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First published in the December/January 2013 edition of Classic Wine magazine

Alison Sussex visited some of the copper pot stills used for brandy making in the Cape, initially to focus only on the very old stills. So began a journey of discovery on which she met many of the colourful characters that people the brandy world and learned much about human passion and artistry.

Copper pot stills hold an inexplicable allure and are certainly objects of beauty; even the newly manufactured stills look like museum pieces and reveal a high standard of craftsmanship. The world of copper pot stills encompasses many facets: skill, tradition, law, alchemy, romance, rivalry, skulduggery, and above all else, the endurance of the human spirit.

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And so I came to be in Wellington on an azure-skyed day. I had come full circle, as my journey had begun in Wellington just a few weeks earlier. Two remaining visits were scheduled; the first of which was to an estate called Versailles, where Roger and Dawn Jorgensen distil brandy and other spirits in a homemade pot still.

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Roger Jorgensen is a veritable fount of knowledge, and he spoke with passion about the history of spirit distillation in South Africa. He explained that in the past, many farmers and winemakers home-distilled spirits for their own use as well as for an additional source of income. In the 1960s, the government revoked the right to distil liquor privately, and teams were sent out to farms to destroy distilling equipment. Holes were gouged into the pot stills using pickaxes and shotguns, and the spouts were blocked with cement. Fortunately some of these pots were salvageable after the law changed, and were restored by those with the passion and funds to do so.

The ban on home distilling hastened the emergence of the big league players such as Distillers Corporation (later Distell) and KWV, who bought up surplus wine from farmers. Roger conceded that in this respect the big distillers served an important economic function as ‘sponges’ for surplus wine, but he believes that the large-scale production volumes of the commercial operations led to brandy that is competently made but ubiquitous and lacking in personality, saying: ‘Brandy does not have soul unless it is made by someone with a destiny in mind’.

1994 heralded the pot still brandy revolution. The law against private distillation was repealed, but Roger surmises it will take about 20 to 30 years to return to a situation where the smaller artisanal makers can function efficiently. He explained that: ‘If you want exciting brandy, you have to lay down the foundations long before it is ready’.

Roger related how he, Sydney Back of Backsberg and Achim von Arnim of Haute Cabrière had challenged the ban on private distilling. Their efforts were rebuffed several times, with vehement opposition from the Wine and Spirits Board, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Agriculture, amongst others. Together, many of these entities made up the South African Liquor Brands Association (SALBA) – a powerful commercial lobbying group that informed the liquor legislation of the time.

Roger, Sydney and Achim argued it was unconstitutional that one company could distil in South Africa while another could not. They were determined in their quest and vowed to start distilling in January 1994, come what may. Their endeavour finally succeeded, and four distillation licenses were granted – one to each of them and a fourth one to Laborie.

Roger was not new to liquor lobbying. Sitting on the deep, cool patio at Versailles, drinking coffee and gazing across rows of Chenin Blanc to the Hawequa Mountains, he regaled me with the tale of how he had successfully campaigned to have a pub installed in his school in England. The pub was only open to sixth formers, with one drink allowed each per visit, and drinking had to take place under the careful supervision of school masters.

The Jorgensens own an antique pot still, which Roger estimates to date from about 1860. It was acquired from an antique shop in Stanford, its first home being a farm in Groot Drakenstein.  Roger guesses that it was originally made by John Syme, a coppersmith in Cape Town, later to become Syme and Sons.

Roger showed me the rows of bumps and crosses circling the beautifully crafted old still, which create an attractive adornment around its belly. He explained that the purpose of those bumps and crosses was not aesthetic; no welding was used in the manufacture of old copper pot stills. The top section of the pot is joined to the lower section by two folded interlocking edges of copper. The bumps are rivets that pin these edges together, and the crosses were made by the hammers used to drive those rivets home.

Roger explained that it was not only the farmers that suffered as a result of the draconian home distillation ban – there was no longer a demand for pot stills, and many copper-smiths lost their livelihoods. Prior to owning Versailles, Roger owned Rustenburg Farm (the home of De Compagnie brandy) from 1987 to 2001. He explained that brandy distilling had taken place at Rustenburg since the 1800s. When he arrived at Rustenburg, the farm foreman remembered feeding the fires under the pot stills, and it was he who suggested that Roger restore the distillation tradition at Rustenburg.

The previous owners of Rustenburg, the Lategans, had taken the remaining existing pot still (an 1849 Syme still) to Gansbaai. Roger wanted to acquire the pot still because of its historical links with the estate, and he visited the owners in Gansbaai with that goal in mind. Much wining, dining and conversation took place over many hours, but the old still was not mentioned. Roger was about to leave empty handed, when Mr Lategan said to him ‘Ja, Engelsman. Ek weet wat jy wil hê’ (Yes Englishman, I know what you came for), and promptly gave Roger the antique still.

