A taste of South Africa’s exclusive and innovative brands of cognac, brandy and whisky
“The tools I need for my trade are paper, a typewriter and a little whisky,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. My own globetrotting whisky travels have taken me around the Scottish Highlands and islands, Ireland, Tasmania, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail . . . sipping my way through a fabulous range of new releases around the world—and right here in South Africa. Papa Hemingway sure would be impressed.
Van Loveren of Robertson recently launched Scottish Cousin, a blend of fine grain and malt whisky—distilled, blended and bottled in Scotland—to complement its Four Cousins wine brand. The first family-owned winery in South Africa to create its own whisky label collaborated with Angus Dundee, an independent, family-owned distillery in Scotland.
Neil Retief, co-owner of Van Loveren, comments: “Four Cousins is the biggest selling wine brand in a bottle in South Africa—and whisky is a growing market in the world. We decided to extend our family in Scotland. The Four Cousins brand is strong enough that people will be curious to want to experience our Scottish Cousins whiskies.”
Scottish Cousin 5 Year Old (R199) is medium-bodied and smooth with a creamy fudge palate; Scottish Cousin 8 Year Old (R270) is light- to medium-bodied, with mellow honeyed, sweet cinnamon and roasted chestnut flavours. My favourite, Scottish Cousin 12 Year Old (R380), is full-bodied and luxurious, with a spicy, peppery palate of vanilla, chocolate and roasted coffee.
Riding a tidal wave of demand from markets from the Far East to the US, Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky (R249) is exported around the world. Competing against 70 countries, Bain’s won World’s Best Grain Whisky at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards, and the Whiskies of the World Trophy at the prestigious International Spirits Challenge in 2016.
Acclaimed master distiller Andy Watts says, “Bain’s is such an incredible success story for South African whisky. When launching this whisky in 2009, I set out to showcase the essence of South African whisky, to set a benchmark for single-grain whisky in the world, and to highlight the strides that we have taken in our short history of making whisky. Our grain, which is locally grown, provides the ideal source for the whisky, which is complemented by the sweet notes of the oak.”
Distilled, matured and filled at The James Sedgwick Distillery (1886) in Wellington, Bain’s is double-matured in old bourbon casks for up to five years. This exceptionally smooth, full-flavoured whisky pays tribute not only to one of the most picturesque passes in South Africa but also honours Andrew Geddes Bain, the creative genius who built it.
Winner of the 2012 World Whisky Award for the Best Blended Whisky, Three Ships was South Africa’s very first single-malt whisky as well as the first to distill, blend and mature both the malt and grain components locally. The innovative James Sedgwick Distillery recently released the 2005 vintage of Three Ships 10 Year Old Single Malt (R525).
Distiller Andy Watts explains that, “Warmer temperatures in the Cape accelerate the interaction between cask and spirit, developing elegance associated with much older whiskies. When we launched South Africa’s first single malt in 2003, we didn’t have a whisky style policy in place. Since then, we have actively planned toward this moment where we are now in the position to launch a vintage statement single malt, each year—one with a defined style and vision.”
Three Ships 15 Year Old Pinotage Cask Finish (R1 500) is the world’s first whisky finished in a Pinotage cask: imparting typical red berry fruit to the whisky, softening the malt component while complementing the sweetness of the grain. Watts comments, “Whisky finishes are nothing new, but never before has a Pinotage cask ever been used. The idea first came to me in the early 2000s. Back then our industry was still very young and the world wasn’t quite ready to accept such innovation from South Africa.” Its time has come.
Scottish Leader is the biggest global brand in a fabulous portfolio of whiskies acquired by Distell at a cost of R2.2 billion in 2013. I’ve enjoyed tasting Scottish Leader 12 Year Old (R320), an exciting new release in a repackaged portfolio of Burn Stewart blends like the best-selling Scottish Leader Original (R170) and the fruity, spicy and smoky Scottish Leader Signature (R220). Burn Stewart Distillers produces a portfolio of prestigious single-malt whiskies like Bunnahabhain, Deanston, Tobermory and Ledaig.
The deluxe Scottish Leader 12 Year Old blend of unpeated highland and Speyside malt and grain whisky won a gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge in 2016. Made by master blender Dr Kirstie McCallum, the new upgraded range differentiates the brand while elevating it with a luxury aged tier.
Importantly, the acquisition gives Distell a springboard into countries around the world with a growing appetite for the speciality beverages the innovative South African drinks giant exports—to developed and emerging markets, notably the UK, the US as well as Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and key African markets.
Authenticity, tradition and terroir are the watchwords of Bruichladdich, an Islay single-malt whisky produced since Victorian times at the landmark distillery of the same name.
