The Art of the Master Distiller with Marlene Bester

Friday, 11 May, 2018
Dave March CWM
South African Brandy is amongst the best in the world, often (in fact, always) awarded trophies and gold medals in international competitions. It has achieved such status through the constant pursuit of excellence. Over many decades. Indeed, since the late seventeenth century.

Van Ryn, part of the Distell group, even calls its Brandy technical analysis and ‘blending’ offices ‘Centres of Excellence’ and such excellence does not come quickly, it has been earnt by generations of custodians.

Marlene Bester is the present Master Distiller at Van Ryn’s and has been for “only nine years”. The skills of a distiller improve with experience and practice and that is why Brandy distillers tend to stay at the same producer much longer than winemakers. Acquiring the ability to recognise faults and imperfections as well distinguish between aromas and flavours and know how they will complement one another and develop over time is an art, “it helps if you have some ability, but it is also something learnt and tuned over time”, says Marlene. Even now she has found herself, “humbled in the presence of a taster with, say, 25 years of experience”.

Van Ryn’s Brandy team work closely with Distell wine buyers and suitable base wines are sent for analysis, which is not only chemical analysis, as Marlene emphasises, but also about taste and smell. “Fresh acidity, fruity and clean” is crucial. Marlene’s team always get the wine batches they want – their product is too special not to – and base wines are distilled immediately because of their vulnerability. ‘Low wine’ (the first distillation) is checked by taste and smell, by three or four of the team before it is ‘signed off’, and ready for the second distillation. Low wine may wait months for the second distillation as it is now immune from degeneration because of its 30% alcohol content.

Text books don’t do justice to the moment of separation of the ‘heads’, ‘heart’ and tails’ during the second distillation. The moments when the initial unpleasant liquid part of the process (heads) is removed from the best (the heart) and again separated from the unpleasant tail is where science meets art. Partly this might be a chemical analysis, but mostly it relies on taste and smell. Marlene says they can also add a drop of water to the sample and if it turns milky it isn’t at the point yet. This is a skill indeed, honed with experience, “constant training”, says Marlene.

Young Brandy is all treated the same for the first three years of aging in barrel, mandated by law. Barrels are deliberately of different age, all French, 300-340litre, medium toasted and some in use for 40 or 50 years, repaired by the coopers at Van Ryn.

Constant assessment of the quality of each barrel during maturation means that after three years the best batches are selected, put into specific barrels, and are destined to become a Van Ryn 12 Year Old, or 15 or 20 Year Old, meaning the youngest Brandy in the final selection is of that age, many will be older. Marlene enjoys the ability to add a seasoning of an older Brandy when desired and there are coveted barrels dating to the 1970’s in the cellars. Brandy maturation “can’t be hurried”, says Marlene.

In addition to being responsible for quality control throughout the distillation and maturation process, a Master Distiller must ensure that each new batch of Van Ryn’s brandies remains consistent and true to the brand. One reason Van Ryn regularly enters international competitions is to ensure their Brandies are benchmarked against the best worldwide.

A Master Distiller also needs scope for innovation and experimentation, and Marlene has several trials underway involving single cultivars distilled in the Cognac Pot Still and aging at Van Ryn’s. The success of the Colombar based Brandy at the Nederburg Auction has led to a variety of small batch trials with several varietals but the maturation means many will be in barrel for many years before being added as a seasoning to a blend or even released as a Special Edition or Limited Release.

Marlene says each Van Ryn Brandy needs certain qualities; elegance, nuances of fruits and spices and critically, integration and balance. Brandies must be in harmony, “what you get on the nose must come through on the palate”, all elements must be seamless.

Imagine the skill required to sample ten or more barrels of very old spirit and be able to create a blend of aromas and flavours which result in a harmonious, complex and distinguished Brandy, capable of winning the title ‘Best Brandy in the World’ as Van Ryn have done at the IWSC seven times in the last twelve years.

It is clear that Marlene loves the process of distillation and the challenge of creating something very special and of maintaining the Master Distiller legacy at Van Ryn.


Van Ryn's 12 Year Old Distiller's Reserve
Van Ryn's 12 Year Old Distiller's Reserve

more news