At the helm of the specialist brandy judging panel of local and international brandy experts is DAVE HUGHES, one of South Africa’s veteran international wine and spirits judges.
You’re a wine and spirits writer, national and international judge, consultant, auctioneer, Brandy Guild member and one of the greatest champions of the South African drinks world for more than three decades. But you’ve also been a distiller by trade. Tell us more about your experience in that field?
My career in the drinks world began when I was 18 and served an apprenticeship as a distiller with African Distillers in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), where I was born. My training covered everything, but focussed on laboratory work: the conversion of molasses into ethyl alcohol; the experimental germination of grains for possible use in Africa; fermentation of fruits (marula, mahobahoba, prickly pear and palm); making vinegars; and, eventually, producing carbon dioxide (for the carbonated drinks industry) and dry ice. I also learned about coopering.
I subsequently went over to the UK and worked in whisky distilleries in Scotland, spirit and gin distilleries in England, and at St James Gate in Dublin, Ireland, doing Guinness fermentations. I also did stints in France and the Netherlands, picking up experience with the production of cognac (Martell) and liqueurs (Marie Brizard and De Kuyper). And I worked a vintage for Mumm Champagne.
After coming to South Africa in 1968, I was involved in the production of all manner of well-known local spirits products, from Gilbeys, Booths and Old Buck gin to Smirnoff vodka to various brands of brandies, liqueurs, milk products, aperitifs… You name it, I’ve probably distilled it!
I’ve been judging wine and spirits all around the world since 1975. But in recent times I’ve focussed on leading local shows such as the Veritas Awards, the South African Young Wine Show, Diner’s Club and the Pinotage Top Ten. On the international front, I’m a bit of a veteran at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London (my specialities are fortified wines and spirits) and also a regular at Concours Mondial du Bruxelles and Mundus Vini in Germany.
You’ve been a member, by invitation, of the Worshipful Company of Distillers since 2001. What does this rare (unique for a non-British resident) honour entail?
I was invited to join, mainly because of the many years of judging whiskies and spirits at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London, but also in recognition of the years of historical research I did for various British distillers.
For me, the honour lies in being part of such an ancient outfit. To give you an idea of just how ancient: as a member I’m now allowed to drive my livestock across London Bridge without paying a toll; I’m exempted from tax on any land I own in the City of Westminster (not that I, sadly, have the wherewithal to indeed own any land there); and, should I find myself anywhere in the Old City of London, perchance in a somewhat inebriated state, any taxi driver is duty-bound to convey me to my residence free of charge and then collect his fee the next day from the Worshipful Company’s office PLUS claim a bale of hay for his horse!
But, seriously, besides these most marvellous but largely useless benefits, I do attend a number of their gatherings each year and make phenomenal friendships and contacts in the international distilling world.
As a consultant to the Veritas Awards Board, how important is the inclusion of a category of South African brandy to this prestigious 20-year-old national wine competition?
I think it’s an excellent opportunity for our brandies that do so exceptionally well in major international competitions to compete in a top local arena and showcase their greatness to local consumers through the resultant marketing and media attention.
What synergy do you see between wine and brandy, which is, after all, a wine-based spirit of equal if not more flavour and complexity that can bear similarly enjoyable scrutiny?
The two, wine and brandy, rest side by side and often, to me, are so intertwined that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.
As a veteran judge at several leading international wine and spirits competitions, where South African brandies are regularly rated tops, what do you think sets South African brandies apart from the rest of the world’s?
Modern South African brandies have a pureness that others are still striving to achieve. Yet, despite this high level of purity (or ‘cleanness’ achieved by stringent production laws in the making of the base wine and distillate), they still have loads of flavour and character. Lots of European and other brandies still seem to think that to have character or an element of distinctiveness exhibit a certain level of impurity.
We are also special in that we make brandies of different types and styles to cater for the mixer market and the sipping market. We do not try to make one brandy to please all.
How does South African brandy compare with Cognac (considering they are made to similar and equally rigorous standards) and what points of difference does it offer brandy lovers (in style, quality and price)?
Well, first of all, I would beg to disagree that Cognac is ‘always made to rigorous standards’! There are some that are magnificent, but many others rely on their ‘improvers’ for taste and character. Cognac is mostly always over priced. And these outrageous prices are invariably paid for the amazing glassware they come in, which is often by far and away more valuable than the contents!
I don’t think we should continue along this route of holding Cognac up as the holy grail of brandy. Good Cognac is good: Bisquit, the best of Martell, Hennessy… But there is oh so much that is not good. South African brandy does NOT compare with Cognac. It is a different style and type; it is after all made in a different climate. It’s like trying to compare our wines with Burgundy and Bordeaux: great wines, but very different animals.
How would you inspire the young, aspiring, modern-day markets across the South African spectrum to take the leap and discover the joys of exploring our brandies?
There is absolutely no way I would think otherwise than that modern South Africans should be exploring modern South African brandy as the modern spirit of the nation. Our brandy is truly a product of our time, like our new democracy. It really should be our celebratory drink as it is a distillate that actually came of age more or less as democracy arrived.
You founded the Cape Wine Academy (CWA) in 1979 to further public interest in and knowledge of wine while with the former Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery. What courses and experiences would you now recommend to lovers of brandy eager to learn more?
All CWA courses are great for both learning more about winemaking (and distilling) and practical tasting experience. At the moment there is a fantastic new course being designed specifically on brandy, but it’s not ready as yet. Credits for successful completion will be recognised by the National Training Council, which should improve marketing and service standards, but also encourage the ordinary everyday enjoyment of our fine local brandies.
With your busy, globetrotting lifestyle, when is the time and place that you most enjoy a South African brandy?
In the Karoo on a cold winter’s night watching the stars in the skies above Sutherland (sipping a potstill brandy neat); deep in the Lowveld on a hot day with orange juice as a mixer with some soda water and lots of ice; and after a long, busy day, a regular brandy with an ice cold Coke as a mixer… there’s nothing better to relax you. And after a fine meal at one of our many great restaurants, sipping a 12 or 15 or 20 Year Old, though it remains a regret that I can’t get South African brandy at so many places I visit.
But for me, the best is sitting up on the top of Bottelary kop, watching the sun sink in the west over Table Bay and then turning around to see the full moon rise over the Simonsberg, enjoying a great sipping brandy with the love of my love, surrounded by our eight ‘rescue’ mutts.
[Dave Hughes lives in Devon Valley in the Stellenbosch winelands.]
The judging of the 2011 Veritas Awards took place at the Nederburg auction complex in Paarl from 5 – 12 September and the results will be announced at a gala banquet on October 8th at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.