At a global Twitter tasting in November 2016, master distiller Jim McEwan and whisky writers around the world sampled three of their most innovative whiskies online. Trickle-distilled from 100% unpeated Scottish barley, matured entirely on Islay in a mix of American and French oak, The Classic Laddie (R939) is bottled unchill-filtered at 50% alcohol for maximum mouthfeel. This elegant whisky is fresh and lively, expressing the lively and fresh floral signature of Bruichladdich’s house style, with sweet vanilla, lemon drops, honey and tangerine nuances. Next comes legendary Port Charlotte (R1 100), a heavily peated Islay single malt made to my taste: a no-holds-barred maritime whisky with smouldering flavours of iodine, seaweed, sea salt, leather, tobacco, vanilla and pear. If you can afford it, try the powerful and explosive Octomore Virgin Oak (R3 000) Seven Year Old, the most powerful peated whisky on the planet—as well as one of the strongest (60% alcohol). Not for the faint-hearted.
The rugged island of Islay off Scotland is the fountainhead of robust, smoky, peaty whisky for aficionados—home to legendary 1800s distilleries such as Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Bunnahabhain. (After a few drams, you’ll be able to pronounce these tongue-twisters!)
Owned by Distell, Bunnahabhain (meaning “mouth of the river” in Gaelic) is known as the “gentle taste of Islay”; made from unpeated malt barley, it is the most accessible of Islay single-malt whiskies—bottled unchill-filtered to preserve the full character and depth of natural aroma, colour and flavour. Whisky as natural and traditional as it gets.
I’ve enjoyed benchmark tastings of classic 12, 18 and 25 Year Old releases with ex-master distiller Ian MacMillan. Best start with Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old (R750): a rich, full-bodied whisky with signature gingerbread, banana and walnut-bread flavours.
Distell group MD Richard Rushton says, “Our acquisition of Burn Stewart is a very significant development for Distell from a strategic perspective, but also given the rich and proud history and heritage of the brands involved. Bunnahabhain, the flagship single malt, is considered one of the most prestigious whiskies by connoisseurs. We are extremely fortunate to acquire this very highly ranked brand.”
Master Distiller Jeff Arnett, whom I’ve met over tastings in South Africa, created a distinctive taste profile for Jack Daniel’s 150th Anniversary Tennessee Whisky (R1 400) that combines whiskey-making tradition with the innovations of modern-day craftsmanship. He comments, “Our coopers ‘slow-toasted’ barrels to bring out the rich flavours and aromas of the wood, creating a contemporary expression of an 1866 barrel char.” The grain bill is the same as the iconic Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, one of the fastest growing whiskies in South Africa and the world. Each drop was mellowed through sugar maple charcoal, before going into new American oak barrels. Bottled at 50% alcohol, the 150th Anniversary edition offers complex flavours of butterscotch and toffee followed by a full, smooth and lingering warm toasted finish.
Black Bottle (R300), a blended Scotch whisky, was first created by my namesakes, The Graham Brothers: a family of whisky merchants in Aberdeen in 1879. Skilfully crafted from a combination of famous Islay, highland, lowland and Speyside malt and grain whiskies, it has developed a cult following over the decades.
This rich, bold and unique whisky was redesigned by Distell recently and relaunched worldwide in a distinctive, award-winning black bottle. A deep cooper gold colour, the house-style of Black Bottle stays true to its origins: fresh, floral, fruity and spicy. Watch out for the mellow and fruity signature with balanced smoky, peaty flavours then sweet oak and heather honey—with spicy nutmeg and pepper nuances and a lingering smokiness.
When it comes to innovative companies, Glenmorangie Single Highland Malt Whisky has been at the forefront of the Scotch industry for decades. An established luxury brand in South Africa, Glenmorangie (meaning “glen of tranquillity”) pioneered cask-strength bottlings, wine-cask finishes and first-fill bourbon finishes—playing a key role in developing the single-malt category worldwide.
At the annual Whisky Live Festival in South Africa, The Really Great Brand Company (which also distributes Glen Grant, Macallan and Jack Daniel’s in South Africa) has led popular tastings of the brand available locally, including Glenmorangie 10 Year Old Original (R500), 18 Year Old (R1 400), the port-finish Quinta Ruban (R800), the sherry-finish Lasanta (R700), the sauterne-finish Nectar D’Or (R800), and deluxe blend Signet (R2 500).
In 2016, KWV again won the prestigious title of World’s Best Brandy/Cognac Producer and World’s Best Brandy for its KWV 15 Year Old, beating cognacs and brandies from 70 countries at the International Spirit Challenge. KWV master distiller Pieter de Bod says, “To beat the best cognac producers is a huge accolade—not only for KWV but it also shows that South African pot-still brandies are as good or better than cognac.”
