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THAT’S THE SPIRIT

Brandy, South Africa’s overlooked world champion

(Image by Gundula Vogel from Pixabay)

In wild worlds in hidden parts of South Africa, brandy has been made for centuries, whether fine brandies for export or fired-up spirits called Brandslang. Oh, and did you know that witblits is a brandy?

 

See this recipe for a cool brandy Dom Pedro

The author supports the Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster response non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.

Most of us are familiar with wine routes, especially in the Western Cape. But did you know there are brandy routes too? Producers can be found from the Northern Cape to the Klein Karoo, from Wellington to Elgin, and in the familiar wine valleys of Stellenbosch, Klapmuts and Franschhoek.

According to the SA Brandy Foundation, “comprehensive legislation and a proud tradition ensure that our brandy is of the highest quality. The title of Worldwide Best Brandy at the International Wine and Spirits competition has been awarded to a South African brandy 15 times in the past 20 years”.

The SA Brandy Foundation is a good place to begin a journey of brandy discovery. I just happened to be crossing the country so I scheduled two visits: Boplaas in Calitzdorp and Grundheim near Oudtshoorn. Brandy can be enjoyed in many ways, whether it’s in a snifter, over ice and topped with cola, or in cocktails, classic or trendy. Truth be told, I was going to Boplaas mainly because of its award-winning whisky; the brandy angle is a bonus, and it’s been made there since the late 1800s when it was predominantly a fruit farm. The brandy barrels would be loaded onto ox wagons and taken to Worcester. From there they were put on a train to Cape Town, taken to the harbour and shipped to the UK. 

In the time when the KWV (Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika), which was founded in 1918, kept a stranglehold on the South African alcohol industry, nobody could sell anything under their own brand name. Sixth generation distiller at Boplaas, Daniel Nel, showed me the still his grandfather used, which is more than 100 years old. When the “law” (aka KWV) arrived in Calitzdorp to confiscate the 40 or so running stills in the area, Oupa Nel, also Daniel, convinced them to allow him to keep it. The compromise was two massive holes being punched in it.

Daniel Nel of Boplaas. On the left is the still his grandfather used, with holes punched in it when KWV controlled the alcohol industry. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

“When they lifted the ban in 1989, he got the first distilling licence, and began making brandy again. In 1994 my grandfather was on a plane from Cape Town to George and happened to be sitting next to Nelson Mandela. They started talking and he came to visit here in Calitzdorp, before he was president, and at his inauguration they served our brandy,” said Nel. “They stayed in contact and when the computer room was set up at the high school in Calitzdorp, he came again, and we all met him.”

The old still – with the holes filled in – was last used as recently as three years ago, and is good to go. However, a new copper multicolumn still was bought to take its place, and named Falcon. It was acquired to produce whisky and gin.

Nel has been the distiller at Boplaas for four years; his background is in finance and stock broking, with a degree in investment management. “After a trip to the US we started distilling whisky, and then gin began picking up so we started making that too. Eventually I came to take over the whole distilling business.”

It represents a relatively small part of the overall family business, with a small vineyard of Colombar (as the variety is called here) providing grapes for limited quantities of brandy, and many wines and ports, but as a single product, whisky occupies a big place. “Dad likes to say I studied investment management so I should get my money back because I clearly didn’t learn anything, by coming back to the farm,” said Nel.

Because of the hot climate, Nel already knew brandy matures faster than usual, and whisky would be the same. “I also have access to the best barrels, those which have been previously used for port,” said Nel. Port barrels are considered the best in the world, and something special for finishing whisky maturation. They’re so scarce, distilleries in Scotland will make port purely for the barrels. “The most expensive whiskies are those aged in port barrels,” said Nel.

Boplaas’s whisky is made with South African yellow maize and column distilled (not pot stilled). “It’s cleaner and more neutral,” said Nel. “Initial maturation is in bourbon barrels for five years, then in brandy barrels or port barrels, with about 10,000 litres per year being put away.”

A barrel tasting of the Boplaas whisky which finishes its maturation in port barrels. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

The three whiskies in the range are 6YO Tawny Cask, 8YO Single Cask (Tawny Cask) and Rum Cask Finish. A limited release 9YO is about to be launched, but only in 30 teardrop decanters which will be filled straight from the barrel, unfiltered and at barrel-strength ABV (about 58-58%). A litre will cost R5,000, a price which includes a tasting experience at the distillery, and pre-release samples throughout the year, so think of it as an exclusive club. For more information, click here

About half an hour from Boplaas, gravel roads and Google Maps notwithstanding, is Grundheim, another farm which has been in the family for six generations. It makes a range of wines, brandy, gin, rum, vermouth, witblits, and witblits-based liqueurs in flavours like hazelnut, strawberry, honey and coffee.

