At 10 a.m. on a Friday, we strolled into the ivy-framed courtyard of Van Ryn’s Distillery. As we tugged open the door, scents like a sherry bodega’s went to our heads — vapors of fruit, sugar, vanilla and wine. In moments, we were handed a welcome drink of brandy blended with apricot and peach juice. We clinked glasses: Good morning, South Africa!
In the center of the room, a massive copper vessel gleamed. I’d never seen anything like its shape — a Russian onion dome topped with a swan’s neck. Liquid streamed through a chute near the bottom. The heavenly smell seemed to be coming from there. This was a lambic cognac potstill, tour guide Kim Heynes told us with an eager smile. She would teach us how brandy was made.
The sloping countryside an hour from Cape Town is famous for wine. But a more unique way to experience these winelands, as I discovered that Friday, is in search of great potstill brandies. So my sister and I styled ourselves a tour along the Western Cape Brandy Route. We grew to appreciate the history process, and flavors of this wine-based, cognac-style spirit along the way.
Among American drinkers, brandy doesn’t always command the respect that whiskey and bourbon do. But in South Africa, brandy is among the most popular liquors. So there’s no better or more beautiful place to cultivate a liking for it. The Cape Floral Kingdom at Africa’s southern tip is home to some of the greatest plant biodiversity in the world. That makes the drive between distilleries lovely — and the brandy extra-flavorful, its makers swear.
“It’s all French techniques, but we have the advantages of the South African soil and terroir,” artisan distiller Roger Jorgensen told me. “And we’re not as hidebound by tradition.”
The name brandy comes from brandewyjn, Dutch for “burnt wine.” It was so associated with Dutch-descended Afrikaners that many black intellectuals boycotted it during apartheid. Democracy opened up in 1994, and 20 years later, the old associations are being chipped away. The South African Brandy Foundation markets the spirit to be sipped alone or with Coke at braais, or barbecues, everywhere from beaches to townships.
Establishing the Western Cape Brandy Route has been part of expanding the spirit’s appeal. We would start at the 150-year-old Van Ryn’s (now owned by South African beverage giant Distell). As the day went on, we’d float between organic, small-batch, and vineyard-based distilleries around the wine capital of Stellenbosch and the nearby village of Wellington.
To start, Kim Heynes walked us closer to the lambic cognac potstill at Van Ryn’s. Base wine is twice heated through the steam-driven potstill, she explained. Workers monitor the process, separating the emerging liquid into thirds — “head” and “tail” portions to be discarded and “hearts” to be kept for the brandy. The kept product is aged in oak barrels for at least three years, and sometimes upwards of two decades.
Heynes led us into a handsome lounge ringed by barrels, bottles and trophies. She seated us on a tufted leather sofa beneath an iron chandelier, then handed us glasses to warm in our palms. “Normally we don’t swirl our brandy like we do our wine,” she instructed, “or the flavors and aromas will be lost and you’ll be left with the alcohol taste.” We spent the next half hour pairing aged brandies and chocolates infused with orange or cappuccino flavors. The day was beginning decadently.
We drove farther afield toward Wellington, through countryside where pines, palms and white birches all thrived. At stoplights, vendors came up selling oranges and proteas, South Africa’s national flower. Thirty minutes later we arrived at Jorgensen’s Distillery, an operation so small-batch it was set up in an antique shed. “How on earth did you find me?” Roger Jorgensen called out cheerfully as we pulled in.
But this leading artisanal brandymaker was being modest. The apartheid government had restricted not only race, but also business — individual distilling was banned. When democracy arrived, Jorgensen was among the first to apply for a distilling license. He started building potstills and advising others on the process. Today he produces 2,400 bottles per year, monitoring for the heads, hearts and tails himself.
For our tasting, Jorgensen took us into his farmhouse kitchen, where a bowl of fruit sat at the center and copper pots shone all around. He poured us an amber-colored sample of his 15-year-aged brandy, which he calls Savignac. It tasted smooth, with butterscotch hints, but left a little burn on the lips. I started to understand why South Africa’s coffee-table book on brandy was called “Fire Water.”
Jorgensen next pointed us in the direction of Upland Organic Estate, a winery and distillery so rural, the instructions included “turn right at the farm sign with two birds.” There Edmund Oettle and his German shepherd came through a barn door, ready to show us around the earthy vineyard. His copper potstill was surrounded by brick. While it didn’t look as pretty, he explained, the insulation did save on energy.
We perched on stools, with chickens clucking by, to try organic blends from the farm. They were strong, but with peach and almond notes I loved. Oettle said they wouldn’t cause the same pain that cheap brandies are infamous for. (South Africans call the cheap stuff “karate water.”) “No pesticides, no herbicides, no sulfites,” he said, shaking a finger. “You’ll feel a whole pile better in the morning!”
Closer to the highway and back toward Stellenbosch, the ultra-modern Tokara winery would be our final brandy stop. We pulled up to a sleek industrial building looking out over vineyards and an olive grove. The interior space was just as striking. Sculptures, track lighting, and soaring ceilings complemented the wineland views.
Tokara started distilling brandy in 2009, producing 1,300 elegantly packaged bottles annually and planning to ramp up production. Tasting guide Anuschka Hector and bottling manager Neil Jaap described the one-batch-per-year technique. It was somewhere between the long-refined process of Van Ryn’s and the fresh artisanal approach of Jorgensen’s and Upland.
Then they gave us a pour. While I couldn’t pick up any promised “jasmine flavors,” I did detect fig and peach. Was it just my long touring day, or did Tokara’s five-year vintage taste as good as 10- or 12-year varieties elsewhere? Either way, South African brandy was going down smoother than ever.
More from Travel:
South African Brandy Foundation
Provides maps and visiting details for stops along the Western Cape Brandy Route.
Regent Street, Wellington
The distillery is no longer part of the brandy route, but offers tours by appointment.