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A 1st Principles barrel of brandy.
Is Brandy the noblest of all spirits?

By Ivan Oosthuizen

(10 Minute Read)

Few novelists can grab our imagination and whisk us away to an earlier time in history like Ken Follet. Many of his novels are set in times and locations when the world was scarcely populated, and danger lurked around every corner. Follet, is a master creator of intricate tales containing plots riddled with high drama, love, and war, capable of stretching our nerves tighter than a snare drum. Evil characters are portrayed as lords, knights, priests, and kings, with humble and freedom loving nobleman fighting for justice, filling every page with suspense and heart stopping action. A constant push and pull between forces of evil and good.

To read a Follet novel is literally to be schooled in life. One can just about hear the sound of horses galloping; the thudding sound of leather against flesh and the metallic clang of swords against armour. Countless scenes culminate in celebrations, meetings or family gatherings involving the quenching of thirst and hunger. No scene is complete without the customary pouring of ale first into wooden cups, then down bloodthirsty throats. As Follet introduces more affluent characters into a novel, so do the drinks mutate from ale to darker and more sophisticated spirits. By association we have come to equate dark liquors like brandy and cognac to nobility, aristocracy, power, and lives lived beyond the fold of suffering and material need.

The price, quality and heritage of Brandy and Cognac creates in our minds the implicit spirit when we think about wealth, class, and a good life. Cast your mind for a moment to countless scenes from Hollywood classics where the imbibing of a neat brandy, many times accompanied by a dark Cuban cigar, are the necessary elements for a successful office celebration of a new business venture, or a successful event, or in some cases the end of a romantic evening. Brandy seemed to have captured our imaginations in a variety of ways and for a number of different reasons. Our liquor of choice, the one we enjoy, appears to reveal something about who we are as individuals in this bizarre world. There is of course the hardcore Brandy-and-Coke brigade with their own tales of adventure and daring shenanigans, but we shall leave that for another day…

Each generation has to face their own unique challenges in life. If we think about it for a moment; we can only really know our own life stories and our own daily struggles. Has anything really changed since the time of Follet’s characters? Is it possible that, within all of this, we have discovered a bond between man and his drink? Alcohol eases our existential pain, and it has done so for many generations – man and spirit, spirit and man.

Has Brandy indeed achieved the accolade of being called the noblest of all spirits?

BUT WHAT EXACTLY IS BRANDY THEN?

Brandy is derived from the Dutch word brandewijn (directly translated to mean “burnt wine”) and is made by distilling rudimentary fruit wine. All brandies are aged in wooden barrels (see below) and can be edited and enhanced with colours and flavours, although not preferred amongst the purist Brandy Masters.

In the South African context, the production and classification of Brandy is highly regulated and legislated affair. In Part 1 of the Liquor Products Act 60 Of 1989, the act list the specific requirements for Pot Still Brandy (Section 12), Brandy (Section 13) and Vintage Brandy (Section 14) respectively.

The best Brandies and Cognacs are held for decades to achieve incredible depth of flavour. If pirates were more content to operate in-land, perhaps they would have traded their bottles of rum for Brandy!

Brandy is not so much made as it slowly evolves and grows; a live feat of nature and a true reflection of what is possible when the best of nature and man work in unison. It all starts with the farmer and nature, together producing healthy grapes with character and personality. The winemaker, with the help of yeast cells, transforms the grapes into rebate wine. Next in line is the distiller, whom, with the help of copper contact and heat, coaxes the best raw brandy from this wine. Lastly, oak barrels, in combination with lots of patience and time, plays their own special role, and, after a number of years, allow brandy to emerge from its wooden cocoon.

Good quality Brandies, Cognacs, an Armagnacs (only distilled once in comparison with regular Cognac) were once thought of as old fashioned after dinner drinks, but smaller distilleries and producers through their creative flair, using unusual fruit basis, and, by applying artisanal techniques have once again positioned the dark liquid centre-stage. Pisco from Peru and Chile are made from a variety of grapes and has taken the industry by storm. Clear fruit brandies known as eau de vies (pronounced ooh-duh-vee) – have transformed cherry and apricot based spirits.

A BRANDY FOR EVERY OCCASION…OR WALLET

Fine brandies are often aged in oak barrels that softens the base spirit’s abrasive notes while adding flavours and aromas. Cognac might be the most strictly regulated spirit with regards to the ageing process. French authorities ensure that each product is labelled according to the duration and style of ageing in limousine oak barrels.

Brandy (and Cognac), like Whiskey, is classified in terms of the duration the precious liquid spends inside a barrel. The older the specific blend, the more expensive and exclusive the resulting brandy.

