SA brandy’s missing link


Lets not beat about the bush here. Brandy is in trouble. Real trouble.

Not super mellow double distilled potstill brandy – that’s enjoying double digit growth, albeit off a small based. But the classic Blended Brandy style of old, poured stiff, stacked with ice and smothered in sweet cokey goodness, is drowning.

And it has been for some time. In 2009, brandy sales in SA peaked at 47.5 million litres. in 2013, the cash register topped out at 24 million litres. Thats almost a 50% decline in 4 short years, and so far it shows no real signs of recovering.

South African Brandy: What went wrong?

Is it ever that simple? Probably not, but for the most part, 2 things happened:

  1. It became uncool. The drink of old men. The drink of fisty cuffs, big bellies, and moerse babelas. Not that anyone thought for a second what 2 litres of coke in one sitting – 200 mg caffeine (100%  RDA) and 240g sugar (200%  RDA ) – would do to the body on all of the above counts. Regardless, brandy and coke became uncool.
  2. It got a serious challenge from other spirits. With the removal of sanctions against SA came an influx of new and exotic spirit choices. Vodka became cheap, and something you could actually drink without shame. Whisky became cool, and very quickly. It was easy to mix with water, soda and even tonic. It was accessible at bars, and in the case of blended Whisky also relatively cheap.

The blended whisky invasion

Lets put one of the bigger destroyers of brandy’s market share under the microscope. Blended whisky is made from a mixture of malt whisky, and matured grain spirit. Not dissimilar to blended brandy, apart from the fact that blended brandy uses a maximum of 70% unmatured wine spirit, which has no real smell or taste, and at 96.4%  is effectively pure alcohol. And that’s the kicker.

By design, blended brandy was produced to mix well with Coke. Sweet and fizzy mixers require a strong spirit component to counter the extra sugar when mixed. Without the sweet mixer, blended brandy just doesn’t taste good. On the flip side, blended scotch is primarily drunk with a non sweet mixer. Water, soda, tonic and even on the rocks. Blended whisky works with those mixers, and that for one, is a big problem for blended brandy.

So, what is the missing link?

There can be little doubt that in South Africa, we produce the world’s best brandies. International awards will show this. And that includes the blended brandy category. The skill, expertise and dedication we have to these products is such that brandy really shouldn’t be in the tragic position that it is. What’s required is some innovation. At its core, blended brandy needs a refresh, and a redesign to taste good again with non-sweet mixers.

I’d hazard a guess that it may involve a little something called “low strength spirit”, perhaps the missing link in SA brandy. Low strength spirit is grape spirit column distilled to a lower % alcohol than neutral wine spirit, that retains some of its flavour and aroma. It is cheap to produce in volume, which is key in the battle for competitively priced brandy. With it’s lovely light and delicate flavour profile, a blend of this, aged potstill brandy and neutral spirit could well answer the question for a fruity, refreshing spirit to match accessible mixers. And critically, be competitive on price.

Granted, this may open up our brandy market to international imports, that may not follow the same quality standards (low strength spirit is currently prohibited in SA brandy production, no so internationally), but if we can remain competitive on price, surely we could stay ahead of the game? And lets face it, international imports of other spirits are munching well into brandy’s share anyway…

Whatever the solution, what ever the missing link, it needs to be found soon. Tradition is an important aspect of South African life, we are passionately patriotic society. But in the face of modern consumerism, any attempt to even slow the curve of decline for blended brandy, will need products that can compete on price, and flavour when mixed, with other popular spirits.

We need a good brandy and water. A good brandy and soda. Even a good brandy and tonic. If we can crack this, market it as such, and get people to taste the wonders of grape distilled spirit in a different light, we may well have a chance at turning things around. And I for one, would love to see that.

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