How to drink and enjoy brandy

South Africa’s love affair with brandy is almost as old as the first Dutch settlement at the Cape, stated Pieter de Bod, master distiller at KWV. Not much has changed, as many South Africans will tell you that nothing compliments a braai and a ‘kuier’ like a glass of quality brandy, finds Danielle van Wyk.

Origins of Brandy in South Africa

“The word brandy comes from the Dutch brandewijn meaning, literally “burnt” or distilled wine. South Africa’s first brandy was distilled in 1672, 20 years after the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck,” added de Bod.

A chef of the cape harbour is reported to have created the first cape brandy in 1672. Admittedly the first Cape brandies were a little rough, but they still proved very popular with the sailors and our brandies were known across the seas as Cape Smoke, explained Nick Holdcroft, brandy ambassador for Distell.

“Fortunately South African has used the last 350 years well and have improved our brandy production methods and quality of our product with the help of a few key individuals. Rene Santagen, the Collison’s brothers and the Van Ryn family have all played an important role and are good examples of South Africa’s brandy pioneers. Since the beginning of the 20th Century and especially over the last few decades, South Africa has established a reputation for producing some of the best brandy in the world, and in recent times it is common place to see a South African brandy winning the best brandy award at almost every important international competition,” commented Holdcroft.

How Brandy is consumed today

Taste is personal preference and while there isn’t a universally accepted correct way to drink a brandy, there are a few common ways.

“There are a few brandy guidelines that have been developed over many years that can certainly enhance the enjoyment of South Africa’s most noble spirit,” added Holdcroft.

One first needs to understand that there are in fact three styles of brandy in SA; Blended brandy, Vintage brandy and Potstill brandy. Each having their own traits and subsequently one would find each of them are enjoyed differently.

“The best way to serve it in is a brandy snifter or brandy balloon, rather than a highball or tumbler. This is because the wide base of the glass narrows towards the top, allowing the aromas to concentrate. Unlike wine, which you are meant to swirl in the glass to release its aromas, brandy should be kept stable in the glass otherwise some of the liquid’s precious volatile flavors are lost,” de Bod said.

When opting to enjoy a brandy as is, ideally, you should first sniff the top of the glass so you can acclimatise to the alcohol. This is where you pick up the top notes of vanilla. As you smell deeper into the glass, you experience the richer, more complex flavors. Although you might see people cupping their hands around the bowl of the brandy balloon because they say this warms the glass and the brandy to improve the experience of aroma and taste, this is a practice that was initiated in France, where ambient temperatures in winter are cooler, and hand-warming is needed to bring out the aromas. In our climate, this isn’t essential, says de Bod.

“Blended brandy is 43% alcohol by volume (a/v) and is normally drink with mixers as a “long” drink while Potstill and Vintage brandies at 38%- 40% a/v is normally drink neat just as it is or with a block or 2 ice. Blended brandies are also served with coke, ginger ale, fruit juices, water or soda with lot of ice. Potstill brandies e.g. KWV 10, KWV 12, KWV 15 and KWV 20 is normally served as a drink before supper or as an after supper drink with desserts or on its own in a ball glass to appreciate the taste and smell. The best temperature to serve Potstill brandies are between 14 – 16 °C,” de Bod added.

Vintage brandies, on the other hand, ought to be treated with a little more respect and should ideally be enjoyed with as little interference as possible.

The consumption of brandies have also largely and more recently been paired and enjoyed with chocolate, as restaurants and distilleries have increasingly offered these tastings and pairings. This, adding to the more sophisticated style of consumption that people are beginning to appreciate.

While there has been a shift in consumer patterns, as more people opt to enjoy a good Potstill these days, for the most part brandy and coke is still the most popular way South Africans enjoy their brandy.

Another interesting point that Holdcroft makes is that where previously brandy was considered to be a male-orientated drink, females are nowadays getting into the market.

Brandy is without a doubt a very versatile drink and one that has carried South Africans through many festivities. It seems no matter how you prefer enjoying it, it remains an integral part of South Africa’s palette and one that we should be proud of.

So next time you’re drinking brandy remember to raise a glass to the rich history of one of South Africa’s best loved luxuries.

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