Celebrating 350 years of brandy made at the Cape

Celebrating 350 years of brandy made at the Cape, Emile Joubert traces with relish the distilled spirit’s long journey from rough and raw to refined, mellow and utterly smooth.

Perhaps it was a Dutch thing, but South Africa appears to be the only country in the world with a penchant for historically documenting the evolution of its liquor industry. Thus, no self-respecting local vinophile will be unaware of the fact that wine was first made at the Cape in 1659 – on 2 February, to be exact, thanks to the diary of the first Commander Jan van Riebeeck.

And then, 350 years ago this year, the erstwhile Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) authorities noted that the Cape’s drinks offering had been expanded to include brandy. For in 1672, on a ship by the name of De Pijl, moored in Table Bay, an unnamed cook distilled 1,000 litres of Cape wine into 130 litres of brandy. Thus a new industry was born at the southern tip of Africa, one to complement the burgeoning wine culture that, within a century of its beginning, was already establishing South Africa as an international force in producing quality elixir from the fruit of the vines planted in these newly discovered but geographically ancient soils.

It would, however, be quite a while before Cape brandy would take its rightful place as a product of distinction and quality. For distilled spirit – in brandy, the result of capturing the condensate of a wine – is known for its warm, fortifying and mellow taste, not to mention an uplifting effect on the mind and soul of the drinker thanks to an alcohol content almost four times that of wine.

Seafarers, such as the 17th- and 18th-century Europeans calling at the Cape on their long and strenuous voyages between northern ports and the Far East, showed a particular fondness for brandy, among other alcoholic spirits. History would have it that on the VOC ships a tot of brandy would be promised to the first sailor who spotted Table Mountain. The lust for brandy, heightened by the exertion and deprivation of a few months at sea, would lead to a cacophony of shrieks as the ship neared the Cape, although most of these throaty calls were driven by a wish for a cup of brandy rather than an actual sighting of land.

Brandy has earned itself a place of honour on the vibey cocktail scene. The Brandy Foundation collaborates with mixologists and lifestyle gurus to get brandy accepted as a fashionable and trendy cocktail option.

It can be safely assumed that since the Cape had now distilled its own brandy, thanks to that intrepid cook on board De Pijl, the early VOC settlement became a more spirited place. Bars and taverns – legal and illicit – did a roaring trade as an ever-increasing amount of Cape wine was dedicated to the distillation of brandy, giving the new generations of settlers, the indigenous population and crews from visiting ships a sharp liquid with which to lift the spirits, unleash their innate boisterousness and add a bit of colour to life at the Cape Colony.

When the British took over from the Dutch in 1795, brandy was – along with wheat, wine and barley – already documented as a staple Cape commodity. The Cape was Dutch again from 1803 to reclamation by the British in 1806, and for the following century various British liquor merchants and producers set about attempting to improve the quality of what they termed ‘boor brandy’. For without any regulations and very sparse guidelines in the distillation process, this locally made hooch was known more for its kick and jolt to the system than for quality and the providing of enjoyment of the cultural kind.

But then along came a hero. True to the visionary and pioneering spirit of a fledgling industry in a New World country, one person arrived to forever change the way brandy was to be made in South Africa, creating a legacy on which the image and status of Cape brandy hangs to this day.

The hero was René Santhagens.


It was the thirst for spirits in the dry northern hinterland of South Africa that initially brought the swaggering Belgian René Santhagens to the country in 1897. He arrived in response to an advertisement for a position at the distillery of South Africa-based entrepreneur Samuel Marks. Here René was appointed distiller at the Eerste Fabrieken Distillery based on the farm Hatherley near Pretoria, where he had to churn out brandy, gin, whisky, mampoer and any other kind of alcohol-intense spirit to whet the dusty throats and lift the souls of the thousands of miners seeking their fortunes in the gold fields of the Transvaal.

