Tim James: In the spirit of things

By , 11 April 2022

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I confess (probably that word indicates a degree of guilty feeling) that I am fond of strong drink. Stronger than most wine, that is. If I had to play that silly game about which I would rather renounce, wine or spirits, then wine would certainly win out – but if fortified wine (port, sherry, madeira, even the occasional glass of old muscadel) were in the spirits line-up, well then I might hesitate over the choice. Fortunately it is just a silly thought experiment. Medically, I suppose I woudn’t get the choice under some circumstances, and, if anything, I’d have to renounce all alcohol  – or life. Now there’s another thought experiment….

Anyway, now I can and do drink them all. But recently I’ve been thinking more about spirits, loosely defined. My range is pretty limited and for me spirits mean above all those connected with the wine-grape: notably brandy, and occasionally grappa, and even more occasionally witblits. I enjoy gin, especially with tonic, though I mentioned not long ago how wonderful was a neat liqueur gin from Japan, at 53% alcohol. Rum I like and could like more if I practised, I think. And cream liqueurs, including Amarula, are my guiltiest, most shameful sin.

Whisky? Well, I remember a glass of whisky being introduced into the middle of a serious brandy blind tasting and no-one picked it out as being anomalous – but that perhaps mostly says something about blind tastings, and about trying to handle a line-up of high-alcohol stuff. I have no doubt at all that if the whisky had been a peaty single malt from Islay, everyone would have noticed. I mention this because someone recently gave me a fairly classy bottle of a single malt  Bowmore, and I thought it absolutely ghastly. Some people love that taste, I believe. Maybe I should try it a touch diluted, which I wouldn’t dream of doing with a good brandy. A sort of Marmite thing, suggested a friend – love it or loathe it (oh that Marmite would reappear on the shelves – I’m making do with Bovril on my breakfast toast, but it’s not at all the same).

How immediately keen would I be if I noticed in the bottle store something called Apple Spirit Aperitif? I reckon I’d pass it by – like pretty well everybody, says Paul Clüver of the Cluver apple and wine estate in Elgin, which has produced just such a product. Some 17 years back they had the great idea of buying a beautiful copper still and making a local version of France’s famous Calvados, an apple brandy. Unfortunately, says Paul, they didn’t think far enough ahead – to the time when they’d be marketing it and discover that they were not allowed (by Europe) to hint at the Calvados connection, and not allowed (by the local Wine and Spirit Board) to call it apple brandy – brandy being reserved for products of the vine.

Hence “Apple Spirit Aperitif”, which sank in the marketplace under the weight of that description though it was very good, as everyone who tried it agreed. I remember tasting it back then and, since being reminded of it recently, am looking forward to getting a bottle from the farm, the only place where it seems to be available (at R315; 33% ABV, incidentally, significantly lower than wine brandy). Paul told me that they still have some two million rands’ worth in barrel – dating from 2008–2010 distillations, and maturing and improving all the time, he says. It can’t be bottled, he points out, without incurring the huge duties that are imposed on spirits. Sadly, the still has gone.

It’s not just apple brandy that suffers from naming prohibitions, of course. Even apart from Julius Malema, there are clearly many people who’d rather buy poorish quality, mass-produced champagne at higher prices than decent local bubbly – perhaps the name matters, perhaps it’s just cultural cringe. A similar snobbish and ill-informed comparison goes, as I don’t tire of pointing out, for brandy itself vis-à-vis cognac. Talking of which I must mention that when I called in at my local Pick n Pay liquor store last week for a few bottles of KWV 10 Year Old, there was a special on the 12 Year Old – only R30 more, at R359. I’d forgotten how great that brandy is. It’s finer than the 10, though Platter’s, which is often over-generous to brandies (and I’m one of the two brandy tasters), mistakenly in my opinion gives them the same score. Unfortunately the price went up again before I could return to buy a few more – but I was reminded that even at closer to R500 the 12 Year Old is as much of a bargain as the 10. I think it’s worth keeping a look out for KWV ultra-bargains at various outlets, as the producer seems to do a lot of twisting and turning in the marketplace to encourage buyers to trade up.

Local versions of what we think of as grappa can’t be called that either, but must lurk behind the somewhat unappealing name of husk spirit – though those in the excellent Wilderer range of spirits somehow manage to get away with “grappa” also on the label”. I’m less concerned about this restriction, as in my opinion there’s only a handful of local versions that could unblushingly stand amongst the upper reaches of Italian grappa (probably including Wilderers); the rest might be pleasant and even delightful enough, but they are rather rustic. I had one of the eminent handful not long ago, but it was clearly made in minute quantities and seems to have disappeared even from Google’s all-seeing eye. I’m not much of an enjoyer of the famous FMC chenin blanc, but what was distilled from its leftovers is sublime in its perfumed, refined elegance. It’s called Spirit of FMC, and doesn’t even mention “husk spirit” on the exquisite 50 cl bottle, though Ken Forrester Wines is there in tiny print. If you ever get a chance to taste it, do so – and if you can persuade them to make some more, do that too.

As winter approaches us here at the southern tip of Africa, it’s time to bring out the jerseys and the powerful, warming liquor. Keep those spirits up.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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  • GillesP11 April 2022

    I love Calvados, still one of the most under rated brown spirit in existence. Sadly the choice available in SA is extremely scarce and limited. I always thought a local version of apple brandy would taste appealing to the South African palate given the appetite for grape brandy in this country. It would need some good marketing and from what you mentioned on the regulations, it can’t be an easy exercise unfortunately.

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