oude Meester 18 year old when you sample it – this Gran D’or winner at the 2012 Michelango Awards is my favourite.