But René was not your normal distiller. Yes, he arrived in South Africa with an array of kettles and other equipment, but he had learnt his skill and developed a driven passion for distilling wine into the quality spirit that is French Cognac.

Before heading south from Europe, he had accepted an offer from French aristocrat Marquis de Pellerin de Latouche to work on his farms in the Cognac district in south-western France. Here René rapidly expanded his knowledge of making wine and brandy among the local grape-growers, winemakers and distillers. During his French apprenticeship, he met and fell in love with the Marquis’ daughter Jeanne, who was to become his companion as well as supporter and adviser in the quest to craft the wine of the vine into the pure spirit known as Cognac in France and brandy anywhere else.

René’s sojourn in the Transvaal as distiller was interrupted when the Anglo-Boer War commenced in 1899 and the couple went back to France to wait out the conflict. In 1903, they returned to South Africa and decided to settle in the Cape, where the vineyard-
clad slopes, the mountain ranges and the Mediterranean winemaking climate were more conducive to the production of wine and brandy culture than the country’s northern regions were. Here at the Cape, René was introduced to the only brandy being produced in the region, the so-called Kaapse Dop, which was made from grape husks distilled either in small primitive kettles or giant gin stills. He was appalled.

Sold raw in its most basic form, this brandy contained additives such as sugar, colorants and artificial flavourings. Determined to do better, René dedicated his energies to improving the standards of local liquor and to introducing proper production methods for the making of fine brandy.

He set up shop in 1908 after buying the Oude Molen property next to the old millstream at the foot of the Papegaaiberg in Stellenbosch, where Bosman’s Crossing is today. In time, he and Jeanne revamped the simple, single-storey, tin-roofed house into an impressive double-storey mansion with a thatched roof and imposing gable.

René started producing his French-style brandies in 1910, becoming the first man to make brandy in South Africa according to the age-old traditions of Cognac. It was the quality of René’s own product, as well as his personal influence and commitment to a high standard of brandy, that would change the face of this industry forever.

Types of brandy

Blended: A brandy with a minimum of 30% potstill component, aged for three years in barrel. The balance is made up of unmatured wine spirit. Minimum alcohol: 43%.

Vintage: 30–80% potstill brandy, 70–20% unmatured wine spirit. Aged in wood for minimum eight years. Minimum alcohol: 38%.

Potstill: 100% potstill aged for at least three years in wood. Minimum alcohol: 38%.

Legacy of quality

It is at the Oude Molen Distillery in Grabouw that the legacy of René Santhagens lives on. Not only does the venue produce some of the Cape’s finest brandies, but it pays homage to his erstwhile Stellenbosch home Oude Molen and his dedication to excellence in brandy distillation.

Danie Pretorius, commercial manager at Oude Molen, says that René was the true hero of the South African brandy industry. “As in the development of the local wine sector, which required a hero or two to change the course of the industry, so did René make his mark by creating new quality standards for brandy,” he points out.

“The KWV diverted the path of the distillation industry in South Africa from 1918 by providing wine farmers with a regulatory framework for growing grapes and making wine,” says Danie. “And, together with René, it framed the legislation that became the Wine and Spirits Act of 1924, which promulgated specific criteria for brandy distillation and maturation regimes, including permissible additives and fermentation processes.”

The basic tenets, which remain applicable to this day, include the making of a wine to the specific quality regulations required for brandy distillation. The wine must be double-distilled in a copper potstill. And the resultant clear distillate must be aged in oak barrels not bigger than 340 litres for a minimum of three years.

“This is in fact stricter than the regulations in Cognac, where only two years’ barrel ageing is required,” says Danie from beneath Oude Molen’s spacious tasting venue, which is adorned with black-and-white images of a debonair René Santhagens. He points to one of the images. “Oude Molen and the entire brandy industry has one person to thank for the excellent level of quality for which South African brandy has become world renowned. And that’s that man.”

