Bygone age: A pot still used for making brandy on a farm in the Karoo. The big companies control the market and there not many independent producers in SA. Picture: SUPPLIED
Bygone age: A pot still used for making brandy on a farm in the Karoo. The big companies control the market and there not many independent producers in SA. Picture: SUPPLIED

The winery on Mons Ruber near Oudtshoorn dates back to 1850. "The set-up is similar to the traditional methods," says co-owner and manager Coenraad Meyer. "Much of the landmarks on the farm have disappeared but you could locate where the pot still was by looking at the trees."

SA’s early distillers set up close to irrigation furrows for cleaning purposes and near trees for shade. But when production began to expand, it became impossible for one man do to it all.

"The farm had about eight pot stills, which was quite a job to keep running because you needed three people per still and they would run it day and night to get through the harvest as quickly as possible," Meyer says. "It was a major exercise."

In 1936, his grandfather replaced the eight small stills with a single big one. Customs and excise authorities regularly destroyed old pot-stills and he was happy that he now only had to pay one licence instead of eight. "When we came into the picture, opportunities for retail selling of brandy were limited. So we used the pot still to reduce lesser quality wine to alcohol and that had to be delivered, via train, to Robertson," Meyer says.

In the mid-1980s, Mons Ruber created its formal brandy production process and output began of something better than "reducing the bulk". They still use the original pot-still grandfather Meyer acquired.

The brandy-making on the farm is an "expensive hobby" and a sideline of the business.

"What we do here is small and in its infancy. The entire craft-distilling industry as it is at the moment could be accommodated under one microdistilling licence, which places certain limitations on the amount you can produce."

Because big producers such as Distell and KWV produce the bulk of South African brandy, Meyer believes it is better to differentiate into other distillates instead of competing with them. But until he figures out what those distillates are he’s happy to stick with what’s working for him.

"The last time I looked, we were the only registered wine estate in the Klein Karoo."

Oudtshoorn has a long but underappreciated history of wine-making. The area produced 4,000 tonnes of grapes in the late 1800s, more than the local co-op that disappeared a few years ago.

"The problem was the ostrich industry," Meyer says. "From time to time, when the ostriches flourished, people ripped out the vines. And then, in the next downturn, they would have to find other sources of income and would start farming grapes again."

Meyer says the Karoo is a gem for good quality Muscat grapes that create sweet and easy-to-drink wines. It’s the reason his Muscat d’Alexandrie 2003 pot-still brandy, with its honey and caramel characteristics, is ideal when paired with desserts.

"Our still imparts a character to the brandy that is independent of the base wine," he says.

"There is some dispute about how important the still is in brandy production — perhaps I’ve created the dispute in my own mind — but the still does play a part.

"If you look on the internet, the hobbyists make quite a song and dance of the design of the still. I’m not convinced that the set-up is all that clear. There’s a lot on column stills, but not a lot on pot stills. Perhaps people regard it as a trade secret."

Whatever the answer might be, there is something appealing about creating brandy the old-fashioned way.

Grundheim, another distiller about 14km outside Oudtshoorn, takes pride in its traditions. "The farm is an old family business that began in 1858," says owner Dys Grundling. "I’m the sixth generation with a licence to do agricultural distilling in our traditional ‘boere’ still that the old farmers used."

Grundheim uses an open fire as heat source after a huge explosion in the distillery about six years ago.

"That was the best thing that ever happened to me," he says.

"At that stage, our energy source was paraffin. And we used about 12,000l of paraffin per season."

Using wood for heat means the process takes twice as long, but he’s happy with the quality of the end-product. They use alien black wattle, so they’re doing something good for the environment too.

"We’ve got strict laws, which is a good thing," Grundling says of the rule that distillers cannot use additives or preservatives when making pot-still brandies. "It keeps the industry in line."

Grundheim has 35ha of vineyards, with limestone in the soil that is good for the grapes. They harvest at a low sugar content to get high acidity and distil 40,000 to 60,000l of wine, depending on demand and the yield.

One of the challenges is the high cost of barrels. Grundling took some tips from whisky makers and uses old barrels.

"Red-wine barrels aren’t good for brandy because the raw tannins are still in the wood and you can’t get them out 100%," he says. "But if you put port in the barrels, the high content of alcohol and sugar takes all the bad stuff out."

Although Grundheim used to make brandy for KWV, it started bottling under its own name when the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival launched more than 20 years ago.

From sweet wines that are ideal with desserts, to brandies made with fresh ginger and buchu, it has added something new every year.

Its range includes Happy Cow Coffee Cream and Happy Cow Strawberry Cream and peppermint, honey and hazelnut liqueurs.

"The Vuurvoël is more for tourists because it has a nice, imported bottle," he says of the witblits with a quirky ostrich on the label. "But the Brandslang is the thing we use to scare the big guys!"

The idea came when Grundling and his friend Gerard were attending the arts festival and saw a company from Knysna offering Tabasco and oyster shots.

"At that stage, we were doing distilling on site to show people how witblits is made, but business wasn’t going that well for us," he recalls.

Gerard was selling chillies and Grundling witblits, so they decided to mix the two. The next day people queued to get a taste. Later, they phoned to ask where they could buy more.

Grundheim’s Danie Se Withond witblits won silver at the Michelangelo International Wine & Spirit Awards.

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