Roger took the still back to Rustenburg where he carefully restored it. When he left Rustenburg he left the still there, where it is in use by De Compagnie. He speaks about the still wistfully, but says that as a part of our history, its provenance must be respected.

When I asked him about China as a potential brandy export market, Roger replied with a dismissive wave of the hand that he wouldn’t expand his operation even if he had the funds to do so, saying: ‘One’s job as an artisan is to produce from the heart, with your hands, for the local community’.

Copper pot stills are the modern descendants of the ancient alembic stills. An ‘alembic’ (from the Arabic term al-anbīq) still is an alchemical still consisting of two connected vessels – one for heating and one for cooling and collection. The alembic itself is the hood (also called the capital, still-head or helm), on top of the heating vessel, but today the word alembic is often used to refer to the entire set of distillation equipment, hence the term ‘alembic pot stills’.

The distillation process is a simple one and has been used for millennia – possibly as early as in 4000 BC. Alcohol boils at a lower heat than water does – 78.3% and 100% respectively. When wine is heated to 78.3%, the alcohol laden vapours rise. These vapours are channelled upwards and towards a coiled cooling pipe that causes the vapours to condense. The resulting liquid emerges as a strong spirit. In South Africa the distillation process is repeated a second time in accordance with the traditions of Cognac, and the resultant spirit is stored in oak casks for a minimum of three years. The rich amber liquid that emerges from those casks is known as pot still brandy.

I left Versailles, and headed towards De Compagnie on the road leading towards the majestic Bain’s Kloof mountain pass, where my journey had begun a few weeks previously, starting at Oude Wellington. Owner and brandy maker Dr Rolf Schumacher lives on the estate in a lovingly restored Cape Dutch home that dates back to 1790. There he makes wine as well as his Dr Schumacher 100% potstill estate brandies.

Rolf told me a bit about the early settlers in the valley. Many of them came from Holland and Germany, lured by the promise of free land, wagons and supplies. Many of those promises failed to materialise, and instead the immigrants were given water rights along the valley. They had to fend for themselves, with no access to medical and other services. Those that did survive were resilient, having no option but to eke out an existence as best they could; that tenacity is still evident in many of Wellington’s present day inhabitants.

Rolf’s fifteen-year old pot still was designed by Roger Jorgensen from Versailles, and manufactured by a local French engineer called Laurent Desfarges. The brandy-making process is hands-on, and during the second distillation, Rolf tastes the distillate regularly to assess how large a portion to draw off for the heads and tails, using only the best of the heart for maturation in oak casks. The Dr Schumacher brandy is ‘estate’ brandy, which means that every step takes place on the estate, from the growing of the grapes to the bottling of the brandy.

Going from a small hands-on affair to a state-of-the-art behemoth made for a striking contrast as the next visit was to Nederburg. However, its brandy operation is small, amounting to only 0.1% of their liquor production. Nederburg’s cellar sports a matching pair of John Dore pot stills. John Dore & Co. Ltd, a British company, is the oldest distillery engineering business in the world. The attractive stills stand out amid the modern winemaking equipment, their spirit safes held out proudly, like London lanterns in a fog.

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Next on the route was Backsberg, where there is a beautiful Prulho pot in residence – manufactured in Cognac and imported to South Africa by ship. The unique and elegant Prulho is a distinctive maroon colour and incorporates a pre-heater that feeds the base wine into the pot. During distillation, vapours are channelled through the curved funnel – referred to as the swan’s neck – which passes through the pre-heater, thereby adding heat to the next batch of base wine and ensuring that the vapours do not condense before they enter the cooling coils.

Prulhos are referred to as ‘charentais’ alembic pot stills. Charentais stills evolved in the Cognac region of France in the early 16th century, when the white Charente wines from this region were first distilled into brandy. Prulhos are used throughout the world – in the Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados areas of France, as well as in the USA, China, Bolivia, Italy, Japan and South Africa. With their polished onion-shaped bellies and curved pipes, many consider the charentais alembic to be the most beautiful and graceful of all alembics. In some ways they are also evocative of the Triffids from the post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids or the equipment one might discover in the dungeon of a deranged chemist.

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The next visit was to one of the big players – KWV in Worcester. I was met at the entrance by Lourens Stander, the blending and distillation manager. Lourens is quite open about KWV’s chequered past as a monopolising force, but he is ardently passionate about KWV’s present and future, and of course, about brandy making. The KWV entrance lobby houses a very large and extremely beautiful Prulho. Lourens explained that when the Prulho arrived at KWV in 1991, it had to be lowered through the warehouse roof by helicopter, and lowered onto the plinth with precision, so as not to send it crashing to the floor.

