Brandy – local really is lekker What’s the difference?

2016-12-11 14:19
GOLD IN A GLASS:  What we drink sometimes serves as a symbolic vehicle for identifying, describing and manipulating social positions.

GOLD IN A GLASS: What we drink sometimes serves as a symbolic vehicle for identifying, describing and manipulating social positions.

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Johannesburg - Drinking is about so much more than just quenching your thirst. Especially when it comes to booze.

Our choice of alcohol is almost never socially neutral – what we drink determines how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.

A beer drinker is assumed to be a different sort of person from a cocktail consumer. Craft beer aficionados and Castle fans are thought of differently.

Without having met any of the individuals involved, we classify them (and they classify themselves) by beverage choice.

Often, we order with a view to how others will perceive our choice and the drink serves as a symbolic vehicle for identifying, describing and manipulating social position. So, what does it mean if a drink falls out of favour?

In recent years, there has been a considerable decline in South African consumption of locally produced brandies and a considerable movement of market share from brandy to whiskey.

The 2016 SA Wine Industry Statistics report states that, between 1999 and 2015, consumption of locally produced brandy fell from 43.7 million litres to 31.6 million litres, while imported whiskey sales rose from 22.6 million litres to 39 million litres over the same period. Cognac sales have risen less starkly, but they are definitely on the way up.

This move away from local brandy has nothing to do with quality. South Africa makes world-class brandy and we have the international prizes to prove it.

Honours and accolades are so numerous that to mention them all is impossible.

Our recent triumph came at the prestigious 2016 International Spirits Challenge in London, where KWV was named the World’s Best Brandy and Cognac Producer.

With that, KWV beat Cognacs and brandies from 70 countries.

And yet, we drink less and less brandy and more and more whiskey. Why? Preference for an international offering is not uncommon.

All over the world, consumers regard imported or “foreign” drinks as having a higher status than local beverages.

In Poland, wine is regarded as a high-status, upper-class drink, while locally made beers and vodkas are “ordinary” or working class.

In France, by contrast, where wine-drinking is commonplace and confers no special status, the young elite increasingly drink imported beers and vodkas.

The role that price and status perceptions play becomes especially apparent when one considers Cognac consumption.

Cognac is per force imported, thus unfavourable exchange rates often determine its South African price at least as much as quality.

And yet we increasingly order it in preference to arguably better local brandies.

Many bar owners report that there is a widespread misconception among South Africans that Cognac is a form of whiskey and that when Cognac drinkers are told that their favourite tipple is essentially a regional form of brandy, they are disappointed.

What's the difference?

The word ‘brandy’ comes from the Dutch term brandewijn (burnt wine), which describes the manufacturing process involving heating wine, extracting alcohol and ageing.

All Cognacs are brandy, but not all brandies are Cognac.

Some award-winning South African brandies are made in the Cognac style, but they may not be called Cognac because the term is geographically delimited and refers only to brandy distilled in and shipped from the area surrounding the town of Cognac in France. 

To carry the name Cognac, it must also be made with legally specified grapes, be twice distilled in copper pots and aged in French oak casks for a minimum of two years. 

No one is knocking whiskey or Cognac.

Good whiskey is wonderful and great Cognac is gorgeous, but it is worth recognising that on a price-for-price basis, lower quality imports are matched with mid- to high-quality local product.

Of course, premium imported drinks with unique characteristics merit their prices, but savvy drinkers can drink premium brandy for the price of mid-to poor-quality whiskey and Cognac.

So why don’t we?

Brandy has an image problem. But it is unclear quite what the problem is. Interviews suggest that some resistance is linked to the brandy-and-coke-laden legacy of apartheid inequality.

This is perhaps indicated by the fact that township slang for Oude Meester is “De Klerky” because the label on the bottle has a picture of a bald, old white man who resembles former president FW de Klerk.

For others, brandy’s connection to the rural environment seems to put them off.

Many interviewees mentioned stories of Eastern Cape migrant mineworkers bringing brandy home at Christmas and their neighbours coming for “ihambi dlani” (which roughly translates to “what you were having on the way”).

Intsebenzo (wealth) being measured in the number of brandy bottles at hand came up repeatedly. There was much muttering about imbeleko birth rituals and lobola customs.

If the latter is influencing beverage choice, then this is the worst sort of urban snobbery. If it is the former and drinkers are seeking to score a blow against the Stellenbosch mafia, they are doing so at the expense of our economy.

Locally produced brandies create jobs in South Africa – as is recognised by Treasury in its imposition of a relatively low excise tax on the wine industry (of which brandy is a part) in recognition of its employment contribution. Beer has a higher tax because it employs far fewer people.

It is time South Africans examined their attitudes to brandy. This Christmas, why not buy a bottle (or two) of our local treasure. You will be so glad you did.

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