Back in Stellenbosch, in the region where René began his brandy foray, the Van Ryn distillery stands as another tribute to the quality of South African brandy. Here the specific production methods and requirements are to be seen as part of a rivetingly informative brandy tour. Van Ryn’s vast storage houses contain 30,000 barrels of maturing brandy, truly putting you in the spirit. Entering one of these barrel-adorned caverns has your nose delighting in the delicious and intoxicating scent of brandy ageing in oak, your mouth beginning to water at the prospect of – one day – tasting the barrels’ contents.

Van Ryn brandy master Marlene Bester has the task of blending these barrels of variously aged brandy into the final bottled products for Van Ryn’s potstill brandy range, which comprises labels bearing 10, 12, 15 and 20 years. The number on the bottle, it’s worth noting, represents the youngest portion of aged brandy.

Brandy and a hint of caramel are a perfect match in this cocktail concocted specially for Stellenbosch Visio.

The Stellenbosch Visio cocktail

  • 50ml Oude Molen 100 Reserve
  • 20ml Bols Crème de Cacao
  • 10ml caramel syrup
  • 50ml cream

Shake the ingredients together well before passing the mixture through a fine sieve. Serve with Nitro Caramel popcorn on the side.

“The basis of all good brandy is good wine,” says Marlene. “Most South African brandies originate as wines made from Colombar and Chenin Blanc grapes, two varieties that are excellent for producing the fresh, young, low-alcohol wines used as the base wine for brandy distillation. You simply cannot make good brandy from poor wine, and in South Africa, we are fortunate to have white wines specially made to the requirements of those of us who have the pleasure of distilling them: low alcohol and bright acidity. And no sulphur is added, as this leaves a residue in the stills and the maturation process.”

Standing in these vast storage spaces with thousands of barrels and a rich woody, sweet alcohol scent hanging in great pools above your head, you sense the dramatic influence of wood ageing on the spirit.

Marlene concurs. “South African potstill brandy has to stay in wood for a minimum of three years, but distilleries like Van Ryn have barrels going back decades,” she says. “Nobody quite knows what happens in those barrels. Obviously, this is where the brandy picks up its golden to brown hue from the wood, as immediately after the distillation, the liquid is as clear as water. But with the oxygen seeping through the wood and interacting with the brandy, amazing aromas and flavours develop.”

She points to a row of barrels. “When I get to blend the final product and draw samples, I’ll find two barrels of brandy, both distilled 10 years ago from the same wine and that have been lying alongside each other for a decade,” she says. “But when I draw samples from each to analyse by smell and taste, their development has been completely different. So nobody quite knows what happens in those mysterious years of wood maturation.”

The South African Brandy Foundation

Unique to the local liquor industry, the South African Brandy Foundation is an inclusive representative body founded in 1984 to promote the excellence, versatility and quality of the country’s brandy offering. It is a world-class example of an organisation representing various producers and companies who, while fierce competitors in the market-place, work together to manage a platform committed to the generic promotion of one of their most famous commercial offerings, in this case brandy.

Christelle Reade-Jahn, the current director of the SA Brandy Foundation, says the goals of the foundation are twofold. “First and foremost, brandy is a major contributor to the South African economy. It offers thousands of employment opportunities on the wine farms where grapes for our product are grown, in the production of the distillation wine and the brandies themselves, and in the supply chain. The foundation acts as the link between the industry and government.

“There are tariffs and levies to negotiate, laws surrounding the responsible use of alcohol to implement and oversee, and hundreds of thousands of jobs to represent when dealing with the authorities. As you can imagine, the past two-and-a-half years have been fraught with challenges owing to the disruption Covid-19 caused in the liquor industry, among others. The Brandy Foundation had to work closely with other liquor industry bodies to negotiate some tricky waters.”

The other task of the foundation is to generically promote the quality, diversity, culture and inherent traits of the gorgeous creation that is South African brandy. And Christelle relishes the task of donning these two very different hats, from hard-core industry lobbyist in the circles of government administration to acting as an ambassador for the distilled offering of the vine.

