Feminine touch for world’s best brandy

LIQUID LEGACY: Master distiller Marlene Bester, offered guests at a special luncheon a 20-year-old brandy which paired beautifully with a bitter chocolate-orange torte
LIQUID LEGACY: Master distiller Marlene Bester, offered guests at a special luncheon a 20-year-old brandy which paired beautifully with a bitter chocolate-orange torte

WHAT better way to celebrate Women’s Day today than with a snifter of fine, 15-year-old South African brandy, made by a woman master distiller and recently judged the world’s best?

Judges of the International Spirits Challenge recently handed Van Ryn’s Distillery in Stellenbosch the Best Worldwide Brandy trophy for the fourth time since 2008. The winners in each brandy age category are pitted against each other for the award, this year going to Van Ryn’s 15-year-old fine cask reserve.

Not too shabby, considering it was up against more than 1000 entries from 70 countries. This latest award makes Van Ryn’s the most internationally-awarded South African producer of the past decade.

Master distiller Marlene Bester, a qualified winemaker who fell in love with the complexities of maturing and blending brandy, is the current custodian of a legacy dating back to the Van Ryn family’s arrival in the Cape from Holland in 1845.

The age of premium brandies often means that the person who puts them in the cask for a decade or more of maturation is not the person who gets to take them out. The decision on when to remove the brandy, and the final blend of several barrels and years, is made by the current master distiller.

“It’s about legacy and responsibility. You’re making something that someone else will have to work with in future. You have to make a good product and judge future tastes and markets in deciding how much to release now and how much to preserve for later,” Bester says.

Where the double-distillation process of brandy is science, maturation, says Bester, is where the art comes in. “Distillation is a controlled and monitored process. Once the brandy goes into the barrels, it’s much more unpredictable, involving natural variables like wood and climate.”

The 12-, 15- and 20-year-old potstill brandies enjoyed over a celebratory lunch at the distillery are the equivalent of French cognac – smooth and full- flavoured, made to be enjoyed neat or with just a dash of water or soda, or a block of ice.

Swirling is a definite no-no, as the flavours, aromas and alcohol evaporate and dilute the experience.

While lunching in an old cement wine tank converted to glamorous private dining room, the nutty flavours of Van Ryn’s 12-year-old complemented a salad garnished with biltong and nuts, while the 15-year-old star of the show proved an unexpected complement to a mild lamb curry. This is a super-smooth, bold brandy with warm, smoky flavours. At more than R1000 a bottle, definitely one to be savoured slowly.

The 20-year-old with its subtle, dried-fruit aroma, golden-amber colour and an almost syrupy mouth-feel with intense burnt caramel flavours is a heady and complex experience on its own, and paired beautifully with a bitter chocolate-orange torte.

– A Vine Time, with Sam Venter

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