In addition to the Prulho, KWV has 120 upright stills and two large-helmed swan-neck stills, manufactured by Woudberg and Sons in 1926. Steel jackets have been placed around many of the pot stills to conserve heat. While less aesthetically pleasing than the copper, this cuts down on the amount of coal required for heating the stills, thus reducing both cost and carbon footprint.

After viewing the pot stills, Lourens unveiled a rare treat – a room containing sets of Africana books detailing the history of wine and spirits in South Africa, including wine journals dating back to 1932. Lourens revealed that there are plans afoot to create a museum at KWV to showcase the books and brandy related artefacts. Once again, I was struck by the passion of those involved in the world of South African brandy – a passion that shines through the marketing and public relations hype.

On to Oude Molen in Grabouw to a fascinating tour, one in which René Santhagens himself makes an appearance (despite passing way in 1937). René Santhagens is considered by many as ‘the father’ of South African brandy. He is credited with introducing the Cognac tradition to South Africa, and the quality of his brandy had an important impact on the brandy laws of the time, leading to the stringent brandy quality standards existing in South Africa today.

Each of Oude Molen’s spectacular gleaming swollen-bellied pots is named after a piece of heavy artillery by Dave Acker, co-owner and cellar master at Oude Molen. Big Bertha has a staggering capacity of 23 000 litres, while Long Tom and Long Cecil have capacities of 16 000 litres and 12 000 litres respectively. Filling in yet more pieces in my mental brandy picture-puzzle, Dave explained that the three large pots at Oude Molen were originally a wortboiler and two mashers used for beer-making. He customised them into brandy pot stills according to his preferred specifications, and his award-winning brandies are testament to his sound judgement and skill.

I asked Dave why copper is used for pot stills. He explained that not only does copper ensure an even distribution of heat, but copper sulphate is volatile and binds with undesirable hydrogen sulphide, allowing for its removal, which if not done quickly, produces aldehydes called mercaptans. These can have a negative sensory impact on the wine, described by some as a smell of rotten cabbage, burnt rubber or stagnant water.

Arriving early for a brandy tour at Van Ryns allowed time to admire the glittering interior of the visitor reception area where an old alembic was simmering away softly. It is a French pot still dating from 1818, beautifully restored by Wynland engineers from Stellenbosch. It bears a stamp indicating its year of construction and the name of the manufacturers: ‘Maresté Freres Constructeurs – Cognac’.

Inside the main production area of the cellar, there are eight French stills made by Savalle and four John Dores in use. The tour culminated with a cooperage demonstration by Uncle Abie, one of the few remaining traditional coopers who can manually construct an entire oak barrel from scratch using his own handmade tools.

Driving up Bain’s Kloof Pass once again, my head still absorbing the rich knowledge I had gained from Roger Jorgensen that morning, I headed to De Compagnie, situated in an enchanting green valley, fringed with a jagged backdrop of golden mountains. De Compagnie is small artisanal brandy and spirit producer, producing around five barrels a year. Charles Stassen, the farm manager, showed me the 1849 still that Roger Jorgensen had restored to working order, its original Syme stamping still visible.

Charles told me about the high costs involved in the production of brandy, not least of which is the excise duty payable on each litre that is produced. There are also continual lessons to be learned; he related the story of how De Compagnie decided to bottle their brandy in French-style Cognac bottles with a capacity of 700ml, only to discover that in South Africa, 700ml bottles are disallowed.

So the odyssey drew to a close – for now. There are many places I did not get to visit, including Upland, where Dr Edmund Oettlé uses his own handmade still to craft organic brandies and grappa, and the estates on Route 62. Those will go onto the wish list for the moment. Hunting down old copper pot stills has opened up a wondrous world of history and artistry, and this journey merely scratched the surface…

Over the last 13 years, South African brandy has won the International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC) title of World’s best brandy a staggering 11 times, and the 11 winners hail from five different producers. This annual competition takes place in London and receives 5 000 entries from around the world. The tasting is done ‘blind’ by an international panel of experts.

Angels’ share: During maturation in oak casks, 3% of the cask’s contents evaporate each year. This is known as the ‘angels’ share’, in recognition of their contribution in transforming the brandy during maturation. Even the tax man pays them their dues – producers receive an excise rebate for their evaporation losses.

The South African Brandy Foundation supports two Brandy Routes, the Western Cape Brandy Route covering the area west of the Worcester mountain range, and the other along Route 62 through the Klein Karoo to Oudtshoorn. Visit www.sabrandy.co.za, www.brandyroutes.co.za, www.brandyfestival.co.za or tel +27 (0)21 882 8954.

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