South Africa makes the best brandy in the world, yet despite the many accolades and awards, it is struggling to shake the ‘bakleiwyn’ image, which is essential if producers are to grow their local and export volumes.
Pre-1994, when South Africa’s liquor industry was tightly regulated, brandy accounted for 96% of all spirits sold in the country, says Pieter de Bod, master distiller at KWV and a member of the SA Brandy Foundation. “Thus every domestic argument that ensued was blamed on brandy and it got a bit of a stigma.”
While the import regulations have changed and brandy volumes have fallen precipitously as a result, it doesn’t help the category that the biggest brand sold in the world is Emperador Brandy produced in the Philippines and made out of cane spirits, rather than wine spirit. “This doesn’t necessarily make it bad quality,” says De Bod, “but it certainly doesn’t taste like KWV’s brandies made in accordance with SA legislation which has resulted in the world’s finest.”
What brandy needs is a push-strategy and marketing makeover similar to that of gin and vodka he says. “Gin was seen as the old people’s drink and now it is a craft product with a trendy image. And vodka is a massive marketing success story thanks to brilliant packaging and the addition of flavours. The basic product itself has not changed.”
Unlike gin and vodka, one can’t change the flavour profile of brandy to create a ‘craft’ brandy because brandy is matured according to a regulated process. “One of the reasons that South African brandies are so highly regarded in overseas competitions is because of the strict laws of production laid down by South African brandy makers to ensure quality,” says wine commentator Michael Olivier. “Whereas brandies from other producing countries age their brandies, at times for only 6 months and in large containers, South African law requires that our brandy must be matured in 340 litre French oak barrels. This is a huge investment in oak, and it is the higher ratio of wood to brandy that makes the difference. Again the maturation time is fixed in South Africa to [a minimum of] three years, while other countries are content with 6 months.”
The brandy spirits board is considering changing the name of SA produced brandy in line with global trends. For instance Armagnac is a brandy produced in the Armagnac region in south west France, Calvados is an apple brandy from the Normandy region in France and best known of all, Cognac, is produced around the town of Cognac, just north of Bordeaux in France.
“If you consider that just 2% of all Cognac is consumed in France, you will see there is a huge opportunity to export our product. But we must get the packaging and marketing right,” De Bod says.
While the overall brandy image could do with a revamp, South African brandies are cleaning up at global awards. Earlier this year at the International Spirit Challenge in London, KWV won the title of World’s Best Brandy/Cognac Producer for the second year, as well as World’s Best Brandy for its KWV 15-year-old Alambic Potstill Brandy, beating Cognacs and brandies from 70 countries. More recently, at the 7th annual International Spirits competition, held in New York, KWV 20-year Potstill Brandy, Oude Meester 18 Souverein and Van Ryn’s Fine Cask Reserve, 15-year secured gold medals.
Recent figures released by the SA Wine Industry Information & Systems (SAWIS) suggest that the market is beginning to appreciate the quality brandies available on its doorstep. While for the past few years the whisky category has shown strong growth, taking volumes from brandy, in the latter part of 2015 this trend was reversed, according to an article written by Elias Holzkampf and based on SAWIS research.
However, Holzkampf notes that Distell chose to hold the prices of three brandy products namely Klipdrift Export, Commando and Viceroy stable in 2015. All these products are popular in the mainstream market and good growth on Commando and Viceroy is the reason that the brandy market volumes stabilised. Thus he questions whether such actions are sustainable in the long run.
Premium brandy makers still have work to do to convince the market that SA brandy is a worthy competitor.