Watch out for KWV 20 (R1 185), KWV 15 (R600), KWV Imoya (R599) and KWV Laborie Alambic (R190), brandies that won KWV four ISC gold medals. De Bod adds, “This is an outstanding achievement, and underlines KWV’s commitment to quality and innovation. Our brandies are world-class.”
De Bruyn Steenkamp, global marketing director, says KWV premium brandies are performing well despite the brandy category being in decline. “In fact, KWV10 grew sales volumes by 7% and revenue by 18% off a focused premiumisation and brand-building strategy in line with KWV’s core values of quality and heritage.”
Cognac represents 5.7% volume and 7.6% in value of the total luxury alcoholic beverage category in South Africa, estimated at a worth of R1.1 billion per annum. Led by celebrity movie and rock-star brand ambassadors, Hennessy VS (R460) and Rémy Martin—two of the world’s top-selling cognacs—have succeeded in attracting a new generation of younger, hip consumers to the spirit.
Distributed in South Africa by Edward Snell, with the iconic Rémy Martin VS (R359), VSOP (R649), 1738 (R899) and XO Excellence (R2 150), brand intrinsics like tradition, luxury, heritage, innovative packaging and social media campaigns are reshaping the cognac consumer.
Further growing the category, Honor VS Gold Edition Cognac (R400) and Honor VSOP, two exclusive brands from the House of D’Orsay, are the newest products in South Africa in the Blue Sky Brand Company portfolio of luxury spirits (including Pravda Vodka, Loch Lomond and Glen Scotia malt whisky and Fireball whisky liqueur).
The growth of cognac explains why KWV recently released the first XO Cognac under a South African brand name, KWV Héritage XO Cognac (R2 300). Sourced, bottled and matured in the Cognac region of France, it is the outcome of an innovative partnership between the French Maison Charpentier (1895) and KWV. Double-distilled in traditional copper stills and matured in French oak barrels, it is blended from 20 of the finest “Extra Old” (XO) cognacs aged 12 to 30 years. At a tasting in Cape Town, KWV’s De Bod said, “This cognac represents what is believed to be the world’s first cross-continental alliance, illustrated by our label statement of ‘Two Continents, Two Keys, One Extraordinary Cognac’.”
Trumping entries from 90 countries, Distell won the coveted title of World’s Best Brandy Producer of 2016 at the International Wine & Spirit Competition—as well as Best Worldwide Brandy Trophy for Van Ryn’s 12 Year Old Distiller’s Reserve (R660). Van Ryn’s 12 has a fabulous character packed with ripe and dried fruits of apricot, pear and plums, opening up into a fruity palate. Van Ryn’s 15 Year Old Fine Cask Reserve (R1 160) and 20-Year-Old Collector’s Reserve (R1 500)—brandies with a voluptuous citrus, honey and chocolate liqueur character—also won gold IWSC medals. Distell master distiller Marlene Bester comments, “Van Ryn’s has a proud legacy in producing world-class brandies, and being awarded the Worldwide Brandy Trophy seven times since 2004 confirms we are doing something right.”
Distell’s portfolio ranges from blended to pot-still brandies including Klipdrift, Oude Meester and Van Ryn’s—as well as legendary cognac brand Bisquit (R420–R2 200), acquired by Distell in 2009. The IWSC Trophy for World’s Best Cognac 2016 was awarded to Distell’s Richelieu XO Cognac (R2 000).
Chivas Regal is a truly global spirit brand, a symbol of prestige and status. It is the world’s leading premium-blended Scotch whisky, enjoyed in over 200 countries around the globe: Somewhere in the world, a bottle of Chivas Regal is purchased every second of every hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The craftsmanship that goes into every bottle embodies a heritage that harks back to the 19th century.
Chivas Regal 12 Year Old (R330) is a blend of the finest malt and grain Scotch whiskies. The way Chivas Regal is triple blended makes it the smoothest and richest Scotch whisky in the world. First, the individual malt whiskies are taken from their casks and blended; next, individual grain whiskies are blended together; finally come the malt and grain whiskies.
Jameson has been one of the fastest growing whiskies in South Africa for over a decade, and is experiencing unprecedented growth in every market worldwide. It is the world’s number-one selling Irish whiskey and a top 10 global brand.
Every bottle of Jameson Select Reserve (R400) is individually numbered on a gold neck tag with a striking jet-black label that carries the legend “Small Batch”. Inside and out, it is a statement of sophistication and luxury. Hand-selected by the Jameson Masters to deliver an extremely rich and luxurious taste, Jameson Select Reserve is a rare selection of small-batch grain whiskey combined with a high proportion of single Irish pot-still whiskey aged up to 12 years. Triple distilled, the blend is bold, sophisticated and incredibly smooth. The reserve collection includes Jameson Special Reserve 12 Year Old (R500), Jameson Gold Reserve (R800), Jameson 18 Year Old Limited Reserve (R1 300), and Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve (R5 000).