Taming the fire uplifts the spirit

By philip
24 February 2013

Brandy is the liquor for men aspiring to be heroes, proclaimed Dr Samuel Johnson assigning port to less ambitious guys and claret to boys.

But I was reminded recently that fine brandy at its smoothly elegant best, it’s fierceness transmuted into delicately flickering fire, is approachable even by lesser beings – reports Tim James.

A heroic income is needed, however, for one that I was privileged to sample recently. What’s more, seeing that the mere 107 bottles made of Au.Ra have gone, you would need to put up a Herculean fight for it too. Forgive the R15 000 price and the pretentiousness of the name (and enjoy the beauty of the hand-blown decanter Au.Ra was sold in) because this is the oldest South African brandy ever marketed. Its five components have been smouldering away in darkness since being put in cask 30 to 40 years ago.

I had my tot of this splendid spirit (undeservedly, being neither heroic nor rich) at Distell’s venerable Van Ryn distillery at Vlottenburg on the outskirts of Stellenbosch.

It’s a fascinating, atmospheric place to visit, by the way, with its burnished copper distilling kettles, dials and meandering pipes and the headily scented stores of innumerable barrels of maturing brandy.

The international reputation of South African brandy is very high, with both KWV and Distell (with its brands such as Oude Meester and Van Ryn) performing remarkably well in competitions. Both are accustomed to achieving the Worldwide Best Brandy title at the International Wine and Spirit Competition, for example.So I left that experience somewhat thoughtfully. Even the car park at Vlottenburg has its charm, with seductive aromatic wafts from the cooperage alongside, where they toast and shape into barrels the oak brought from French forests to cosset South African brandy to such happy effect.

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