South Africans like to rant and rave about their lush Winelands, and the immense offering visitors can expect around every corner and at every cellar door. This is indeed true. But when last have you stood still to have a good look at South African brandies? We are not talking about blended brandies enjoyed in copious amounts with Coco-cola at the weekend braai. We are talking about the Cape's most refined, silk-like brandies renowned worldwide for their finesse and elegance. Often referred to as pot still brandy (the method of production that distinguishes it from blended brandies), you can now refer to it as Cape Brandy, indicating a brandy crafted with meticulous attention to detail, challenging the finest Cognac from France.
Brandy making in South Africa dates to 1672, when wine was distilled into Cape Brandy on board a Dutch ship. But our brandy legacy as we know it today was spearheaded by the talented René Van Eibergen Santhagens, who nobody anticipated would revolutionise brandy for South Africa.
A visit to the Oude Molen Distillery in Elgin will fill in all the details for you to understand the immense journey it took to celebrate exceptional brandy on our continent today. Welcoming us is Danie Pretorius and his expert team, dedicated to sharing the brandy culture with every visitor.
"My career in the wine industry took a delightful turn in 2012 when I was appointed as the GM of the South African Brandy Foundation. Up to that point, my brandy knowledge was elemental, but I soon discovered that there is a real discovery to be made in Cape Brandy. I've been a disciple ever since, and in 2017 I joined the Oude Molen team, who are founder members of the Cape Brandy Distillers Guild."
The tasting room is elegantly laid out, telling how René Van Eibergen Santhagens was the first man in South Africa to have produced brandy according to the old French tradition. His passion for authentic brandy and his influence on the Wine and Spirits Act of 1924, ensured that South Africa continues to be one of the most successful brandy-producing countries in the world. His influence and methods are still used, and he is widely considered the Father of South African Brandy.
From the moment one steps into the distillery, the guiding principle at Oude Molen is discovery. Danie admits that most consumers have a very narrow view of brandy and that their distillery experience is specifically designed to guide visitors in this discovery. "We will introduce them to Cape Brandy in general, and our VS, VSOP, and XO. It is a highly interactive journey through the process of creating Cape Brandy – from grape to glass."
If your Brandy experience has been limited to cocktails, forget everything you think you know about brandy before you plan your visit.
"There is a substantial gap between what is in people's heads and what is in the bottle. Cape Brandy is the finest in the world and keeps getting recognition on the world stage. The challenge is changing perception about Cape Brandy at home, and the only way to do that is by getting people to pick up a glass for a taste."
The three Oude Molen variants are individual expressions of the soul of the grape. Each is made from different blends of grape varietals, and each is distilled and matured uniquely.
"The VS achieves great complexity from a solera ageing system, combined with a bourbon cask finish. The result is a full and particularly characterful Cape Brandy – underscored by the fact that it has won the Michelangelo Brandy trophy twice in the last few years."
"The VSOP is very focussed and distilled from Chenin Blanc grapes. It is matured for at least five years in French oak barrels and shows an abundance of citrus, peach, and fig with a long finish."
"Our flagship XO is the pinnacle of refinement and luxury. A rare blend of the finest batches of spirit, hand-selected and individually approved by the Master Distiller. Every drop in this unsurpassed XO has been matured for at least a decade in a combination of French and American oak."
After these brandies are made, they are matured in oak barrels for at least three years. During this time, an amount of the distilled spirit is lost to evaporation from the barrel as it ages. This is referred to as the Angels share, but it can be a devil's share if the environment is too warm and this natural process occurs too quickly. Therefore we have the beautiful cool Elgin Valley as the perfect home where everything is naturally slowed down to ensure quality.
The Oude Molen Story
Production methods have evolved since the ebb and flow of colonial visitors, the most famous being Renier "René" Van Eibergen Santhagens. After completing his studies, a chance meeting between René Van Eibergen Santhagens, a South African businessman in 1897 led René to the Eerste Fabrieken Distillery in Pretoria, South Africa. In 1899, production at Eerste Fabrieken came to a standstill with the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War and René returned to Cognac. After the war, Rene returned to South Africa and was lucky enough to buy his old pot stills at a liquidation auction of the Eerste Fabrieken Distillery. René and his wife settled in the Stellenbosch district of the Western Cape, where he was dismayed at the poor quality of the traditional "Cape Dop" brandy. This prompted him to dedicate his life to improving the standards of authentic brandy production.
In 1909, René purchased the Oude Molen farm - situated under the Papegaaiberg Mountain outside Stellenbosch. He started producing his first fine brandy in 1910, using the age-old techniques of Cognac production and maturation in French Oak barrels. His "Santy's Premier Brandy" sealed his place in South African distillation history.
Oude Molen Distillery moved from Stellenbosch to Elgin in 2003. Here, René's techniques are still applied to making every drop of our Cape Brandy. Oude Molen Cape Brandy is widely acknowledged to be some of the best South Africa has to offer and has been crowned World's Best Brandy twice.
The Oude Molen Experience
The Distillery Experience is a two-hour interactive session where visitors taste their way through the production process – from the base wine, eau de vie, and culminating in a chocolate-paired tasting of the Oude Molen VS, VSOP, and XO. This is where you will be introduced to Big Bertha, Long Tom, and Long Cecil, the grandiose and largest pot stills in the southern hemisphere that take centre stage in their modern distillery.
The experience starts in their conference room, beautifully orchestrated with video footage complimenting the brandy components poured for you. Just before one is introduced to the cellar, the lights are dimmed, introducing the voice and spirit of René Van Eibergen Santhagens, symbolically dropping in for the last word on the best quality brandy. And what is for sure, a 2-hour visit to Oude Molen will turn any avid wine and brandy lover into an ambassador for South African Cape Brandy.
Bookings are essential at least two days in advance, and visitors must please wear closed shoes for the distillery tour. Photography is not allowed in the production area for safety reasons, and the experience is not for persons under the age of 18.