When you take your first steps on your journey into the world of brandy, it might just be the case that you have no knowledge of how it is made. It might be true that you know it’s made from wine rather than grain, like is the case with whisky, but you’ll need to know more than that. The art of brandy making is a complicated yet fascinating process, and once understood, you’ll likely have a higher level of respect for anyone who has dedicated their time to make it. In this article we will discuss one of the more important aspects that Africa presents to the rest of the world: great and noble liquor. Here is a beginner’s guide to brandy making for anyone considering having a go themselves or for those who simply wish to fulfil a curiosity.
South African brandy is distilled from base wine, which is primarily made from Chenin and Colombard grapes. To add depth, there are other varietals that are used albeit in smaller amounts. The juice is extracted through a process known as ‘free run’, which means that the grapes aren’t pressed in order to extract the juice. This eliminates such side elements as the tannins from skins and stems, which would be concentrated in the distillation, resulting in undesirable aromas and tastes.
For similar reasons, there generally aren’t any preservatives (Sulphur dioxide/SO2) added to the base. When the base wine has been fermented via the normal process of fermentation, it can then be distilled.
Columnstil distillation and Potstill distillation are the two main methods of distilling brandy. For the majority of premium brandies in South Africa, most of the end spirit is made by Potstill distillation, so we’ll make that our primary focus for now. Once the base wine is ready, it’s pumped into copper potstills. These are enormous copper round kettles that provide heat to the base wine. Any distillation process runs off the fact that, when heated, alcohol evaporates at lower temperatures than water, which enables it to be extracted from the base wine and turn into what we know as brandy.
The base wine continues to be provided with heat in the potstill until the moment that the alcohol starts evaporating from the wine. At the point that the steam begins to rise, a pipe system captures it before it cools the alcohol and turns it into liquid form once again. For purity, this alcohol, which is now termed “low wine” (approx. around 22% volume) is captured in thirds. The initial third, which is referred to as “the heads”, isn’t used in the brandy making process. In fact, the final third, “the tails”, isn’t used, either. Only the middle section, “the heart”, is used for the final brandy. At this point, the heart of the wine is poured into a new potstill, ready for another distillation.
Then we go through the process again. This next distillation results in the end spirit, which is now approximately 70% alcohol. The hearts section is kept before being poured into oak barrels for ageing purposes.