Taste is the only word for it. Brandy, especially in South Africa, means different things to different people. On the one hand it’s one half of South Africa’s beloved brandy and coke, on the other its ten-plus year old aged brandies, served on ice, are a potent symbol of having truly arrived. Somewhere in between is the time-old colonial, indeed French, tradition of serving Cognac and Armagnac in brandy balloons – and only brandy balloons – completely unadulterated. Even the glassware differs – highball to tumbler to balloon.

So brandy is, even more so than wine, about mystique. And Van Ryn’s Distillery and Brandy Cellar is right up there on that score, celebrating the only alcoholic drink to be made from another alcoholic drink (white wine, mostly Colombard and Chenin). What that means is that it will appeal to the potent symbol crowd down pat, as well as the traditional crowd. But Van Ryn’s would be the first to say that there are plenty of other Distell products that go better with coke..

Because we mustn’t forget that Van Ryn’s is indeed part of the Distell empire, and as such, has both marketing and monetary clout in the South African, and, indeed, the international market. For, make no mistake, the Van Ryn products are world class – winning international awards on a regular basis. Its 12 year old has been voted Best Worldwide Brandy in 2004, 2005 and 2008, with its 20 year old winning the same accolade in its class in 2008 as well. In 2010 the 15 year old won. In all cases, they beat the Cognacs and Armagnacs. Enough said.

The incredible thing about all these accolades is how unknown both this illustrious history and its elegantly styled home base are. Wedged between ultra-marketed Spier and newly spick and span Stellenbosch Hills, this high-ceilinged shrine to leather, cigar and oak is far more likely to get bypassed than visited. Indeed, I’ve lived in South Africa for nearly two decades and have never visited it – and I am a brandy drinker.

A confession: my father taught me about brandy and I’m afraid he taught me that local firewater (usually over 35% in alcohol content, hence the burn) was quite adequate for the post-prandial job. Think Fundador in Spain, think Metaxa from Greece, think Klipdrift here, think anything but Cognac. And, indeed, with a block or two of ice, that initial fiery burn is transformed into something far smoother and mellower.

And there’s a reason. As Shelley Ellse (the Van Ryn’s Brand Manager) confessed, any brandy can be improved by a little water because the resultant chemical reaction releases all sorts of tastes and aromas that brandy by itself does not offer up. So, despite what the traditionalists might think, and as the whisky aficionados already know, a little bit of water or ice is indeed a very good thing – and not the social death it is considered to be in some quarters. As a result, Van Ryn’s may bend its traditional rules in the future to go that route.

Chocolate, cheese, charcuterie and brandy: who knew?

The event that finally got me to the Van Ryn’s Brand Home, as they rather oddly call it on some of their literature, was a sunny spring afternoon’s concert and brandy pairing. An odd combination itself, as brandy (without the coke) is usually more of an evening, if not a winter, tipple than a summer one.

But Van Ryn’s was at pains to prove us wrong. A set of cool cocktails started proceedings off – created especially by the stylishly inventive Liquid Chefs and rejoicing in names such as Van Ryn Road, Alumbic Blush (?!), Coopers Delight and Double Gold (the latter a reference to the Veritas Golds and Double Golds the Van Ryn range reaped this year in the first year brandy could enter the Awards).

My best? The mint and apple juice blend of Van Ryn Road and the Champagne and Cointreau mix of Double Gold. As we tried out the cocktails, the band of the afternoon, Acoustica, played old favourites, from Santana to Sting to Buble with some talent but their audience, though appreciative, was small.

Food pairings with brandy are new to me – but are part of the offering at Van Ryn’s (another reason to visit), with chocolate being the most obvious, and, indeed, it was the pairing they gave us that day with the 12, 15 and 20 year old brandies they market. The Gesau cappuccino milk chocolate was particularly good with the 12 year old. But you can choose to pair brandy with biltong, charcuterie and cheese if you so wish. A fine pepper salami, a nuttily mature gouda and a creamy fig and nut mix stood out. More conventionally, you can simply pair brandy with a delicious dessert (as above).

Of the brandies presented to us, which we had already tried at Veritas, albeit at the end of quite a long evening, the 15 year old stands out for me, perhaps because it balances the slightly fresher fruitiness of the 12 year old with the much smokier depth of the 20 year old. And you pay for that extra aging as the spirit evaporates over time - about 3% per cask per year, the so-called Angel’s Share - resulting in over 50% of the original distillate heading heavenwards over 20 years: I’m sure the Angels approve!

Prices range from R85 for the 5 year old to R1130 for the 20 year old. You sure have to have arrived to be drinking the latter regularly. But, as I say, in my humble opinion, a 3, 5 or 10 year old on ice can be more than adequate at the end of the day.

Nevertheless, as a premium experience of a premium product, a visit to Van Ryn’s is very special and well worth the detour – indeed, it is not much of a detour at all after a visit to Spier or Stellenbosch. It’s a tiny deviation with considerable rewards.

Van Ryn’s Distillery & Brandy Cellar, Van Ryn Road, off the R310 just past Spier.
Tel: 021 881 3875. Monday to Friday: 08h00 to 16h30. Saturday: 09h00 to 14h00. www.vanryn.co.za