The following classifications are most commonly used:

  • Very Special (VS) Brandy must be at least 3 years in the barrel.
  • Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP) Brandy must be at least 5 years in the barrel.
  • Extra Old (XO) Brandy at least 10 years in the barrel.

IS BRANDY MADE IN THE TRUE SENSE OF THE WORD?

Making brandy is a misnomer; it’s more accurate to say that there are various custodians that watch over it at the different stages of its life cycle. The farmer grows the grapes – which is the foundation of any good brandy, and nothing can ever make up for poor quality raw materials. The farmer is the custodian in charge of taking care of the vines and the grapes while the climate, soil and seasons interact with one another.

The wine maker is responsible for the next phase which is to strike the perfect balance between sugar and acidity, and to oversee the important role played by the yeast. As the yeast labours away to turn sugar into alcohol and to create fabulous flavonoids, it’s easy to see that this is indeed where the magic happens.

Like all of nature’s best artists, yeast performs best under ideal conditions created by the skill of the winemaker. No sulphates can be added to rebate wine as preservative since sulphur is corrosive to a copper still and utmost care, diligence and hygiene has to be practiced in order to produce the perfect rebate wine.

A robust low sulphur rebate wine with the right personality and flavour quirks is handed over to the next custodian – the distiller. Once again, we see the creative interaction between elements, this time, heat, copper and rebate wine, together forming a melodic symphony, the distiller acting as conductor.

The clear, fierce and high-strength offspring of the distillation process is placed in barrels and goes into hiding until its adolescence. Barrel aging is also a mesmerising permutation of art, science and patience. In the barrel, with time, and the flavonoids in the wood, softens and mellows the fiery clear spirits that emerges from the copper still, into the dark, rich, and smooth well of flavour which is mature Brandy.

Finally, the Brandy Master polishes and blends this liquid into a final product – the last step in a number of preceding steps – overseeing rather than making. The Brandy Master uses one process but is able to produce a variety of different tastes and flavours through a process by infusing Brandy with a number of botanicals.

INFUSING BRANDY AND THE ART OF FLAVOUR

The production of Brandy and Cognac, for obvious commercial and quality purposes, remains to be a highly regulated and legislated affair, especially in regions known for their high-quality spirits. In this sense, infusing Brandy with anything other than what is considered to be accepted distilling practices, is certainly frowned upon in purist circles, and in some cases even chastised.

Having said that, we do live in an interesting time of creative handcrafted spirits and new ideas often lead to new products, flavours and traditions. In this sense Brandy can be infused with complementary flavours. For example, dried fruit becomes a sweet, boozy treat after the infusion and can be used for a variety of other uses such as cooking, baking or flavouring cocktails. You can also infuse with fruit, for instance apples in Apple Brandy (called Calvados as it may not be called “Brandy” in South Africa!), or play with various combinations of other fruits such as:

Pear

A pear infused Brandy works well in autumnal cocktails. you can also add a cinnamon stick or do for great flavour pairing.

Dried Apricot

Bitesize dried apricots are a perfect option when infusing almost any kind of Brandy. You can add a half a vanilla pod or a cinnamon stick to lessen the infusion’s fruit forward expression.

Apple

Most bottles of apple Brandy respond well to an apple infusion. Add in any combination of dried cloves, allspice, and a cinnamon stick for a spiced infusion.

Cherry

Cherries impart a sweet tart note to a Brandy infusion. You can use one tablespoon of dried leaves or allspice to add a herbal note of flavour.

Walnut

Infuse roasted walnuts into a young, gentle Brandy or Cognac to impart a rich, nutty flavour. You can add a handful of dried fruit, such as currants or golden raisins for added depth.

Prune

Infusing with dried prunes yields boozy fruit that you can eat or use as a garnish for cocktails. Add in a handful of other dried or dehydrated fruits like a fig or slices of pear or apple.

AN OVERVIEW OF 1ST PRINCIPLES ATTRACTIVE RANGE OF BRANDY’S

Wedged between the Cederberg and the Atlantic, the Olifant River Valley offers a plethora of microclimates. Fed with quality water from the Cederberg Mountains, it winds its way through constantly changing climates to finally spill into the Atlantic near Koekenaap in the harsh and arid southern border of Namaqualand and the rich Knersvlakte.

This is where 1st Principles Brandies start their journey, winding their way through hands of the farmers, winemaker, distiller and finally into oak barrels and into this bottle.

These are all Brandies with a unique heritage and a true sense of place, ideal for the true Brandy connoisseur, with only 500 bottles available from the cask. It embodies an exciting diversity and best of all, has no water added to the blend – the noblest of spirits in its purest form and a unique true expression of the art – unfiltered and bottled at cask strength – one cask at a time.

