Making Brandy: Respect for the master distillers
I must admit that when I first started on this brandy journey, I had absolutely no idea how the spirit was made, apart from knowing it was made from wine and not grain like whisky. Making brandy is a fascinating and complicated process, and after understanding it you have a new found respect for those talented individuals who make it! In layman’s terms, the process of making brandy goes along the lines of this:
Base wine from which brandy is distilled is made primarily from the Colombar and Chenin grapes in South Africa. Other varietals are used in smaller quantities to add depth. The juice is extracted via a free run process, which means the grapes are not pressed to extract the juice. This eliminates a number of side elements such as tannins from the stems and skins, which would get concentrated during the distillation and result in unwanted tastes and aromas.
Generally no preservatives (SO2 / Sulphur dioxide) are added to this base wine for similar reasons. Once the base wine has fermented as per normal fermentation processes, it is ready to be distilled.
There are two main types of distillation used in making brandy, Potstill Distillation, and Columnstil distillation. For most of South Africa’s premium brandies, Potstill distillation provides the majority of the end spirit, so that is the one we will focus on for now.
The base wine once ready is pumped into large copper potstills, which are massive round copper kettles that allow the base wine to be heated. All distillation processes run of the principal that alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water when heated, which allows its extraction from the base wine to turn into brandy.
The base wine is heated in the potstill until the alcohol starts to evaporate from the wine. As the steam rises, it is captured at the top of the potstill by a pipe system that then cools the evaporated alcohol and converts it back into liquid. This alcohol, known now as “Low wine” (at around 22% volume) is then captured in thirds for purity reasons.
The first third, known as the heads is not used in making brandy, nor is the last third known as the “tails”. Only the middle third of this low wine, known as the “heart” is used for the final brandy. The heart of this low wine is then put back into a fresh potstill and distilled again.
The same process occurs again, in the second distillation, resulting in the end spirit now roughly 70% alcohol. Again, only the hearts fraction is kept and put into oak barrels for aging
Maturation in Oak.
This is the most important stage of making brandy. When the final spirit comes out of the potstill, it is clear white alcohol, infused with the double concentrated flavours and aromas of the original base wine used. Through maturation of the spirit in oak barrels for any number of years it is given its final character. Its golden hue is passed on along with complex flavours and aromas that may never have been present in the original base wine.
In South Africa brandy regulations require that this spirit is matured for at least 3 years in Oak barrels in order to be classified as brandy. The barrels used are also toasted inside using an open flame to further allow transfer of flavour and character to the spirit aging inside them.
A lot of magic happens in the oak barrels, transforming and moulding a clear white concentrated alcohol into the brilliant deep coloured, rich and flavoursome brandy we enjoy once it is blended and bottled.
Blending and Bottling
Once the brandy has finished its maturation, the master distiller will select different brandies form different barrels and work out each of their individual characteristics. Then, depending on the final style of brandy they wish to make, each will be blended meticulously over and over again until the right balance of nose and flavour are reached, critically ensuring that what is promised on the nose is followed through to on the palate.
If you think this process sounds simple, I can assure you it really is not! (I was lucky enough to attend a blending session at Van Ryn’s with Johann Venter, previous master distiller for Distell’s brandie) Once blended and bottled no further maturation of the brandy takes place, though of course there is a process of all elements getting used to each other and settling into their final place in the spirit. The final brandy is diluted with distilled water to get it down to desired final alcohol strength, in the case of most brandy 38% per volume.
Making Brandy: A Quick Note on Column Still Distillation
Column still distillation uses the distillation theory in a slightly different manner to produce a neutral wine spirit from base wine. This spirit is 96% alcohol when it comes out from the still, and is completely colourless and odourless. This wine spirit is used in making some types of South African brandy.