Last Saturday was one of those days where I set out on a mini adventure, not quite sure what to expect…
After battling with that very serious dilemma of “what shoe is going to be appropriate today? Heels, flats or wedge…” (I went with the latter), I headed off to Stellenbosch to join a group of gorgeous ladies for a brandy blending experience at Van Ryn’s.
The week before I had to endure quite a few brandy related jokes about how I needed to be careful of the karate water kick and all that. But after a fantastic day of learning new things, I can now say to those folks, karate water se gat. There were no Coca-Cola mix vibes here my friend. We were there to experience the true art behind a fine brandy – something which should be savored and appreciated, much like you would with a great bottle of wine.
Now I will admit, I was certainly no brandy drinker going into this. And I won’t say it’s now taken over the place of wine in my life. But what was really great was that I left there being able to tell a great brandy from a not-so-great brandy and knowing what to look out for if I for example wanted to purchase someone a nice bottle as a gift. Also, if I was presented with the option of a brandy on ice in future, I would now be more inclined to go, why yes, that sounds lovely.
Before I go on, a special mention has to go to Nico Gründlingh from Image Solutions Photography. Nico followed us around on the day and captured the most amazing moments way better than I could ever dream of with my click-and-go, or even with all those fancy filters on Instagram. So below you’ll be seeing his photographs rather than my own (unless otherwise specified).
Right, let’s go. Firstly, the Van Ryn’s property is absolutely beautiful. Let me show you what I mean:
We were welcomed with brandy cocktails and brandy infused canapes (which was certainly a great way to kick-start our day), after which we moved on to a tour of Van Ryn’s with brandy expert, Brink, who took us through all the intricate details of the brandy making process...
We learnt so many interesting things – like the term “Angel share” which is what they call the brandy that is lost through evaporation throughout the maturation process. Basically the saying goes that the missing brandy has gone up to the angels as a gift. Isn’t that lovely?
We also learnt that South Africa has been making brandy for nearly 3 1/2 centuries and is currently the 6th largest producer of brandy in the world. The French call it Cognac, which is very much the same as that whole Champagne thing where we can’t use the same term and have to go with MCC, but Cognac is a variety of brandy nonetheless.
South Africa also produces award-winning brandy, like the Van Ryn’s Collection Reserve 12 Year Old, which has won the title of ‘Worldwide Best Brandy’ a whopping four times. Take that Frenchies!
To get a detailed breakdown of the brandy making process, do check out this page called What is Brandy? via the SA Brandy website - they explain the finer details a lot better than I’m going to be able to.
The part of the tour I found most interesting was checking out the Cooperage. This is where coopers still perform the age-old skill of handmaking the French Oak barrels used to mature brandy. At Van Ryn’s, very little mechanisation is used in this process, and they train up a few new coopers every year to make sure this skill is not something that is lost over time.
Abie was there to give us a demonstration of the very skillful process. He’s been a cooper for 39 years and makes it look very easy, but I can assure you, it’s certainly not. They use only handmade tools, in fact, during their apprenticeship, they have to make their own set of tools, and coopers also mark their barrels, so that you can tell exactly know who made each one.
When a cooper completes his apprenticeship, he also has to come up with his own unique song. Abie was kind enough to share his with us:
So cool… After the tour it was time for our inner scientists to shine. We took our seats in the Paradise Room where Brink explained how we were going to go about blending our very own brandy. I didn’t actually know this before, but a brandy is blended from various brandy “building blocks”. It’s not a single barrel process like you’d find in the whiskey world for example, which makes it quite an intricate process.
We were each given 8 brandy building blocks to play with (38% alcohol each). Brink explained that each building block was a typical main component in different types of well known brandies, each with its own very unique aroma & taste. For example nr1 was quite fruity with a vanilla & honey taste and is the main building block in Fish Eagle brandy. Nr3 had a wooded aroma with a spicy, biscuity taste and is the main building block in the Van Ryn’s 10 yr old. And so forth…
The process of then coming up with our very own blend involved a lot of smelling, tasting, planning, brainstorming, mixing and creating.
The blend I settled on was 60% nr2 (main building block for Klipdrift Premium), 30% nr6 (main building block for Van Ryn’s 15 yr old) & 10% nr8 (main building block for 10 yr old Hanepoot). I set out to create a fruity, sweet & perfumy brandy with a smooth & creamy taste, and Brink noted after tasting mine, that I had created the perfect “ladies brandy” – success! I called it “The Love Affair”… (of course)
With our new titles of Master Brandy Blender under our belts, we settled in for a late lunch prepared by Chef Laurent from Bizerca Bistro.
He had prepared a bit of a brandy-meets-tartare taste journey for us, kicking off with some yellowtail and moving on to some ostrich, beef & venison – all carefully paired with a particular Van Ryn’s brandy.
Prizes were also handed out for best brandy blend of the day, which went to Misha (aka @Brandslut_) for her cinnamon, apple pie inspired blend. And best name, which went to Kayli (aka @kaylivee) for her blend called Dark Angels’ (she used the Angel share concept explained above as her inspiration behind the name). Nicely done ladies.
To the whole team at Van Ryn’s, Brink our fantastic guide, and all the girls – @Brandslut_, @kaylivee, @missemmajude, @natalieroos, @the_foodfox & @KaminiPather - thank you so so much for an amazing day.
If you want to experience some of the Van Ryn’s awesomeness for yourself. They offer the following great activities:
- Brandy tours: Mon – Fri 10:00, 11:30 & 15:00, Sat & Public holidays 10:00, 11:30 & 13:00, Sun – no cellar tours
- Tastings – opening hours: Mon – Fri 9:00 to 16:30, Sat 9:30 to 15:30 and Sun 11:00 to 16:00
- Pairings: Brandy, coffee & chocolate pairing and a Florentine tasting (those yummy Tuscan biscuits)
- Or just try their Angel’s share cocktail – Van Ryn’s 5 year old Viceroy, coffee & caramel, garnished with chocolate shavings.
Just contact them on 021 881 3875. And also check out the Fine Brand by Design website for more info on how to properly taste brandies, some cocktail ideas & also food pairing tips.
I’m thirsty now… is it happy hour yet?