“There is Brandy and there is Cape Brandy”

Tuesday, 8 January, 2019
Dave March CWM
“There is Brandy, and there is Cape Brandy”, says Oude Molen commercial manager Danie Pretorius. Consistent success in international competitions by several SA brands reflects the incredible quality that SA Brandy maintains across all price points.

Oude Molen has been at the forefront of SA Brandy production for more than a century. Founder Renier "René" Santhagens arrived at the Capein 1903 with vast experience of distilling Cognac in France and established the Golden Lion Distillery at Vlottenburg. By 1910 he was distilling on his farm Oude Molen in Stellenbosch and would do so until his death in 1937. In 2003 Oude Molen moved to its present location in Elgin, in an adapted 1940’s fruit factory so large I viewed more than 20 tanks of 55,000litres size and six of 100,000litres and that was from just one viewpoint. Wine from their Ladismith and Barrydale vineyards is transported to Elgin to be distilled, aged and bottled there.

Column stills sit opposite the beautiful copper potstills; ‘Big Bertha’ (a mere 23,000L) and ‘Long Tom’ in particular with other smaller pots around. Behind locked doors – equipped still with double padlocks as was required decades ago when Tax inspectors had to be present for any visit to the ‘spirit store’ (they held one of the keys) – and through stone arches lie thousands of old barrels, each carefully labelled. Mostly French and old Bourbon casks, 2016 vintage here, 2006 there, some lying still for 20 or 30 years.

Many barrels have lost much of their content, some more than half and of course, vintages vary and some produce more spirit than others. Danie says that 2018 was ‘challenging’, not in quality, but grapes were hard to procure. “The grapes are key”, says Danie, selection and quality of the base wine “is everything”, he says (though he agrees that blending is pretty important too).

Selections for Rebate wine for potstill, and distilling wine for column still distillation is often made in the vineyard or at least on analysis of the base wine, and Danie says they can often determine which grade of Cape Brandy the grapes and wine are destined for at that stage. More fruity, forward wine might go for a product consumed younger, more complex wine might become a VSOP or XO (aged minimum ten years).

Enjoying the glorious velvet caramel, coconut and dried apricot ‘XO’ in the new tasting room (yes, it is available there to taste) at Oude Molen, Danie pointed out that it is intended to be an ‘education’ room as well, because the message of today’s Cape Brandy needs to be heard. Danie says that whilst South Africa is the ninth largest export market for French Cognac, there is still a need to dispel Brandy memories of old and get people appreciating Cape Brandy. Our product is exceptional, “is it as good as Cognac?” asks Danie, “it is!” he answers.

Whilst Brandy has always been a favourite of South Africans, consumption has fallen steadily and with a product as good if not better than Cognac, at a fraction of the price, it seems important to raise awareness of it, in a responsible way. The South African Brandy Foundation has been supporting this message for thirty years.

Oude Molen export most of their output, which though it may not reflect a burgeoning  home market, it does mean that they can select only the absolute best spirit for their three key domestic products, the VS, VSOP and XO.

But marketing premium brandy is tricky, Danie says you can market a story behind the wine, or use amazing packaging but what is required is to taste, to experience. “Restaurants and Sommeliers are important in that”, he says.

And so the Cape Brandy Distillers Guild was born, with a mission to improve the image, aid communication, establish standards and showcase the quality of Cape Brandy. Members are using ‘Cape Brandy’ on labels rather than ‘Potstill’ to show that the content and process is totally the authentic way, and to differentiate their product from blended brandies, which contain up to 70% neutral spirit. The brandy market is a confusing space, ‘Cape Brandy’ aims to simplify the category and many producers have become members.

“Our ultimate aim is the establishment of a GI for Cape Brandy, which will assist in establishing quality credentials in South Africa and abroad”, says Danie.

Everything is there, believes Danie, beautiful packaging, great value, incredible quality and from all their members an engaging story. Just consider how perfect the grapes have to be, how strict the regulations are around the base wine, the losses incurred at distillation and the time it takes to do it twice, the art of blending (and what an art, Danie says their blenders don’t do much tasting, they get most of what they need from just the nose), the length of maturation required (three years by law but many producers exceed that), further losses over the years, and manual intervention at almost every stage. Oude Molen, for example, hand bottle their top Brandies, using an old single bottle filler!

Cape Brandy has come a long way from ‘Cape Smoke’ and is at the head of the world’s finest.