A Taste for the Open Road

By Clifford Roberts

Steampunk. This is an odd place to conjure up a science fiction genre. But all along the road trip on this Western Cape byway, the thought nags me. And here, in the drizzle alongside a scrappy farm shed outside De Rust, it comes to life. Before me is a rough construction, about waist-height, consisting of a swan’s neck of a copper pipe that emerges and curves into a crude cistern of cold, still water. An oven sheltering slow-burning embers keeps the copper potstill heated, and sends brief feathers of steam rising into the grey sky of the Little Karoo.

Until a few months ago, I didn’t know a thing about steampunk, a movement Wikipedia tells me is inspired by an industrialised 19th century set in a post-apocalyptic world. Think polished brass, wood, steam, leather and, above all—adventure. That’s what got me thinking about the ancient art of elixirs raised by fire from curmudgeonly tanned bulbs in their dark corners far afield.

This is not a story about some music/art/literature device. Rather it has to do with a road trip and brandy. I set out along the R62, into the dry hinterland beyond Du Toitskloof Pass, intent on taking a new look at a road I’ve travelled many times. At Distell’s Klipdrift distillery—maker of one of South Africa’s most popular blended brandies—I’m in a group of tourists. I’m whisked up a metal staircase into the belly of the factory, then into the maturation warehouse where old barrels reek oppressive alcohol vapours in a dark, low-ceilinged building. No cameras, please. The group seems grateful to be back in the air-conditioned tasting room to watch the promo video and try the brandy pairings. I move along.

It’s at Kingna distillery outside Montagu that my excitement rises. When I meet him, distiller Ruan Hunlun looks a little like his potstill—a gruff exterior that holds something akin to hidden treasure. He makes a surprise confession: “I’m a diesel mechanic by training and I knew nothing of making brandy until seven years ago,” says the man whose very first five-year-old potstill won a Veritas award when it was released last year. “When I started here with my brother-in-law, I made many a visit to Oom Vasie van Niekerk (a long-time distillation manager at KWV), taping our conversations on my cell phone. I went home, worked out more questions and then returned to him. When Oom Vasie died, I had to carry on by myself.” 

Ruan leads me into the back of the dark warehouse where the huge still and two tanks stand silent, like caged elephants. “It’s not an easy business. But it’s wonderful when you’ve put your brandy into barrels and return every third week to smell it and you discover the flavours it has developed. A little citrus, honey, mocha, a bit of coffee. It’s marvellous.”

I’m sad to leave, but eager for what lies ahead. Barrydale is a beautiful village and the darling of city-dwellers who own property here. Its eponymous cellar was created for distillation and makes the famous Joseph Barry brandy. “As well as batches for small producers eager for their own brands,” says production manager Ferdi Smit. The churning steam that heats the gleaming copper stills, and his blue overalls, give Ferdi the air of a train driver. Again, there’s that sense of an ancient, mystical art hidden in a future-hungry world among the kettles. A champion brandy-maker, Ferdi learnt the art from his elders. “When I was young, everyone had a still and would go down to the river under the willow trees to make witblits,” he recalls. “Some mornings before school I’d go down and help out—to my mother’s great distress.” 

Ferdi has been at Barrydale Cellars since 1985. He shows me around the rows of stills—for which they have to buy Brasso by the five-litre can to keep them shiny. “When I started, there was one oom who would sit at this table with a big bobbejaan spanner in his hand. Whenever he nodded off the spanner would fall, waking him. I asked one day what he really needed the spanner for and he brushed me off saying there was always something around here that needed tightening!”

Before I head off, we stroll around the maturation cellar, a neat gathering of barrels—many of them bearing the stamp of a Kentucky bourbon distillery.

It’s almost two hours to Calitzdorp and I reflect on the mysteries revealed to the traveller who dares to leave the well-trampled path. It wasn’t always this easy—brandy-makers way back when had to send their wares by ox-wagon over mountain ranges to get it to markets in Cape Town and further afield. One of them was the great grandfather of Carel Nel of Boplaas, who is renowned for his port-style wines, and also his fine potstill brandy. When private estate distilling licences were again granted in 1989, after KWV’s statutory control over the industry was revoked, Boplaas was first in line.

Even so, the instrument that produces the brandy—including an exceptional 20-year-old—has always been hard to get to, stuck where it is in the back of the cellar. At one point, he had to clamber through a window. Now, we shimmy through a gap past a large tank—easier for his daughter and co-winemaker, Margaux, than for her stocky dad. But soon enough we are there, looking at the old Santhagen still assembly.

“One year when the harvests were poor, we made a little apricot brandy in her,” Carel recalls. “When the guys went hunting, we took some along. It was strong stuff—about 75 per cent. If any of them didn’t want to go to bed, you’d give them two shots and their tongues would hang so they wouldn’t even be able to say goodnight—they’d just wave,” he chuckles.

A day or so later, at Grundheim near Oudtshoorn, I meet the same good humour when I’m chatting to Dys Grundling. His father, Oom Danie, established the business that has become well known for, among others, its straight potstill, ginger and buchu brandies. Dys also picked up the business with help from the late Oom Vasie, who helped with re-installing an old still after a fire nearly destroyed their operation a few years ago. They subsequently made alterations to their heating system, switching to burning wood from alien trees on the farm. But it was unknown territory. “When we started again, we scratched things together. It was a team effort. We didn’t know if it would work or what we were doing,” says Dys. “On that first day when we lit up, the fire was almost too big. Alcohol poured out the front. We ran out to douse the fire, spray it down and everything. My father just stood on the stoep watching and laughing at us running around like hooligans. Now it all works like a dream.”

Much of it is thanks to his brandy colleagues, he adds. One of them took a 100km detour from a meeting just to help with advice at a time when Dys had his hands in his hair with frustration.

And so, two days later it’s my own hair—and oddly, steampunk—that I’m considering in the drizzle outside De Rust. I’ve just missed distiller Rade Meyer, who’s on his way to Oudtshoorn. But his still is a fascinating, rustic operation just as the old-timers would have done it, where it stands beneath an old fig tree. Pieter Taute keeps an eye on it, as it purrs quietly. 

Before I leave, Rade calls the tasting room just to make sure I don’t leave without a bottle of his 2003 Muscat D’Alexandrie brandy. No doubt I’ll be dreaming about those masterful magicians and their magnificent distilling machines for some time to come.

A Little Brandy Note

The law governing brandy distinguishes between blended brandy, potstill and vintage brandy. Production methods are strictly defined to encourage quality. The results can be seen in the performance of South African brandies in global competitions. A South African brandy has been named Worldwide Best Brandy at the International Wine and Spirits Competition almost every year for the past decade and ten times in the past 13 years.