Organic grapes grown in the Olifants River Valley, wine made at Stellar Organics, distilled and barrel selected by Cobus Gelderblom and matured at Oude Molen. The dream team collaborated to oversee these expressions of the art of brandy making.

Very Special: VS – A single cask, barrel strength brandy that spent least 3 years in the barrel. Bottles marked by cask and bottle number with the unique alcohol content of the barrel. In the order of 71% ABV but varies per batch.

Very Special Old Pale: VSOP – A single cask, barrel strength brandy that spent at least 5 years in the barrel. Bottles individually numbered and marked by the cask number and barrel alcohol content.

Single Barrel Brandy – 1st Principles looks for unique barrels of brandy and save them from the obscurity of getting lost in a blend. These brandies must be a unique expression of the art and collaboration of nature and man that makes brandy such a noble spirit.

These single casks are then cut by pure water to 40% abv – nothing else added. Every bottle is numbered and marked with the single barrel number. Maximum of 500 bottles per cask.

WHO’S IN THE MOOD FOR A BRANDY COCKTAIL?

Sidecar

The Sidecar first appeared in a cocktail manual in 1922 and rose to prominence in Europe during the 20s and 30s. Aficionados spent much of the 20th century arguing over the perfect sidecar some insisted on a dry expression, while others prefer the sweeter finish.

SIDECAR COCKTAIL RECIPE:

  1. Moisten the outer rim of a chilled coupe glass with a slice of lemon and coat it with refined sugar.
  2. Pour 30 ml of Brandy into a shaker.
  3. Add 20 ml of orange liqueur.
  4. 20 ml of fresh lemon juice.
  5. Add ice cubes and shake for 10 seconds and strain into a chilled coupe glass.
  6. Serve it up and garnish with a lemon twist.
A black-and-yellow vector illustration of a Sidecar Cocktail with garnish.
Vieux Carré

The Vieux Carré is a boozy cocktail named after the famous French Quarter in New Orleans. Walter Bergeron of the historic Hotel Monteleone created it in the late 1930s, and the recipe remains largely unchanged. Some ingredients are tricky to source but are worth all the effort.

VIEUX CARRé COCKTAIL RECIPE:

  1. Pour 30 ml of Brandy into a mixing glass.
  2. Add 30 ml of Rye Whiskey.
  3. Add 30 ml of sweet vermouth.
  4. Add 1 teaspoon of Benedictine, 1 one dash of Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters.
  5. Fill the mixing glass with ice and stir with a bar spoon until the mixture is cold.
  6. Strain into a chilled ice-filled double old-fashioned glass and serve.
A Vieux Carré Cocktail in an ornamental tumbler glass.

A SMALL MIRACLE

Some years ago, I went through a crafty phase in my life. I wanted to make things with my bare hands (I suspect I was under the influence of the artisanal movement). To see artistic creations come to light under my skilful application and use of all sorts of hand tools. What initially started out as small gardening projects soon escalated into a fully-fledged business plan to turn old furniture bought at thrift store prices into valuables worth thousands. If it was only that simple right.

When my wife finally demanded her dining room back and when numerous unfinished furniture pieces (some not even started yet) stared back at me, I had to admit defeat. But why was I not able to make a success of this simple business idea? I thought about it long and hard and in the end, it came down to my lack of patience. To do anything with a piece of furniture takes time, effort and skill. A lack of patience is the carpenters worst nightmare!

I guess what I am trying to say, is that there is a strong correlation between my failed endeavour and the process of creating Brandy; it takes capital, effort, time and most of all patience. The moment any of these elements are missing, you end up with a wasted project and Brandy that simply won’t be able to compete with what is essentially some exceptionally good Brandies on the market.

What makes Brandy so uniquely different from all other spirits is the fact that it passes through many skilful hands and processes. There are many different steps involved and so much that could go wrong. To make a good Brandy is really all about stitching together a series of different natural and man-made processes and hoping you got it right. Brandy is actually nothing short of a small miracle.

If Brandy could talk (no pun intended) it would be able to tell us a tale of wonder, miracles and craft. So many steps, so many hands, so many natural elements. Brandy is made with principled processes that take time and is not tarnished by rushed endeavours or irresponsible actions. Making Brandy is truly an expression of art.

Next time you sit down to enjoy a Brandy, acknowledge the skill, the time, dare I say the love that went into creating it, it’ is the noblest of all spirits after all.

* Keep an eye out on social media for a 1st Principles Father’s Day Brandy special to be announced soon.

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