Since all spirits are clear until they’ve been matured in wood, witblits is a brandy of sorts, also being made from grapes, and distilled from low wine. In this case Colombar, Hanepoot, or a blend of the two. It famously packs a punch, and if it’s not quite enough for you, Grundheim makes one with chilli. It’s called Brandslang (literal translation from the Afrikaans: burn snake, which says it all really).

Grundheim, somewhere near Oudtshoorn, produces wine, gin, rum, brandy, witblits and vermouth. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

The wood still, fuelled by fire, is operated by Jan Goliath whose father and grandfather before him did so as well, on this farm. Previously, Elana Grundling’s late husband Danie was the sixth generation to distil here, and his father Oupa Dys, 84 years old, was summoned to tell me his stories of the past. Shame, it looked as if he’d been roused from a nice afternoon nap but he rose to the task with rambling tales of the farm’s history, and how his great-grandfather had taken ox wagons to Bloemfontein and traded moskonfyt, wine and witblits for livestock; sometimes, he needed a new team of oxen to make the return trip. “The world was wild here,” said Oupa Dys.

Witblits has always been made at Grundheim, the first to register stills with the police – three of them. “We won’t mention the ones that perhaps were a bit unlawful,” chuckled Oupa Dys,

“My father was the first legal witblits producer that could sell it legally to a bottle store or a hotel,” he continued. “It took two and a half years to get the licence. Before that, customers came to fetch it in barrels. Trains were the legal mode of transport to the interior. How they paid for it I never knew. It would be disguised in a vinegar bottle,” he laughed. “The guard on the train got his cut too, and kept his eye on the cargo.” 

Oom Dys Grundling and his daughter-in-law Elana. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

The first vineyards were planted in 1818, focusing on the sweet varieties. Due to the drought – at seven years almost the longest Oupa Dys can recall – grapes are bought in now. Grundheim registered its trademark and began selling under its own label in 1994. For more information, click here.

From centuries of history, fast forward to a modern brandy – two of them actually, which are pot-stilled infusions. Towards the end of 2020, Musgrave Crafted Spirits (we know it for its gin) released Musgrave Copper Vanilla and Musgrave Copper Black Honey, which received 4 and 4 ½ stars from Platter’s Wine Guide judges respectively.

Okay, confession time. I’m not a brandy drinker, as such. I don’t dislike it but for some reason I’ve never made good friends with it like I have with wine and whisky. However, on a trip to Spain I was introduced to café carajillo. First of all, it’s a civilised country which wakes up late and stays up late, so your first beverage of the day at a café in a tiny plaza can feasibly be at 10am. A coffee with a shot (large) of brandy on the side is just right with a bag of churros. You can sip them alternately, all of one then all of the other, or tip the brandy into your coffee. At home, I make it old Irish Coffee style, with thick cream on top, but without added sugar because brandy brings its own sweetness that whisky does not.

Musgrave’s perfect serve for the Black Honey is with ginger ale and a garnish of lime; with the Vanilla, soda water and a slice of fresh orange. Or try one of their Dom Pedros and call them dessert at your next dinner party.

Burnt honey and orange Dom Pedro. (Photo: Supplied)

Burnt honey & orange Dom Pedro

(Serves: 2)

Ingredients

1 orange, segmented

40 ml honey

Pinch of salt

80 ml cream

500 g vanilla ice cream

100 ml Musgrave Black Honey Copper

To garnish:

2 halved dehydrated orange slices 

Method

Place the orange segments into a pot with the honey and a small pinch of salt. Place the pot over a low-medium heat. Stir the oranges through the honey so everything is coated and sticky. Allow this to cook slowly until the honey turns a dark caramel colour, then deglaze with the cream and stir through thoroughly. 

Remove the pot from the heat and put the contents into a bowl and into the fridge to chill completely. 

Once the mixture is fully chilled, put it into a blender and blend until completely smooth. Then add the ice cream and Musgrave Black Honey Copper, blend quickly to combine well. 

Divide into two glasses and top with your garnish.

Mango chai Dom Pedro. (Photo: Supplied)

Mango chai Dom Pedro

(Serves: 2)

Ingredients

100 ml coconut cream

2 chai tea bags

2.5 ml ground cinnamon 

150 g frozen mango pieces

100 ml Musgrave Vanilla Copper

500 g vanilla ice cream

To garnish:

Ground cinnamon 

Method

Heat the coconut cream, chai tea bags and cinnamon in a saucepan over a gentle heat.

Once the coconut cream starts to simmer, remove from the heat and allow it to infuse for 15-20 minutes. Strain and discard the tea bags. 

Chill the coconut cream in the fridge and let it cool completely.

Once chilled, blend with the mango, Musgrave Vanilla Copper and ice cream. Blend on high until smooth. 

Pour into two glasses and top with a dusting of cinnamon powder. DM/TGIFood

For more information, click here.

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  • “Brandslang” could refer to a snake that burns, but it is also the word for a fire-hose; like that used by fire fighters.