When you first taste brandy the natural reaction is, “Ergh god my mouth, fire, Christ, what the hell is this stuff.” If you know the Johnson quote you realize why Brandy is the drink of heroes. You have to be bloody heroic to let something that dammed fiery in your mouth.However, as with many complex and interesting foods and beverages, you must persevere. Learn not to gulp but sip gently. Learn to love the fiery warmth as it spreads across your palate and into your belly. And as your senses get used to the stuff you begin to find an unbelievable amount of complexity.
I have been slowly working my way form “Ergh god my mouth” to “by Jove this is remarkable stuff” over the last six months or so. And, friends, the perseverance is paying off.
I visited Van Ryn’s Distillery in Stellenbosch recently for a small comparative tasting of local brandies and French Cognacs.
I’ll list what we tasted below and my rather dismal notes. But this is what I discovered about our local brandies. Not only is their quality very high, but their lovely fruit forwardness – from our plentiful Chenin and Colombard vineyards – seems so South African, so right, so us, next to the slightly more dour and oak influenced French versions.
Of course my experience of Cognac is limited almost only to this tasting, so I can’t say too much about them, but compared to the ones on show I preferred our own brandies easily.
I really can recommend a trip to Van Ryn’s, even if it is just to see the copper pot stills used for the distillation process. It is like looking into the heart of some gargantuan steam-punk starship.
Brandy takes time to get used to and appreciate – I feel I still have some way to go – but the rewards are tremendous, especially when you consider the absolutely brilliant value us South Africans are afforded.
(All the brandies tasted blind. I scored them to see which I preferred. Please don’t take the scores too seriously.)
Klipdrift – Blended brandy – (a blend of natural grape spirit and 3yrs old pot still.)
Slightly grapy on the palate, with upfront vanilla and caramenl, light and nutty. Perhaps a little too spirity. Some apple on the nose. (Others commented on Nougat, marshmallow. 6/10
Three Barrels VSOP. (easily available French Brandy)
Quite spirity. A denser nose than the Klipdrift, more medicinal. Possible sulhpur note on the nose. More viscous. Far less fruit. Rough. 4.5/10
Klipdrift Gold (3yr 5yr 10yr and 12yr blended pot still brandies, more than 10 percent is 20yr old).
Apples, citrus, and burnt orange on the nose with a light caramel side. Spicy and smoky on the palate, some oak characteristics, before it evolves to wider ‘sweeter’ fruit and nut flavours. Waxy texture on the palate. Really enjoyed this 8/10
4 Hennesy VSOP.
Immediate spirit blast, before oak, lacking fruit. Dried fruits, flowers. Christams spices, with quite a dense texture. More savoury/sweet. A strange combination. Unsure about this one. Not quite to my taste. 6.5/10
5. Van Ryn’s 12yr
Fruitiness comes back to the fore. Dried fruits, apricot, and a floral side to it. Spicy, chocolate, white chocolate, rich, glycerin. Very complex. Heavier but very balanced. Goes on for ages. Darker weather, winter fire places, pipes and snuggling up to Stephen Fry. Very very good. 9/10
6. Oude Meester 18year.
Lighter nose, with some orange peel, less dense. Far more linear; like Railroad lines on the palate. Licorice, tight and spicy. Pickled ginger. Ginger. Marzipan. Direct, fresher. Almost saline. (Probably more Chenin Blanc driven apparently) Different, but very satisfying. 8/10
7. Henessey XO
Guessing French as it has more spirit, and a more savoury nose. Rich and dense. Less fruit. Dark chocolate, oaky spice. Others comment on a mineral finish. I can’t find it. 7.5/10
8. AU.RA (Special blend of 20-40 year old pot still brandies by Van Ryn’s, hilariously expensive, selling now for up to R30k a bottle. Not tasted blind)
Honeyed. Dry. Spicy. Fresh and clean despite the density. Sweet dusty nose, aged oak, not brash oak. Kind oak. Very well integrated. Dried fruits, dried leaves, marzipan, chocolate, very complex. Sits forever in the palate. Remarkable, really.