“The Brandy Foundation is almost 40 years old and I don’t think that I or my predecessors have had a single dull day in the job,” she says. “Like South Africa’s wines, our brandies are just so startlingly diverse, with so many individual characteristics, that it’s impossible to be anything but enthusiastic about this category of the drinks industry. From terroir-driven estate brandies to the crafted potstill elixirs and the exciting lifestyle range of blended brandies that have been part of all South African cultures for decades, it is just incredibly stimulating to represent this product to the trade and the consumer.”

And today more than ever, the challenge is to make brandy exciting in the eyes of the younger, fashion-conscious consumer who is exposed to the dynamic and creative marketing done in the spirits sector, much of it by huge international brandy producers.

“Among the younger adults, brown spirits such as brandy, Cognac and whisky are sometimes a second choice after white spirits like gin, vodka and white rum that are first choices in the vibey cocktail culture,” adds Christelle. “Here the Brandy Foundation has to ensure we keep our ear to the ground, reading the market trends and collaborating with mixologists and lifestyle gurus to see how we can get brandy seen as a fashionable and trendy option when it comes to creating and offering cocktails in aspirational settings.”

She laughs with pleasure. “Here I think I have the best job in the world, truly, and if more people knew about the Brandy Foundation I would be inundated with job applications,” she says. “On the one hand I get to promote the luxury surrounding the classy potstill brandies and it is heavenly just to be around these flavours and aromas. And on the other hand, the foundation is out there seeking opportunities to get brandy noticed, used and consumed in night clubs and cocktail lounges; and all this amid the cultural diversity that makes South Africa as exciting as the category of great brandy the country has created.”

Tasting brandy

Nobody, just nobody, can tell anyone how, what, where or when he or she should enjoy brandy (or any other drink). When it comes to brandy, it is the complexity of aromas and flavours and the heady, seductive frame of high-alcohol distilled spirit that draws me in.

Brandy time, therefore, is me time. It will involve a potstill brandy. Oude Molen XO, an elixir blended from barrels of which the youngest component is 10 years old, is a current favourite. Next on the list would be the Van Ryn’s 12 because it is a great brandy and the house from where it originates underscores Stellenbosch as not only the Cape’s wine capital, but a major force in brandy as well.

The measure to pour should be at least three tots, as the true enjoyment of a good brandy requires a diverse approach. You begin by sniffing. Then come a few tentative lip-wetting sips. And then, when the spirit has warmed the stomach, heightened the senses and elated the mind, modest draughts of brandy are taken so the pleasure may overwhelm.

In the glass – a snifter, of course – add a block of ice to the three tots. The melting ice causes a slight dilution, allowing the brandy’s flavours to be released and flutter lazily to the surface, like just-hatched fireflies.

Then there is the smoke. My ultimate companion to a good brandy experience is the civilised practice of smoking a fine cigar. A Havana: Cohiba, Montecristo or Partagas, if a choice is available. Cut, lit and smoking, the cigar is held in one hand, sending its stream of aromatic blue smoke drifting in silk threads into the air. In the other, the glass of brandy, now cool and golden, ready to be sipped and swallowed.

A great potstill brandy will be a masterly integrated sensorial experience. Smooth, delicate and soft to the edge of lushness, the raw alcohol has been mellowed and smoothened by years of ageing in the cask. Yet, the heart of the brandy beats with the spirit of the distillation, the fiery blaze of alcohol combines with the lushness to unleash the darts of splendid flavours. There will be dried apricot and dense, dark prune. A touch of ground coffee and life-affirming orange peel with some exotic notes of ground cardamom and nutmeg. The brandy will flow, true and soulful, a work of art that began with the crafting of nature in the vineyard.

Then a deep puff from the cigar, the smoke warm and drying the palate like a fragrant dessert wine. The brandy adds a touch of something unashamedly decadent. But something you know you deserve.